Tiger's Nest

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October 21st 2017
Published: November 4th 2017
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Saturday morning dawned rainy and chilly in Paro, Bhutan. The forecast had been for temps only in the low 40s; accompanied with rain it could be a bit uncomfortable, not to mention encountering potentially muddy and slippery trails, for our group's trek to Tiger's Nest, the cultural icon of Bhutan. It had poured last night, so the always pleasant and pleasing Bhutanese said we'd have no rain today as it had already washed itself out. I hoped the weather agreed with their optimistic outlooks, but took a rain jacket with me anyway.

Waking at 5AM, dressing in layers, dry-bagging everything I wanted to carry, I went outside and found it was not too cold, but a misty rain was still falling and heavy fog covered the hillsides and mountains. Even so, we boarded the van and headed out. Driving up the twisting switchbacks mimicked the trails that led up to the cliffside Paro Taktsang Monastery, but I didn't realise that until later. Hiking was at our own pace, so three of us who generally walk quickly headed up together. Many hikers use poles when climbing, but I've not yet seen the need, nor did I want to carry anything extra. Soon I outpaced my companions, and continued on, not alone, as many other hikers were also climbing up to Tiger's Nest early that morning. I met so many friendly and soon familiar faces as we leapfrogged past each other multiple times; either they would stop for a rest and I would pass them by, or I would stop to slow my heart down and they would climb past me. This happened again and again as we hiked. The altitude is high; the climb starts at 10,200 feet reaching up to Paro Taktsang at about 13,200 feet so it was not like hiking near the ocean, at sea level.

I met large groups of people from Mumbai, India, travelling over their Diwali holidays. I met many private tour guides and their climbers who were happy to stop a minute to catch a breath, to say hello and ask everybody where they were from. We were all climbing the same mountain, facing the same exhaustion and difficulties, pushing on even with labored breathing and sometimes protesting leg muscles. But the environment is spectacular; even in the clouds it was beautiful. And so I continued on. Our guide, Dorji, called up to me at some point along the trail; we walked together for awhile and talked pleasantly about many things, a very enjoyable interlude while hiking. Dorji is my older daughter's age; he is very fit, and an energetic and exceedingly happy person. I am so glad he is our guide here in Bhutan! He is one of the best guides I have ever had.

A little past halfway there is a cafeteria where we were supposed to wait for the whole group, so I stopped there. After awhile my two companion hikers in our group appeared, and after they had a cup of tea we asked Dorji if we could continue climbing. For me this hike was a mental exercise as well as physical. Can I make it? Gracefully? Am I able to reach the monastery? I hadn't climbed anything this high in years, and certainly not at this altitude. I did not want to stop and relax and wait for the rest of the hikers; I wanted to continue climbing, to reach the top, and that could be best accomplished if I went at my own speed. I've always felt this way: do my "work" first and then relax. Dessert after dinner. Playing comes after responsibilities have been met. So I continued my climb.

The rain had stopped, and some of the clouds were beginning to lift; I could see Tiger's Nest directly across a valley, but of course there is no bridge; hikers have to go down and then climb up again from the bottom of a steep crevice. A series of 600 stairs leads steeply down, switchbacking all along the way, and then one walks across a little bridge. You can hear falling water, and there, looking very high up, is a perfect waterfall. This is an auspicious place! After the bridge comes 200 more stairs, going up again. Several stops to catch my breath, and then I was there. I had reached Paro Taktsang Monastery, Tiger's Nest! Relieved, and trying not to think about the climb back up those hundreds of stairs on our return, I waited at the monastery for my two companions to arrive. Finally, they appeared, along with another hiker from our group.

The four of us had to wait for Dorji to come before we could enter Paro Taktsang, as he held the visa list of all our names; these lists are carefully checked before anyone is permitted to enter. At last he arrived and we all went inside this originally ancient monastery clinging to a cliffside. Being here is something one has to experience for him or herself; the Bhutanese say everyone has to climb to Tiger's Nest at least once during his/her lifetime. This is a Himalayan Buddhist sacred site, and what we saw was gorgeous, holy, even more so for the rigorous hike we had made to reach here. The legend is that Guru Rinpoche flew to this site on the back of a tigress, and then meditated in a cave here for three months sometime during the 8th century. The monastery was first built in 1692, above the sacred cave where this monk had meditated, but it burned down twice, once in 1951 and again in 1998; its most recent reconstruction occurred in April, 2000.

We meditated in one of the temples, and I think I was the only person in our group who actually climbed down into the dark cave that is the true Tiger's Nest where the guru had meditated. I started bravely down into the cave, but only went halfway down, declining to step across a deep little crevice from the second ladder to a tiny foothold beside a large rock; there were no handholds to grab onto and the fall was deep, so I quickly decided to back up the ladders and stepped out of the cave into blessed daylight. Reuniting with our small group I described the narrow, dark interior of the guru's cave, but no one wanted to attempt the descent again with me. So we walked on, exploring more of the temple rooms in this lofty monastery.

Too soon our explorations came to an end, and we headed down, which included the hardest part of this hike for me: after descending 200 steps we had to face the uphill climbing of 600 more. I think I was running on empty now, not having eaten breakfast and being in relatively high altitude; at this point I needed to stop very frequently to slow my heartrate and calm my breathing. But finally, finally I got to the top of all those stairs, and, after one more short rest, could truly begin the hike down, through the stunning pine forest, beautiful in the quiet wisps of fog that still lingered. That part was much easier than I expected; the rain had stopped earlier so the trails were not at all muddy or slippery. In general I prefer hiking uphill; downhill is rough on the knees. This part, especially the smells, reminded me of hiking into the depths of the Grand Canyon, only here I met horses instead of mules carrying riders along the trail. I reached the bottom long before anyone else appeared, and could rest and observe other hikers as they either began or ended their treks. It was a colorful and busy scene, full of hikers, cars, busses, vans, vendors. But I had made it! I had climbed Tiger's Nest! Time to rejoice, for to me the morning's hike was a major accomplishment. I was happy to wait, to enjoy standing and watching all the people and activity around me until Sonam, our kind and mighty driver, and some of the other hikers in our group appeared. This day was a cause for celebration!


5th November 2017

Sounds wonderful but something I will never get to do in this lifetime. Thanks for sharing the experience,

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