Annapurna in the Monsoon Day 4: Glimpses of Fishtail Mountain
Perhaps the goddess of the mountain took pity on me. But the fingers of fog finally parted from about the Annapurnas in the morning of the fourth day. For a lingering moment in the cold early morning, she showed me a little teasing glimpse of Machapuchare peak - the Fishtail mountain.
This was a peak I had seen before, from my guesthouse in Pokhara. But the fog had obscured the view of the Annapurna mountain peaks on my trek thus far. And this time, I could see the notch of the fishtail clearly.
We said goodbye to Kim as we set off on our journey. Sophie and Bill would make their way back down the mountain today. Their trekking package was shorter, only to Tadapani; they were not going up to the base camp. Quite right - it would not be a great honeymoon without some leisure time!
As for me, I really needed to get to Chomrong today. My whole body was truly aching, and I needed to get some Tiger Balm if I was going to last all the way up to Annapurna Base Camp.
The market village of Chomrong was the last place where I could get medical supplies.
- The Fey Woods of Tadapani
- Waste Collection along Annapurna Trekking Trails
- Animals in Annapurna
- Entering Gurung lands
- Farming in the Annapurna Highlands
- Chomrong: The Village on a Slope
- Carbon offsetting information to Pokhara, Nepal
The Fey Woods of Tadapani
We re-entered the lush elfin forests around Tadapani. The beginning of this route was reminiscent of parts of Day 3, except somehow even more fairylike.
The trails were flatter, and moss grew all over the tree stumps, boulders and fallen trunks. The grasses and flowering creepers clinging with a dryad's charming fetters. Dark leaves lay along our path, wet with the rains overnight.
We picked our way down slopes beneath the gaze of the moss-clad trees. A thought occurred to me.
"You know what this area is perfect for?" I said to my guide, who had confessed to me a passion for photography. "Wedding photography." I told her about the kind of photography that is all the rage in more idle societies, with the fantasy billowing dresses in magical dreamy forests just like this one.
"I'm not kidding. You would not believe the profit margin," I told her. Although, you'd have to get the bride and groom, and the equipment, all the way up here in the first place, I suppose. Not that this would be a serious problem for either the resourceful Nepalis, or determined brides with Instagram accounts.
Waste Collection along Annapurna Trekking Trails
Before long, we left the forest and came upon lands that look more cleared away by man. I reckon this meant that we would soon come upon habitations.
In the past couple days I noticed that in these more settled parts of the mountain, at intervals there would be a large bag nailed to a tree along the trekking trails. Of course, the primary waste within were plastic water bottles and food wrappers.
I asked Devi whether these were placed on purpose. She affirmed it.
"By whom?" I asked. The youth of the villages, my guide said.
"And they come along these trails to empty them?" I questioned further. She affirmed it again.
I saw another example the next day, down in the village of Chomrong. Young Nepali men out in the morning, trimming weeds from the flagstone steps near their own holdings.
I reflected on the relatively tidy trails of Annapurna, and it brought to mind the hiking route to the wind turbines of Perhentian Island, and many other trails I've seen. What accounts for the difference in waste outcome? Nothing but the people. The people living there, and the kind of people who are tourists there.
What is civilisation? A community wealthy enough to make the waste? Or a community conscious enough to organise its management?
Community organisation in Nepal
I observed this from the beginning of my arrival in Nepal, actually. Amidst the chaos of Kathmandu, yet I still saw while wandering around Boudhanath, entryways and arches leading to community organisations of all sorts. Even one for the welfare of monks.
In Pokhara, the adventure tourism providers - parasailing or whitewater rafting etc. - mention an association that they belong to, that seems to assure the quality of service provided. By Lake Phewa, even the boat operators belong to an association which regulates the prices they charge to customers.
In the Annapurnas, the villagers also organise. There are signs in every village providing a map of the trails, along with the altitude at every point. They look maintained. At waypoints, there are also signs estimating the remaining walking time to the next village, to help the independent trekker decide whether to press on or not.
When free market capitalism is not the better choice
The community organisation in Annapurna extends to pricing as well. My guide explained that this is so that there would not be disputes in the community. So you would find that, for the same restaurant menu item for example, the prices in the same sort of area would be identical.
Capitalism purists might argue that it is competition-unfriendly. This is true. But it is also an isolated, rural community's priority that tourism dollars benefit everyone and do not engender disharmony. Unity and co-operation are what such communities depend on to remain independent and tranquil, and in this context is far more important than getting a business edge.
So, given the lack of competition, what will assure good prices for trekking customers? Could they have exploited their control over shelter and food against trekkers?
Well, yes. But they have not. The prices are, by and large, fair. Especially if you consider that many of the items not typically demanded by locals, have been borne up thousands of metres by mules and sometimes on the backs of people, just for the outsiders.
You might be baffled why they haven't jacked up the prices? Of course, it's sensible not to drive away the trekking tourism. But that common sense has not stopped this happening in other tourism spots in more free market purist locations, especially towards foreigners perceived to be wealthier.
I don't know the answer. Maybe these people living by the shelter of Machapuchare are simply not afflicted with the disease of greed. Maybe it's that simple.
Animals in Annapurna
It was the buffalo herd grazing in a field of yellow wildflowers. That was how I deduced that we were coming near to farmland again.
I had seen them a few days ago, on a day hike out of Pokhara. The buffalo were wallowing in a pond, just like in Southeast Asia - except they were high up in the mountains, where it's cold. It cracked me up.
But this herd was even more amusing to me. I kinda associate buffalo with brawny exploits of ploughing, getting all muddy and grubby from work. But there they were, almost traipsing all over wildflowers, looking so girly and fancy!
If a buffalo is on the steps with you, who has right of way?
We came across a stray one later on, on the narrow flagstone path going down a hill. It was grazing at some verge as I came upon it. I stopped short at the sight.
Seriously. Will I always be harassed by bovine creatures in my wanderings??
But the creature looked up, and appeared mildly startled to see me there. Devi and Seema came up behind me, probably wondering why I stopped. I was about to explain, but the buffalo turned and trotted down the stone steps and away into the grasses.
Indeed, while trekking in the Annapurnas you would be sharing the trail with the animals of rural mountain life. There would be mule trains carrying loads up the narrow steps and trails. These would often wear bells to warn you that they are coming. They always have right of way, since if the mules are spooked, it doesn't end well for the trekker.
There would sometimes be ponies on the trails as well, hired by the occasional trekker. I ruminated on the route the day before, when we trekked from the village of Ghorepani, to the village of Tadapani. I asked my guide, what 'pani' means.
Watering place, for horses, she replied. So, use of horses is part of the Annapurna local life.
Annapurna for the mobility challenged
Serious trekkers consider hiring ponies 'cheating'. As a horseman myself, particularly when among an already-equestrian people, I don't really feel that sort of masochism.
Neither do I hold the opinion that use of animals for mobility or labour is automatically unethical. I tend not to participate in animal rides when they're merely an 'attraction' or a 'thing to do' for tourists, but am generally neutral when the domesticated animal is interwoven into local life.
That said, I could see a case for having pony rental available for elderly tourists. There was an elderly pair that looked either Korean or Japanese, passing us on ponyback the first day. I told my mother this to call her bluff, when she told me 'wished she was able enough to go' upon seeing the photos I sent over on Telegram. (Check, and mate!)
I suppose this also means that it may be a feasible option for mobility challenged people to come up into the Annapurnas.
Dogs in Annapurna
You would also be very likely to acquire a dog groupie while on the trail. A stray dog followed us after the first night in Hille, in fact. It didn't leave until Devi shooed it away. It's not entirely clear why they do. It's not like we were carrying food, aside from fruit. Perhaps the mere hope of food was sufficient?
Now, I am not a dog person. I find the excessive enthusiasm too extrovert and tiresome. And if they are strays, I get anxious in case they're bad tempered or possibly rabid. (Hence why I'm immunised for rabies for life - it seemed like a good deal).
But dogs in the Annapurnas are different. They keep a decent distance, and let you have your personal space. They just follow behind, and even if they want to come close, it's in a way that I can only describe as 'politely'.
Even the dogs have zen here.
Entering Gurung lands
By the middle of the day, the lands we were passing through felt a little bit different, even though I really couldn't say why. My guide informed me that we were passing through Gurung territory, a different ethnic group. Chomrong village was in Gurung lands.
One difference I could pick out, was that here there are often gardens with flowers here, but not before. Great big huge lilies and roses, and peonies and all sorts - perfect and large and vibrant enough that I knew my avid gardener mother would half die of envy.
The trail began to skirt the slopes again, and were it not for the fog, we would be able to see Machapuchare and the other peaks.
Oh yes, the fog had returned. Thick and white, completely obscuring view down into the valleys.
In fact, at one point along the trail, I saw what must be the longest cascade I had ever seen. My eyes could make out the top of the mountain where the fall began, and follow its track down, down into the valley.
But the fog obscured the top part of the cascade and in a photograph it doesn't look as long as it truly was.
It's worth mentioning here, to keep an eye out for Ghandruk. Signs at this little hamlet alert trekkers that it was the final point where they could purchase bottled drinking water. Beyond Ghandruk no bottled water is sold.
Yet another excellent reason to carry water independence with a portable filter.
The stone steps are back!
The valleys were steep and deep and wide here. Although the day was not as wet as the previous day, there was moisture all around. It was, after all, the monsoon season.
To my dismay, although we were on a downward trek from Tadapani to Chomrong, the trail doesn't gradually just descend. No. There are steps, all over again.
Up, up, up. Then down, down, down. Up again, those infernal stone steps. And down, down, down. Interspersed with periods of slender tracks hugging tight the sides of sheer slopes.
I had thought the cliffside route in Katoomba was awfully 'cliffside', but Annapurna takes the cake.
Along the way we saw a crack in the narrow trail, the edge of which dropped away into a ravine. My guide advised me to hurry across. I did not stop to take a photo of the crack, and I did not ask why I should hurry. I could guess from yesterday's incident.
Annapurna's cable bridges
Unsurprisingly, here we began to encounter long bridges, spanning the river gorges. A particularly long one (I thought) was stretched out across a fiercely rushing river. It roared and hissed its way through, deafening to the ear.
It would not do to fall in. Not at all.
But the bridge is sturdy, with sturdy footing and good cable. New, Devi said. Because the old rope one was swept away by river and storm.
My guide pointed to its remains, swaying lightly in the spray from the river. A limpid skeleton in the shape of a bridge.
It's not a school day.
Trudging on the trail, we suddenly come across a building all by itself. It was fenced and had a field of sorts, looking for all the world like a... school?
It was. A primary school, to be exact. There was a collection box appealing to trekkers for funds to carry out earthquake damage repairs. According to the sign, the school had received relatively little aid, owing to its isolated location in the Annapurnas.
Wait, was this the school the kids were rushing off to on the second day of my trek? Devi seemed to indicate yes, but my mind just couldn't compute that. Surely, surely there was another school nearer than this. Perhaps there was a junction that led off to another trail, where the other school was.
Surely the children didn't rush along the whole way, that took me two days!
I checked with my guide that the appeal was above board, and left some rupees in the box.
Random Fact: Nepal watches a lot of Indian TV
Some of the best things you learn from travelling, are entirely random. I think that's why I am especially partial to these - it's not just the unexpectedness of it, but the whole experience of finding out is almost guaranteed to be unique.
While we stopped for lunch on the way to Chomrong at a little restaurant perched against a hill, we watched a little bit of TV.
Nepal watches a lot of Bollywood. Basically for people here, it is like Hollywood for much of the rest of the world. It's not that Nepal has no TV channels of their own, but apparently the choice of programs are more limited. So the cultural influence of their neighbour is strong. In fact, as far as I can tell, most (if not all) Nepalis can speak Hindi.
The soap opera playing on the restaurant's TV was in Hindi. I understand almost zero Hindi, and I don't normally watch soap operas. But there's something about the most over-the-top soap operas, that makes them inexplicably watchable. And even without understanding the language, you could work out that there is some kind of excessively convoluted soap opera storyline, that justifies the overly dramatised close-ups.
So I asked Seema and Devi to explain it. I was not sorry.
The plot revolves around a man whose wife died, and who then re-married. One day a woman came to his house claiming to be his dead wife, only not dead. He is unsure whether or not to believe her, but allows her to stay in his house - to the understandable resentment of his current wife, who firmly believes the newcomer is lying.
How long has it been since he had to decide if it's really his wife or not? I was curious.
8 years, and counting! I think our Malaysian cerekarama* can learn from this.
And don't even get me started on the anti-public defecation PSA music video!
Farming in the Annapurna Highlands
Soon after leaving the school, we came upon the farmlands.
They look very like the rice terraces that I had already seen in the earlier days. But as I walked on, I thought it didn't look quite right. Rice was a staple food for Malaysians too, and I ought to know what its seedlings look like. This was a different sort of grass.
I asked Devi what they were.
"Millet," she said.
Ah, so that's what millet looks like.
My guide explained that in these regions they did not grow rice, but grew millet instead. However, they still grew maize, just like in the lower altitudes. I remember seeing some maize fields earlier in the day, near the place of the tall cascades.
It was also around there that I saw a smoking shed. It was just a shed with a woven roof, and a smoking fire. There was nothing else there as far as I could tell.
I wasn't sure what was being smoked - was something being dried? Or was the smoke meant to drive away pests?
But Devi said it was just a place for the farmer to shelter in, and it was just a fire he kept burning.
Chomrong: The Village on a Slope
We were not yet done with hiking up the seemingly endless flagstone steps. Chomrong was not far, yet seemed forever away still.
We passed through more forest shrouded in ethereal mist, slender spines rising from slopes closely overgrown with shrubs and ground cover. And then we came out of the forest again, climbing paths that edged close to blossoming mountain slopes. Then we descended again, steeply, such that I began to be concerned about my knees.
The fog lay upon us always, so I did not see Machapuchare peak again that day.
It was not very wet, but there was wind on the exposed trail. I was glad for the windbreaking layer. Before long, Devi called a short stop at a guesthouse.
Architecture in Annapurna: then and now
This guesthouse was not blue like most of the other buildings in the Annapurnas. It was, in fact, mostly stone and dark timber.
I remembered something Devi told me on the first day, when I asked her about the blue metal sidings that were prevalent in contemporary Annapurna architecture. The newer buildings, especially the ones built after the earthquake, were made with lighter wood and sided with the blue material as protection against the weather, sometimes also with cemented bricks.
But the old Annapurna buildings were made of stacked stone and good wood. Like the guesthouse where we stopped.
Checking in at the TIMS checkpoint
I was weary by the time we finally entered Chomrong. My legs were wobbly. It was evening and I hoped that our guesthouse was one of those really near to the start of the village precincts.
But no. There was more walking even after we reached Chomrong. It's a big village.
Devi instructed Seema to walk with me, while she went ahead to dealt with the TIMS paperwork. Chomrong was a trekker's checkpoint, like Ghorepani. She hurried onward, revealing reserves of strength that was previously hidden.
That's the thing with a real trekking guide. Unlike 'serious trekkers', they don't show off. They go at whatever pace you do, and give you no suggestion whatsoever that their own pace is far quicker. Until there's a need.
Trekkers' Information Management System (TIMS)
What is TIMS?
All trekkers intending to trek in the Annapurnas need to obtain a TIMS card. The system is intended to better manage trekker safety as well as regulate trekking activities.
The easy way to do it is to utilise a trekking company, who would sort out the paperwork for you. This was what I did. This would give you a blue TIMS card, and register you as a trekker who has a trekking guide or support crew.
You could also deal with the registration yourself, and trek independently in the Annapurnas, without porter or guide. This gives you a green TIMS card, and register you as a trekker bearing all liabilities personally.
Once in the Annapurnas, you should report at all the checkpoints along the route you submitted in the system. This way, it is easier to mount a search and rescue should accidents happen.
Guesthouse wifi in the Annapurnas
The guesthouse where I stayed in Chomrong also qualified for me as an 'inn'. It was a spacious one on the top of the slope, and in less foggy conditions you get an excellent view of the Fishtail Mountain.
It was quite lonely when I was there. I can't remember whether there were any others besides us. The innkeeper spoke quite good English though. There was a reason why; I forgot it. But I remember that it was also the reason her inn was the only one that had double-glazed windows, the better to keep heat in.
By the way, quite surprisingly (or not?), internet access is available in the larger Annapurna guesthouses, for a modest fee. However, because it is usually delivered by satellite, reception is unreliable in the monsoon season.
While I'm at it: phone charging stations are also common in the dining halls of the larger guesthouses, also for a fee. I brought a socket adapter that also provides multiple USB connection points. As my colleague Cristin pointed out, in case of a full house, it would likely win me priority charging rights.
But in the off season, there's no need to compete for sockets. And since the Nepalis are clever enough to fit themselves out with universal sockets, I didn't need the adapter either.
When we were settled in the guesthouse, I ventured to ask Devi whether the pharmacy might still be open. I was down to my last dregs of willpower to withstand the pain in my legs.
"Oh, we have to go in the morning," she said. It wasn't nearby.
Wait, what? What do you mean, not nearby? Isn't it in Chomrong?
It was. But, it turned out that Chomrong village sprawls down the mountain, all the way into the valley below. I looked down from the balcony and saw what she meant.
Are you kidding me???
There was no help for it. I was certainly not in any shape to hike down there, even if the shop were open.
Cold and damp and miserable
The fog stayed thick, and soon night fell. Without companions to be merry with, we turned in early. I ached too much anyway.
By this time I was running out of dry socks. I began to feel the cold of the mountains, and had to sleep with my thermal layers.
The incessant rain was beginning to get to me. I slept, feeling rather miserable.
But the next morning, the fates relented again. The mountain unveiled the mists slightly to show me - just the very tip - Machapuchare peak a second time.
* 'cerekarama' (Malay) = telenovela
Carbon offsetting information to Pokhara, Nepal
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Pokhara via Kathmandu produces carbon emissions of approximately 2,807 lbs CO2e. It costs about $14 to offset this.
Would it be a dealbreaker for you not to see Fishtail Mountain during a trek in the Annapurnas?
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