I was up early on Friday morning and felt a little like I was missing my left arm. My guide, Thinley, and my driver, Dandin, had left me in Jakar in the Bumthang Valley the prior afternoon while they had driven the hellacious roads back to Paro where they were meeting me later in the day.
I had a lovely breakfast before hiking way up the hillside to visit the Jakar Dzong. As forts go in Bhutan, this one was rather unremarkable. I spent more energy and time hiking up the hillside to see the fort than I did wandering around the fort.
Anyway, by 11:00 a.m. I was off to the airport for the very quick 25 minute flight to Paro. And on cue the boys were there to meet me with smiling faces. It turns out that it took them slightly more than 11 hours to reach Paro arriving just after 3:00 a.m. Good grief. And here they were with smiles on their faces.
Now the afternoon plan was to drive an hour and a half to Chelela Pass at 12,402 feet to view the Himalayan Mountains.(3,780 meters/12,402 ft). However, I quickly vetoed that. There was no way that I was going to have Dandin drive for the next 3 hours after driving all night. Despite their protestations, I was insistent. Instead I proposed that we do a little shopping in Paro and then go for coffee at the cute little shop in town that we had visited on my first day. (My itinerary originally had me going into Paro after my hike up to Tiger’s Nest the next day, but I knew there was no way I would want to do that after the climb so I figured it was better for all to wander Paro now.)
So we ended up spending a couple hours in town before heading to the hotel for the night. I wanted to make an early evening of it because I knew the hike to Tiger’s Nest the next day was going to kill me, and as we drove to the hotel and Taktshang Monastery (which translates into Tiger’s Nest Monastery) came into view I knew I was making the right call. That little white dot on the hillside looked miles away and miles up in the air. Yikes. To say I was a little apprehensive would be an understatement.
Anyway, I got to bed early and had what I would call a very restless night. I was literally awake every couple hours. I finally got up at 6:45 a.m., got dressed and ate a little breakfast before meeting my guide and driver. We set off for the starting point just before 8:00 and by 8:15 Thinley and I were on the trail hiking up, up, up.
Now I wasn’t so concerned about the climb as I was the altitude. Paro is at 2,280 meters (about 7,480 feet) and we were climbing to 10,000 feet. That as a lot for this sea level gal.
So the hike began in beautiful sunshine through the lowland forest. However, within 5 minutes the ascent began along a very jagged, rocky path. Yikes! I was sincerely hoping it smoothed out, but for the next 60 minutes or so it was more of the same. Every now and then we would reach a smooth stretch straight up only to run into more rocky switchbacks zig zagging up the hillside.
As we hiked up the hillside, we were frequently passed by people riding horses up the rocky hillside. The horses could take people as far as the cafeteria about halfway to the monastery. And I would soon learn that the hike from the base to the cafeteria was easily the hardest and greatest incline of the hike. The downside of having the horses on the trail for those of us hiking up was dodging the horse dung as we climbed. And then of course with horse dung came the flies. Not the most enjoyable part of the hike that’s for sure.
Now the climb was really kicking my butt. Every few minutes, I would have to stop and catch my breath. It was absolutely brutal climbing in the thin air. Fortunately, the good folks in Bhutan had recognized the difficulty of the climb and periodically installed benches where you could sit, grab some water and catch your breath. With the sun beating down, it was particularly hot so I was constantly asking for water (which Thinley was graciously carrying in his backback).
As we climbed higher back and forth up the mountainside, the houses and temples in the Paro Valley began to look smaller and smaller. The forest also became thinner and periodically we would run into some prayer flags that had been strung through the trees. I told Thinley I should have brought some prayer flags because I was going to need some prayers to get me through the hike.
In addition as we hiked, we would periodically catch a glimpse of Tiger’s Nest through the trees, but the monastery was still so far way that it was difficult to fully appreciate the beauty of one of the wonders of the world.
Anyway, about an hour into the hike, we reached a small stupa and some prayer flags signaling the half way point of the hike. My first thought was good God, I’m only half way there! But then as we walked a short distance from the stupa to the cafeteria, Tiger’s Nest came into full view and I was immediately invigorated despite the fact that it still looked miles up the hillside.
In addition, we could hear singing and chanting from Tiger’s Nest, which I quickly learned were the monks and the head monk at the site. The sound was rhythmic and made the rest of the hike truly memorable (not that it wasn’t already).
We stopped at the cafeteria for a little rest, before hiking up this enormous staircase. Yikes! If this is what the second half is going to be like, I’m in trouble. Fortunately, it was simply a shortcut from the cafeteria to the main path. Once back on the main path, the hike became a LOT easier. Gradual inclines on smooth paths led the way to the stupa viewpoint where I had a straight on view to Tiger’s Nest. Now the downside. I had not realized that in order to reach the magnificent monastery hanging on the cliff, I had to walk down a series of staircases and then back up another series of staircases to the monastery. In fact, the monastery was actually 150 meters away. Help!
So after the requisite pictures, we began the descent towards the base of the cliff holding on to Tiger’s Nest. We passed butter lamps, prayer flags, a beautiful waterfall and a prayer cave (allegedly used by Guru Rinpoche’s wife) crammed into a tiny corner, before we began the deadly climb on the staircase up, up, up to the monastery. Now this last part was psychologically devastating. Just when you think you have the climb behind you, they make you climb another 5 minutes for your reward.
So once we finished the two hour climb that essentially did me in, I reached the entrance to the Tiger’s Nest (greeted by schoolgirls with tea and puffed rice), only to realize that the entire visit was going to be one huge climb. Ugh.
Now a little bit about Taktshang Monastery. As I mentioned, the name means Tiger’s Nest Monastery and is derived from the belief that Guru Rinpoche road in on the back of a tigress, who was actually his wife, to slay a demon. He then stayed at the site for 3 months mediating in a cave. The site is considered once of the holiest in Bhutan.
So once we reached the entrance and checked our bags (no pictures inside), we climbed what was to be the first of many staircases (with me begging for air at every climb). At the top, we removed our shoes and went into a little temple containing the cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated. From there we went into another room where there were 8 statutes or manifestations of Guru Rinpoche (there were even three little Garudas on the ceiling). Here, we sat on the floor and mediated. (I actually think I was just going to sleep. Damn I was tired.)
My favourite stop of the trip around the monastery was inside the temple where the monks were chanting (actually reciting from the teachings of Buddah). The rhythmic chant was mesmerizing. In addition to the chanting monks, the room also contained the cave where the dagger that Guru Rinpoche used to slay the demon was hidden. I did not see the dagger, but I did see the huge hole (cave) in the ground where the dagger is apparently kept.
We next climbed a staircase to look at the original cave. I could have climbed down into the cave, which hangs out over the cliff, but I declined … a little too claustrophobic for my tastes.
Our final stop was to visit the chapel where the rock image of a goddess’ crown lies. And the rock really did look like her crown. We made two rounds of the chapel and then began our descent down the staircase and to the outside entrance of Tiger’s Nest.
I then stared across at the impending climb back up that massive staircase and while I knew this was the last climb of the day, I was really dreading it. I was so tired at this point, I knew the climb back up the staircase was going to take some time so I warned Thinley that I might be stopping more than usual. “No worries. Slowly. Slowly.”
So off we set, down the staircase from Tiger’s Nest, past the cave, the waterfall and the butterlamps and then back up the staircase, which oh by the way was not a true staircase, but a staircase made of rock steps. I made about 5 stops on the way up and the last 20 steps I sucked it up and willed my way to the top with nonstop heavy breathing. It was a sense of relief to know that the tough stuff was behind me.
And as if Tiger’s Nest as not enough, as I reached the top of the staircase and began to walk the little path that would lead us downhill we passed a number of langur monkeys in the trees. I had never seen these kinds of monkey and they were simply beautiful. Grey, black and white with the cutest little faces and long, long tails. What a treat!
Now the descent should have been easy, but actually it was probably harder on my body than the climb up. The first part of the hike to the cafeteria was pretty easy with a nice gentle slope on dirt paths. We were joined by a nice German woman who had to be in her 70s. Aside from a walking stick, the lady was motoring along on her own. Thinley helped her down a couple of steep spots, but all in all, she was one impressive woman.
Anyway, once we reached the cafeteria, we sat for a bit, drank some water and then began the really hard climb down. Now what made the climb down from the cafeteria so tough is that the incline was severe and we were hiking over a stone pathway with uneven rocks. The pressure on my knees was relentless and all the while we hiked, I kept looking up and over at the monastery catching the last looks (as least from the climb). Every time I got a glimpse I shook my head and still could not believe I had made it.
So about 1 hour after we left the monastery we began our final descent into the valley, past three water prayer wheels and back into the car park. I told Thinley I had never been so happy to see a car park in my entire life. I literally collapsed into the car for the short ride back to the hotel. By now it was 1:35 p.m. It had been a loooooong 5 ½ hours.
I quickly changed out of my hiking boots to give some breathing room to my poor burning feet. I grabbed my camera and walked downstairs to the restaurant and bar and bought a round of drinks for my driver and guide. Cheers gentlemen for helping me reach the summit.
After the beers and some lunch, I took a nap and then went for a massage (Lord knows I needed it) and then for a hot stone bath that the hotel provides to all guests who have made the “climb”.
Now the hot stone bath was really cool. They filled a wooden tub with water. Behind the tub there was a fire stoked with wood my guide cut (seriously). The folks then placed huge river stones in the fire. Once the stones were heated the stones were placed in the back side of the tub, which was separated from where I was lying, by a heavy cloth. When the stones were dropped into the backside of the tub, the water sizzled and heated the water in the tub. By the time I climbed in, the water was nice and warm (and filled with all sorts of herbs and flowers). I asked for the water to be a little hotter and a couple minutes later, more stones were added with a hiss and sizzle and soon the water was incredibly hot, soothing my poor aching joints.
About a half hour later, I climbed out and relaxed in my room for a bit before dinner. By the time I ate dinner, I could barely keep my eyes open. I ate a little soup and some veggies before begging off for the night. It was time for some sleep before I left Bhutan the next afternoon.