Tiger's Nest, Bhutan - Stairway to Heaven

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November 3rd 2018
Published: December 18th 2018
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Paro eventually reopened for business and we returned there on lovely country roads where we could appreciate the scenery and local way of life, which included terraced farming on the hilly landscapes. We stopped on the way at Friendship Bridge, a joint venture between Bhutan and India. It had been built at the confluence of three rivers and the waters looked lovely and clean, sparkling in the sunlight, though it was certainly fresh and I had to wear the only suitable jacket I had with me for the low temperatures and I was heartily sick of seeing it by now. While we were there Ransinga suddenly whipped his cap off at a passing car. He could tell it was a Royal Family car by the number plate, he said, and he wanted to show respect. He couldn't tell which member of the royal family it was, due to the speed it went past us, but I decided it must have been King Jimmy 5, come to scope out the visiting British woman as potential wife material. He should have slowed down a bit, because he obviously didn't see me ...!

We saw lots of dogs in Bhutan; they looked like strays but appeared very healthy. Ransinga told us they called them 'solar dogs' because they lay around in the heat all day to recharge their batteries so that they could do their busy/busy/bark/bark thing all night, when it was cooler! Many of them had one clipped ear, an indication that they had been neutered. We saw a veterinary school where locals could have their animals treated and future vets were trained. I'm loving this country more and more ... We saw a military base for local soldiers. Ransinga explained that the country did maintain an Army but it was used mainly to deal with the effects of natural disasters such as earthquakes and was augmented with suitably trained volunteers (of which he was one) when necessary.

We visited an Arts and Crafts college where young people were being taught a skill such as painting, sculpture and sewing, to continue the traditions. We visited the National Museum and a nearby fort perfectly situated to see those pesky Mongols for miles around before they could advance any further. We travelled into the city centre and I marvelled at this independent little country, feeling its way into the 21st century.

Paro was Ransinga's home town, so it took an age for us to get from one end of the street to another as we were intercepted by Ransinga's friends, family, recent in-laws, local shop-keepers and a very 'merry' hotel owner who all wanted to meet us. Ransinga took us to a philately shop, which we thought a bit odd, but it transpired that as well as selling stamps this shop also acted as the local bank where we were able to get more local currency. Fancy that. We also saw a 'lost and found' box in the middle of the main street. Ransinga said everyone was very honest and if we were to lose anything not to worry because it was bound to end up in the box sooner or later.

Before we left home our neighbours had mentioned that Bhutan was renowned for its phallic symbol culture. We hadn't known this and we'd seen none of it so far, but as soon as we arrived in Paro town centre it was suddenly everywhere - in shops, in windows, on doors - there was even a museum dedicated to it. And the phalluses came in all shapes, colours and sizes, which was perhaps to be expected, but some also came with wings which was a bit of a surprise! Not seen one like that before ...

Many years ago a friend bought us a day-by-day calendar showing the best places to visit, world-wide (thanks, M!). We've continued to treat ourselves to this calendar every year since and, almost without fail, the Tiger's Nest Monastery in Bhutan features. Every year, Steve has said that one day he would go there. So, that explains why Bhutan featured in this trip - it was a case of now or never given our increasing years, the altitude and the amount of steps involved. I was never that fussed, but I'd heard there was a little cafe en route so I said I'd wait there, drinking coffee, while Steve did his he-man stuff. Finally, that day had arrived!

We'd spent the night in our new 5* hotel, the Khangkhu Resort. It was built into a hillside and we felt dreadful as a young slip of a girl insisted on carrying our luggage up hundreds of steps to our room (no 205). We overlooked the museum and fortress, which were quite a sight, all lit up like Christmas on the opposite hill. We also overlooked Paro Airport, the only international airport in the country, but as there was only one flight a day at best there wasn't much to watch there. Our room was stunning but freezing for us wimpish westerners, even with all the heaters on their highest setting, and we'd slept in most of our clothes, so we were perhaps not at our peak performance for climbing mountains.

We set our alarm for silly-o-clock to be ready to meet our guide at 8 am. We'd heard various estimates for the climb. One said it was an easy climb of about two hours. Ransinga said it was a hard climb and would take about six hours. I thought he would know best. I said I only intended to go to the cafe, half way up, and asked if it had wifi. Ransinga laughed at my stupidity. 'It's half way up a remote mountain,' he said. 'It doesn't even have electricity!' Oh well, I had my Kindle.

The journey from the hotel took only about 30 minutes. We passed a couple and small child leading a cow and freshly born calf back to their homestead. I can only imagine the whole family had stayed with the cow all night until the calf was born as the cow was still leaking afterbirth bits. Livestock is clearly precious to these people.

Finally, we reached the starting point. There are ponies available at the base to carry climbers part-way up the route. My natural sympathies for the ponies prevented me from opting for this mode of transport and Ransinga said it was best to walk all the way anyway, to loosen up before the steps kicked in. It was still chilly as we set off, but I had my multiple layers on for protection against the cold. One by one, I peeled those layers off as the day warmed up and the effort of climbing grew. When I was down to my last layer I told Ransinga that any more and I would be able to join in with the Naked Dancers he had told us about. I would look a bit out of place, he said, as the Naked Dancers were all men! And geez, it was hard going. The climb was steep, with twists and turns, and you had to watch where every footstep was placed to avoid falling off the mountain. I missed a colourful woodpecker in a tree above me until Ransinga told me to look up! We had to keep stopping and moving to the side for the packs of ponies who were carrying people up then later we had to stop and move to the side for the 'empty' ponies who made their own way down, usually arriving at the same pinch point as those still going up and the stupid people like us who thought climbing up ourselves was a good idea. And OMG, the dust they kicked up. Not my idea of fun. I started to sound like some whingeing two year old with my constant 'Are we nearly there yet?' questions but I stopped when Ransinga said we were about half way. Only half way??!! God help us. The best bit (for me anyway) was relating to everyone else walking up the mountain. We gradually became acquainted with small groups of them as they first of all passed us before stopping for a breather, then we passed them ... Everyone had words of encouragement for each other, especially the 78 year old man from India whose advice was to take it one step at a time. Yeah, well, what other option was there? I had to admire him.

It took about 90 mintes for us to reach the cafe. I immediately bagsied a viewing seat and asked to be left to die. I thought my thighs would never recover. After a short break, Ransinga and Steve readied themselves for the climb. Ransinga said they would be gone about three hours and I should have lunch, cooked on a wood-burning stove, in the meantime. I said I'd wait, not being entirely confident that I would be able to walk again before they returned anyway. I spent my time playing with the resident cats and gradually reapplying all the layers of clothing I had taken off on the way up, as the wind blew down the mountain and chilled me to the bone.

I can only recount what Steve said about the climb and the Tiger's Nest monastery. Armed only with a drink, a bar of chocolate 'for the altitude' and the camera off he went. He said the steps were harder than the climb we had just done, initially going up, then going down, and finally going up again. He passed a waterfall and a white flag and took several photos of me, back at the cafe. Apparently, Ransinga did the climb like a mountain goat and Steve did it like a knackered old man, stopping for a breather every few steps. But, one step at a time and many rests in between he finally climbed those approximately 1000 steps, at altitude, to reach the monastery where, of course, because it is a holy place no photos were allowed to prove he woz there! I was also pleased to hear that he met Mr Indian78 there, who had also completed the climb. I was happy for both of them. Steve couldn't explain why there were so many solar dogs up at the monastery but there they were, recharging their batteries like Duracell rabbits. One in particular looked like a bear, apparently.

The intrepid climbers returned to the cafe after about 3.5 hours and we ate a lovely lunch by way of celebration. Our descent was much quicker than our climb. I decided that the free roaming ponies knew the quickest way down and just followed the pony poo. Ransinga took the 'approved' route and was still faster than me! It took us about half the time it did on the way up. At the end Ransinga took a photo and asked us if we had enjoyed our trek. No, we both said emphatically, we don't like trekking. But we wouldn't have missed it for the world ... ! He said he did the climb about once a week. We agreed that once in a lifetime was enough for us.

We returned to our hotel for a hot shower, a cold beer, a late tea and an early night. One of us had achieved a long-standing ambition, the other had legs so stiff just climbing the stairs back to the room was a challenge!

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