We would ascend another 1000m on the sixth day, aiming to spend the night in Deurali at 3230m ASL. Along the way, near Dovan, we would pass by a local temple, said my guide.
We would not go further than Deurali, so that I would acclimatise overnight before ascending nearly another thousand metres the following day. The rest period would give my guide time to observe whether I showed signs of altitude sickness.
I had not heard of highland temples mentioned before, in my pre-trip research. I had come to Annapurna almost straight from Kathmandu, and had not yet encountered a Nepal temple, though there are UNESCO Heritage Site temples in Kathmandu.
Was the temple of Dovan a big one? I wondered to myself.
- The many water crossings in Annapurna Sanctuary
- Reflections of wabi-sabi in Dovan
- The importance of the Dovan bathroom break
- Why would you hurry through these mountain forest?
- Annapurna monsoon season = early strawberry season
- The Shrine of Dovan in the bamboo forest of Annapurna
- The alpine way to Deurali
- Wet and cold in Deurali.
- Carbon offsetting information to Pokhara, Nepal
The many water crossings in Annapurna Sanctuary
It ought to be a relatively short day’s trek that day, only 4 hours. Nonetheless, Devi estimated 6 hours for me, given our pattern of rests and nature distractions from the previous days, so she advised an early start to the day.
The morning remained overcast, but without mists in the forest. Just a kind of dampness in the air, in a kind of familiar, almost tropical, humidity.
It was cold enough at this altitude that I decided to break out my heavier two-layered t-shirt blouse, on top of the inner layer I was already wearing. I had saved it for precisely these highest altitude days.
We left the guesthouse early and re-entered the bamboo forest. I resolved to be less distracted this day. I felt I needed to try and give myself extra time at the days’ end for adequate rest after days of trekking.
The bamboo stands grew thicker in this stretch compared to before arriving in Bamboo. The way was still stepped in places, but the climbs were steadier and didn’t feel as steep, so we made reasonable time.
Before long we reached yet another of the river crossings of Annapurna. There have been many, and in the monsoon season they were all streaming with water, whether they were large channels or small.
This particular one was just a shallow crossing of river stones, very similar to the crossings in the jungle hikes back home in Malaysia. Except that, like some of the crossings I had passed in previous days, it had a string of Tibetan prayer flags draped across. I reckon it’s for safe passage?
I stepped gingerly across the wet rocks, thinking back to advice I had received in Pokhara about getting trekking boots with better grip in the wet. My day hike guide was not wrong; my boots did feel a little slippy. Plus, after five days of hard trekking, the soles were showing visible wear already. I reckon I’d need new boots not long after this trip.
Water, water everywhere
I had thought there were many water streams on the way up. But if anything, it seemed that you encountered even more water channels the closer you climb to the base camp. I suppose, it’s where all the water pouring all over the mountain comes from.
Not long after the prayer flags, we came upon yet more water – this time, simply pouring down a slope, all over the flagstones of the trekking path. Down, down the mountain and into the forests below. Perhaps over time, with repeated spring flows, it might carve out another stream.
Much of the trek that day was mostly this – bamboo forest interspersed with stream crossings.
Even though I’m actually quite used to picking my way across such crossings (they are not uncommon in Malaysia’s forest hikes), by the sixth trekking day my legs were starting to feel like jelly, and not as steady as I would like. (But at least the leg muscles were aching less after a Tiger Balm treatment the previous night.)
I was profoundly grateful that I only had to cope with my day pack. I had never had to make these crossings with more weight than that; if you barely weigh 45kg, your centre of gravity quickly moves high up with any significant weight at all on your back. A couple times I was grateful for Devi’s steadying hand, when my foot threatened to slip on slippery stone.
To be honest I have no idea how Seema managed these crossings with my backpack. But she remained graceful as ever, crossing lightly after me as if she was not bearing anything at all.
That’s a masterclass in balance.
Water everywhere, yet there are no leeches
I fretted over the wet, remembering the leech-infested trails around Ghorepani and Tadapani. But as we went on, the leeches were mysteriously absent.
I asked Devi, if it’s too high or too cold for them there.
No, she said. It’s because there aren’t any animals like mules and ponies and such passing up and down. No host, no parasite. Of course!
It’s amazing that one aspect of human habitation that seems so trivial, so inconsequential, still brings such a clear response from nature.
Reflections of wabi-sabi in Dovan
We reached Dovan in less than 2 hours, while it was still morning. The rain had begun again by then, so we enjoyed a nice hot tea at the teahouse. It is also possible to spend the night here instead of Bamboo, and some trekkers choose to.
I zipped up my windbreaker, feeling cold now that I was no longer hiking.
The rain was relentless, and so I had a second hot tea, occupying myself with examining the goods at the teahouse’s little shop. Just to see which were the popular brands that merit being brought all the way here in the Sanctuary.
It was quiet there, that drizzly morning. During the lull in trekking, I took the opportunity to contemplate the simple Annapurna construction that sheltered us.
One side of my mind was quite aware that aside from the sturdy structure and walls of the buildings, the remainder of Annapurna construction can only be described as makeshift. Unsurprising, considering where I was and what it takes to build here. Understandably, you would repair and make do for as long as you could.
But, having lived essentially a pilgrim’s life for some days, I looked upon such sights – the dew clinging to potted cacti, the rain-flecked spiderwebs gossamer upon a gutter – and it struck me with its own strange kind of dignified beauty. It is a special kind of aesthetic, and the Japanese have done us a service to provide a name for it – wabi sabi.
The importance of the Dovan bathroom break
There is a prosaic reason for why a Dovan stop is a good idea, even though it’s still fairly close to Bamboo. We would pass by the temple of Dovan between there, and the next stop along the way to the base camp.
Why is this relevant?
In the precinct immediately around the temple, it is taboo to leave waste – and this includes the ‘woodland toilet’ kind. Dovan is the last stop with bathrooms, before we would pass into the sacred temple precincts.
I asked Devi what the temple’s significance was. It seemed like a very remote place to trek to regularly for worship purposes. Even if you left from Chomrong, it was quite a climb to Dovan.
But it seemed that the Gurung people do climb all the way up there, though only for the significant holy days. I wonder when that would be – as it would be quite the procession!
Why would you hurry through these mountain forest?
We started off again when the rain eased to a light drizzle. The path began to emerge in and out of the bamboo forest, taking us at the edge of slopes. Every so often trekkers would overtake us, zipping past at speed, hurrying – always hurrying – to the base camp.
I guess if I were a mountain trekking sort of person, I would understand.
But I’m not, so I am constantly tempted to tarry and look upon the forests and the waterfalls just as these flowers do.
And indeed, upon the slopes and by the verge within the temple grounds, were flowers. Not all the same kinds either, but a variety of shapes and size and colour. I even found thistles; they would become more common higher up.
The forest was even mossier here than I’ve noticed below. The constant wet brought forth mushrooms among the fuzzy moss on the trees, and made the leaves around us shiny with a glaze of water.
Annapurna monsoon season = early strawberry season
As we walked along, meandering higher and higher up the mountain, suddenly Devi stopped and waded into the undergrowth.
She returned triumphantly with a few small, bright spots of red. Wild strawberries!
We shared them around – they were good. It was only then that I noticed the strawberry plants creeping by the trail – I recognised the distinctive leaves, remembering it from visiting strawberry farms in Cameron Highlands. In August, the strawberries were already fruiting in this part of the mountain.
Devi went to gather a few more, and then we left the rest.
The Shrine of Dovan in the bamboo forest of Annapurna
It was about an hour or so from Dovan that we passed the temple. En route, I wondered constantly when we would come to it – or did we pass it by and I somehow didn’t notice? And when would we get to the part where we could pee again?
It’s not that I particularly needed to go, you see. It’s just that being told it’s not allowed, really makes you think even more about it – and the pissing rain didn’t help. Not to mention the constant background sound of the river flowing.
When we did come by it, I nearly didn’t notice it at all. Perhaps in part because I was expecting the temple to be larger – large enough to house people inside.
But the temple was more like a little shrine, a humble construction of stone and roofed with slate, standing unobtrusively by the trekking trail. Prayer flags draped from it to nearby trees, damp and heavy with rain. A little eerie, almost. Within there was an alcove, or perhaps an altar.
There were no carved idols and no intricate bas-reliefs. No painted murals or hewn images. I wondered how the festival pilgrims would all fit in the narrow trail around the shrine.
I contemplated it for a moment, and moved on.
The right temple to start with.
As I walked, I thought about how I had actually spent my first night in Nepal in the Boudhanath area of Kathmandu – very near the Buddhist temple which is a UNESCO site. But I took a wrong turn wandering in the evening trying to walk to the Boudha stupa, and I flew to Pokhara straightaway the next day. So I never managed to see the famous temple on my first try.
In Pokhara, I had considered taking a boat to the floating Hindu temple within Lake Phewa – but I ended up spending time with a Tibetan jewellery peddler instead.
So it was that the first Nepal temple I encountered was Dovan, a rustic, moss-topped shrine of the Gurung people. Just a simple alcove of stone within an ancient bamboo forest, hung with om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum.
It suited me absolutely perfectly.
The alpine way to Deurali
The bamboo forest gradually fell away to a more alpine landscape. We were not making as good time as I thought, even though I didn’t tarry with photography quite as much that day.
I struggled and marvelled over my apparent lack of fitness, regretting not having prepared better. But at least my legs were obeying me much better with the muscles warmed by Tiger Balm… or were they?
The truth struck me after I was forced to stop, winded, after jogging up a decidedly gentle angle. One that I would easily have glided over, hiking back home.
And yet I was out of breath.
It’s the altitude.
I informed Devi, and she recommended more frequent rests and reminded me to drink more water. And she took my day pack from me, carrying it herself.
Just like that. I can’t imagine how fit she must be.
How I prepared to avoid altitude sickness
The Annapurnas were the first highlands of any significant altitude that I would ever have visited, so I had no idea how I would react to altitude. But I knew it was no slight danger, so I took considerable steps to take the risk to as low as I could manage it. Here's how:
- Allowed time for acclimatisation
One of the reasons I zipped past Kathmandu to Pokhara, was to give myself a relatively rested acclimatisation period before beginning the trek, plus an option to test myself out with a hike around the area.
Pokhara, at a relatively modest 1400m ASL, did not trouble me much at all. It was not, after all, very much different from Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. And I managed reasonably well on a day hike in the Kande/Dhampus area, which took me a bit higher than that.
- Went with a guide from a trekking company
In this way, someone with experience detecting the signs of altitude sickness would be with me. And in case I happen to respond poorly to altitude, I would be with people who are already prepared to take me back down the mountain.
Indeed, on Day 6 particularly, Devi periodically asked me how I was feeling – just like during the trek to Ghorepani. Since this was the day we would ascend past the Ghorepani altitude.
- Kept a clean, vegetarian diet
This was super easy for me, since I already don't smoke and don't drink alcohol, and keeping halal in practical terms while abroad usually meant going vegetarian anyway. I've no idea how big an effect this really is, though.
I also remembered lessons from my navy training days, and sacrificed spicy food (by this I mean chilli) before the trek to gain endurance – which is also not hard to do in Pokhara.
- Took altitude sickness pills
I got just enough before leaving for Nepal to last me the trek. And although you're supposed to take them 2 days before starting the trek, I actually only began taking them in Tadapani. So I know now that I don't get headaches or other serious altitude effects up to the Ghorepani height of a bit under 3000m.
- Tried to keep hydrated
And I did try. Devi kept reminding me to drink water, which is the standard advice although I'm not entirely sure how it helps with the thin atmosphere.
But it's really hard to drink water, when you're not thirsty. Coming from a hot country, there isn't really a time when the two don't come together. It felt super unnatural to make yourself drink water. Not to mention really inconvenient, for someone with a small bladder. It almost seems to go straight back out again.
- Diamox altitude sickness pills
The highland rivers are wild in the monsoon
The forests were behind us, but the river crossings were not.
By this time I had resigned myself (a little resentfully, if I’m honest) to the fact that my Annapurna trek would be entirely rained upon, and perhaps that naturally came hand-in-hand with copious amounts of water all trying to drain down the mountain.
We were above the tree line by now, and the landscape gradually changed to alpine tundra, though it is lushly grassed in the monsoon. And there before us was a gushing stream of cold river, crashing as rapids as it merged with another sprinting river, foaming white against the boulders, dissipating energy in a constant droning hiss.
We were to ford this river, as there was no bridge here.
Perhaps in the peak season, the river is tamer, and you would simply step over the rocks. But in the monsoon, the river was very fast, even if it wasn’t very wide. To assist the fording, someone had laid a rickety ladder between two rocks. From the middle rock to the other side, you must hop over. [I have not told my mom this part until now – hello Mama! I guess you know now!]
I was glad that Devi had already taken my day pack. I had visions of losing my footing and falling into the rush of water, or spraining my ankle and being forced to forfeit the base camp.
But I crossed readily enough. And of course, my Nepali companions took it in stride.
Around this part of the trek, it finally began to feel like ‘wilderness’ to me. No hand has tamed this area; past Himalaya (the trekking stop, not the mountain range) we were rarely spoiled with flagstone paths. The landscape grew visibly rockier and the green vegetation kept low to the ground. Fog lay heavy over the waterways, merging seamlessly with cloud that muffled the sunlight.
But at least, the ascent was gentler and more gradual, not as steeply up and down as in previous days. It felt an easier way, even though I knew I was trekking ever higher up the mountain.
Closer to Deurali we came upon yet another waterfall crossing. Water cascaded down an exposed cliff face of layered sedimentary rock, obscuring the narrow fording route. To the right, the cliff was a sheer, water-lubricated drop where the cascade went on falling, falling.
I could see no feasible way to cross except by hopping across the boulders which were submerged – the other boulders were too far apart or angled inconveniently. Except that the ford rose to a point where the falling water hit it the most, raising a spray which meant that you could not really see the next boulder before reaching that high point.
I watched Devi closely, and took the boulders she pointed at without question – one I couldn’t even see properly beneath the foamy water flowing above it. The chill water instantly seeped into my boots – there goes my last pair of dry-ish socks.
But again, I crossed without incident. Once safely across, I instinctively turned around, wondering how Seema would manage this fording with the backpack.
Yet even as I turned, Seema had already finished crossing.
Wet and cold in Deurali.
I was glad to reach Deurali, glad to reach a comfortable room and a clean bed.
The dispersed layout was a bit vexing though. After a long, wet, chilly trek, with the rain remaining relentless, it was particularly dispiriting having to be rained upon just to go to the bathroom or to the dining hall.
Of course, high up in the mountain with no news from outside, I did not know then that this was exactly the time of the worst of the 2017 floods in the region. Later, once I was back in Pokhara, I met travellers who had actually been stranded in Chitwan National Park as the floods marooned them temporarily in their building. I guess, all things considered, I was at least on the highest possible ground considering the situation.
But at the time I was just really cold. That night at 3200m I was wearing a thermal vest & leggings, a two-layered blouse, fleece, scarf, thermal hat, fleece gloves – and I was still cold.
And it wasn’t really only about the cold either. It was also the strain of battling the constant damp. It was rain all the day through, and rain all through the night too. The days of wet socks that only ever dried to damp. Even the backpack rain cover was damp, and never dry.
Should I have turned back at Chomrong?
Sure, the alpine streams were dramatic, and I guess the bamboo forest was pretty.
Whereas here, the fog had grown so thick that we didn’t get even a glimpse of the Annapurna peaks that day. What if, I were to leave Annapurna, never having seen its famed mountain range?
Huddled in my thermal liner under the thick blankets wearing all my clothes, warmed by more Tiger Balm, and listening to the persistent rainfall, I wondered to myself: was it really worth it to trek all the way to Annapurna Base Camp?
Was it actually better to just stop at Chomrong?
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.
Beyond Bamboo is the part of this trek that you really have to prepare for, from the altitude, the cold, and if you’re doing this in the monsoon season, the sheer amount of water crossings. Pin for your planning!
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