Adrenaline Rush @Tiger's Nest in Bhutan

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December 4th 2011
Published: December 26th 2011
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Yeah, that's me. Why not?Yeah, that's me. Why not?Yeah, that's me. Why not?

I'm breaking all rules about landscape photography. I want everyone to know I made it! After all, it took me one hour on horse and 4 hours on foot to get there and back. I'm mighty proud of myself!
I have been looking at photos and videos. Been reading travelers' accounts about their trek up the Taktshang Monastery.This is Bhutan's most famoust monastery perched on a cliff overlooking the valley of Paro. My mind was set that I would at least hike up to the Halfway Station where the Cafeteria is, and where one is able to look at the pilgrims' site at eye level, but for the deep abyss separating the Cafeteria site and the cliff-hugging Monastery on the other side.

From the base up to the Halfway Station, the trail crossing a pine forest is basically a copper-colored dirt path following a stream for some time , then winding up the mountain. After that it's stone steps down the side of a hill and back up to the temple. About 900 meters above Paro Valley. Or an elevation of 3,000 meters or so. About 10,000 feet. Some 800 stone steps hugging the cliff with a deep drop for a view, according to Norbu. Did I make it?

Some say it takes 2 hours to hike up to the Monastery, and perhaps just as long to hike back. I made it in 5
Pathway to Tiger's NestPathway to Tiger's NestPathway to Tiger's Nest

Only one way ride on a horse on copper-colored dirt path. Then u go on foot down some 800 stone steps, while the horses gallop down solo. If u meet them on ur climb up, stand aside!
hours. One hour uphill on horse (to conserve my energy) and 1 hour down on foot, then back up the Monastery. After a quick look-see around the sacred shrine, I was ready to head back. It took longer than 1 hour (more like 2 hours, with several breaks for the lungs and heart!) to hike back to the Halfway Station, but it was easier downhill for another hour to the base. Here's my story.

What's with this horse?

His name is Tring. My guide Norbu arranged a day before to have a horse ready for me and my friend when we got to base a few minutes past the center of Paro. At this point, I wasn't sure whether I'd muster the nerve to go all the way to the Monastery. My friend decided to go on foot, and made it to the Halfway Station where she waited for me for the hike back to base. Hmm, frankly I was more inclined to simply just reach the Halfway Station too and take my tea and lunch at the Taktshang Cafeteria. Not that I look forward to Bhutanese lunch. Just that I wasn't sure about how "feeling brave"
Halfway StationHalfway StationHalfway Station

When Norbu told me to spin the prayer wheels while saying my prayer, I was about to spill the prayer loudly. Norbu promptly sssh sssh'd me to say it in silence. :-)
I was that morning.

To ride OR not. Tring decided for me. With a bit of a lurch we got underway, and was it scary at first! If the edge had crumbled even slightly, it's goodbye me and Tring as we plunge to our deaths down below. Thankfully, I managed to learn to look away (from the ravine) or to look up (and pray) each time Tring takes to the edge of the cliff. I didn’t like it though whenever I felt the horse's butt muscles prepare to gallop up a steep incline. Neither did I feel reassured when passing tourists on foot said that the horse must have done the climb a thousand times to know what it's doing. Ha!

I asked Norbu why the horse is "not playing it safe" as I would have chosen to ride hugging the cliff than walk along the edge. Well, as I said, the horse had other ideas. Norbu said the soil at the outer edge is "softer", which makes it a preferred path for the horses. Yay!

Adrenaline Rush?

My guide Norbu told me that the monks observe a lunch hour. That
Target In SightTarget In SightTarget In Sight

Sun wasn't exactly out, but not much wind either. It may not exactly be ideal weather but pleasant enough for this momentous hike!
means an hour or so wasted just waiting for the Monastery to open again. He told me this just as soon as I got off the horse to start my journey on foot along some 800 steps. Clever guide. The prospect of waiting gave me just the adrenaline rush to push myself to hike without wasting much time.

I initially thought it was easy. It was mostly downhill from where I last saw Tring gallop down on his own. But the path got narrower and some paths have no railings. Not good for one scared of heights. When I made it to the next Lookout Point at 3,140 meters, I felt so relieved. Taktshang Monastery is just at eye level. It looked so near and reachable, except that there is a chasm, a deep abyss between this Lookout Point and the actual site connected by stone steps weaving down the side of the cliff and a footbridge just beside the falls where water gushes down under the bridge. I met local pilgrims on my way down, some with their toddlers on their backs, others cradling sleeping babies in their arms. How do they do that?

The Halfway StationThe Halfway StationThe Halfway Station

My friend Elizabeth made it to the Halfway Station. 2 hours up and 2 hours down, all on foot. Bravo!

It was certainly the anticipation of reaching Tiger's Nest which provided the much needed endurance to power through amidst the cold. Having braved the horse ride along the cliff edge, traipsing down narrow paths, up and down, with heart pounding against my chest, lungs nearly giving up, I just knew I had to finish what I started. My betel nut-chewing guide was so patient and supportive, both literally and emotionally. Whenever I paused to give my lungs and heart a rest, he would always say there is no rush. Or he would amuse me by tinkering with my camera and snapping some photos. He never ran out of stories to tell, without being too chatty to be annoying. My soft-spoken Bhutanese "son" was a gem of a hiking buddy, indeed. At one point, he sidled up to whisper that I'm doing way better than the man behind me. What then happened was I found myself "competing" with this man, who has grown grumpy out of physical stress and frustration.

Almost There

By the time I reached the footbridge to cross over amidst fluttering prayer flags, I was getting a faint headache. Must be the altitude hitting
The Taktshang CafeteriaThe Taktshang CafeteriaThe Taktshang Cafeteria

This marks the halfway point. Elizabeth and I split up at the base. Me on my horse. She on foot. We met up here after 4 hours, and then hiked back down to base together.
me at that point. From there, it was uphill towards the sacred site. By this time, my heart was pounding nearly out of my chest. My legs and knees felt okay, but I was short of breath! I scaled the steps about 15 steps at a time, in tandem with another tourist who can do with a shower and a bath. For some reason, I welcomed his body aroma as it somehow kept me alert like some Tiger Balm ointment would. This foul-smelling tourist may not know it, but he may have just saved my life!😊

All throughout the "ordeal", Norbu would try to feed me with a chocolate bar which he broke into bite-size pieces. I had none of it, too tired to even eat, and too busy sucking in oxygen! Neither did I drink water from the bottle he carried in the pocket of his gho. I was too afraid of the prospect of a trip to the loo --- which Norbu said would have to be some bush in some steep incline! I imagined myself sliding down the slopes with my pants down. That settled it! So there I was, panting my
Nearly ThereNearly ThereNearly There

At this point, you hear the murmur of the wind and the faint chant from passing monks and local pilgrims. Om mani peme hum.............
way down, and up the meter-wide path towards the site. By the time I reached the foot bridge, I was so driven to go past the prayer flags, the waterfall, to climb up the final set of "killer" stairs. Each time I stopped to catch my breath,a passing monk would momentarily stop, not a word spoken, hardly any eye contact, but somehow you sense he is looking out for you. Those pauses warmed my heart, appreciating how these locals are so unfailingly welcoming and genuine, without being melodramatic. A human quality I nearly forgot. A caring, giving, gentle side of humanity.

Nearer the monastery i noticed red splotches on the path which I thought must be the doma pani (areca nut and betel leaf with a dash of lime) chewed on and spat out by locals. I have tried this myself, ain't no big fan of it, but doma surely keeps one warm! But no, this isn't doma splotches but actually blood spatters from visitors unable to handle the altitude. Yay!

With Sonam Norbu, My Guide, My SonWith Sonam Norbu, My Guide, My SonWith Sonam Norbu, My Guide, My Son

Sonam is now officially adopted as my son. I wouldn't have been able to hike up to Tiger's Nest without this betel nut-chewing guide.

Inside the Monastery Wrapped Around the Cliff

Guru Rimpoche is worshipped in Bhutan as the Second Buddha. This "lotus-born" Buddha is said to have flown all the way from Tibet on the back of one of its consorts, a flying tigress, to meditate in one of the caves here for 3 months. Recognized as a holy place, a monastery was built around the Guru's meditation cave and has since been a pilgrimage site that looks like it grew out of the rocks.

Norbu toured me around the goemba after depositing my camera and cellphone. After all the huffing and puffing, it was a relief to go barefoot and sit in prayer or meditation inside. But not for long. I found the air heavy with an incredibly intense smell of burning incense. Norbu tried his best to explain the paintings on the rock, the deities, the history and the legend but I was raring for fresh air. Besides, fatigue must have set in at this point and I was almost tempted to splay my entire body on the floor and
See that DROP?See that DROP?See that DROP?

There I was sucking in oxygen while trying to look away from the "drop", when this local passed me cradling a baby on his way up. How does he do it?????
sleep. (it was much later I learned that altitude sickness makes one "feeling sleepy").

In one of the temples, Norbu pointed to a painting on a wall. Well, not exactly a wall. It was actually the stone rock itself! I believed only when I touched it. Then off to another temple, there was an opening on the floor which Norbu opened up to let some air in. As I looked down, I was reminded that the Monastery was built hugging a cliff just as the wind blew into my face. I also noticed that visitors dropped money from this opening. Norbu said that when the wind blows and "lifts" the money, it is good luck to catch some. Not me. I asked Norbu to shut the opening as the sight of the cliff down below is making my knees shake.

The monks live, pray and housekeep these temples here. I imagined how scary it must be when there's a thunderstorm. There I was just looking down and it's driving me insane. I'm glad we got good weather too when we made this climb. Can't imagine how it is when it's raining and the steps
The FootbridgeThe FootbridgeThe Footbridge

Off the horse, down the stone steps........and now the footbridge, just before the last flight of killer stairs.
are slippery.

The Hike Back to Halfway Station

Since it took me just an hour from where I dismounted, climbing down stone steps, and then up the last flight of stairs towards the Monastery, I was overconfident about the hike back to meet up with my friend at the Halfway Station. Wrong. Dead Wrong. I was reminded all too clearly that there were more down steps than up steps towards the Monastery. Of course, that meant more up steps than down steps hiking back. Where did my logic go? Must be the altitude. Or I must be really tired by then. One hour wasn't enough to negotiate the stairs climbing back to where I left Tring. Norbu was so patient with me as I took many oxygen stops. My heart never beat this fast and it's scaring me! Locals and monks passed me as I sensed them going slow, as if waiting for me. You see, there is no space to stop, sit and rest. If you stop, you rest standing up, on the side, to let others pass. It's only a meter wide on these stone steps by the cliff. I hugged that cliff many, many
Down the Stone StepsDown the Stone StepsDown the Stone Steps

Here I am standing in the middle of the footbridge. Took this shot to remember where I passed getting here. Phew!
times. At 3 to 6 degree Celsius, I even took off my coat which Norbu offered to carry. I worked up a real sweat! My friend Elizabeth gave me a tight hug when I finally reached the Halfway Station. The hug translated to "Congratulations, you made it!" and "You're still alive!".

Way past lunch time. And yes I made it without a drop of water or a slice of the chocolate bar. All energy escaped me by this time. I was too fatigued to even eat my lunch. I told my friend I would eat as there's still the hike back to base camp, and I need to replenish all depleted energy. I did, but I still went easy on the drinks. Pee stop behind the bush, remember? Prospect of sliding off a steep incline with pants down? No way.

Back to Base

I can't even remember my lunch. Who would after that torturous hike? It is like someone pressed "Cruise Control" or "Automatic" and I mechanically put spoon to mouth. I just knew I had to nourish myself. What a fine example of "eating to live". I vaguely remember the tastes of the
Where It All StartedWhere It All StartedWhere It All Started

Long past noon, it was almost deserted and awfully quiet in the base camp. The lone prayer wheel driven by gushing water from the stream welcomed us with its dong dong music. Locals plied their wares, saying "shopping, shopping". I found a rock to sit on here, and prayed my thanks for a wonderful and safe climb.
Bhutanese dishes I tried. The only stuff that "registered" was the tea, as it warmed me like I needed it most on that chilly day.

When my friend and I hiked back to base, we met my horse Tring. Poor horse. He had a heavier load this time and he didn't look happy. After a while, we saw him behind us galloping down. My friend and I remembered to stand aside to let the galloping horses pass. It didn't take long before I heard the familiar dong dong chime of the water-driven prayer wheel at the base. End of struggle!

Scroll all the way down for more photos. Tashi Delek!

Additional photos below
Photos: 22, Displayed: 22


Pilgrims I Met Along the WayPilgrims I Met Along the Way
Pilgrims I Met Along the Way

A very gentle race. When I viewed a photo in my cam, one of them stood behind me, too near for comfort. My instinct told me to watch my pocket. My, how did we come to be this way? The poor lady just wanted to see my photos! shame on me.
Getting Chummy with the HorseGetting Chummy with the Horse
Getting Chummy with the Horse

It would be a good hour on this horse. Makes sense to get chummy with Tring, who gave me a near-heart attack by choosing to walk on the edge of the cliff. Always.
Up On My Horse!Up On My Horse!
Up On My Horse!

Name is Tring. And he loves to walk by the edge of the cliff. I would always look up, and pray, leaving much faith in God and on Tring.
Ravine In Front Of MeRavine In Front Of Me
Ravine In Front Of Me

Tring stopped right here, in front of a deep ravine. I was too afraid to drive it away from the cliff's edge as Tring seems to follow a "path" including this "mandatory stop". Waaaaaah!
The Way UpThe Way Up
The Way Up

You either ride the horse or hike up. The path slopes up and around all the way to the Taktshang Cafeteria or Halfway Station, where they serve lunch and tea.
Going Up or Down?Going Up or Down?
Going Up or Down?

One hour going down. Two hours hiking back up. Sweat it up! (Photo grabbed from my video clip)
Paro Valley Down BelowParo Valley Down Below
Paro Valley Down Below

From the last Lookout Point, I glanced down on the base where we came from. The Halfway Stn cum Cafeteria is not visible from here (it's on the other side).
Down the Stone StepsDown the Stone Steps
Down the Stone Steps

Looks easy enough, if you are not scared of heights. But wait till you climb back up! (Photo grabbed from my video clip)
Last Lookout PointLast Lookout Point
Last Lookout Point

Prayer flags strewn all over, one hanging from this lookout point across the abyss, all the way to the temples. Such a lovely sight! No wonder Guru Rimpoche (2nd buddha) flew on the back of his consort flying tigress to meditate here.
So proud of ourselves!So proud of ourselves!
So proud of ourselves!

Yehey! another one off our bucket list! We survived Tiger's Nest.

26th December 2011

I'm an avid hiker myself and wooooow, this is an amazing trail! :) Congratulations ! :)
26th December 2011

My fear is of falling-- not so much the heights. I\'ve been in hot air balloons and up great heights and not bothered but my heart pounds when I feel the sway, or can see the steep drop. You are amazing. We are going to Bhutan next year and I will see if I can do it. I did make a steep climb at Machu Picchu. Great job! Love the photos and I\'m very happy you are safe.
27th December 2011

You can skip the horse....
Hi MJ . Thanks for ur comment. If you're afraid of falling, perhaps you should hike rather than take the horse. It's a bit unnerving with the horse on the "unsafe" edge of the dirt path. My friend walked 2 hours (slowly) to get to the Halfway Stn. There you can decide if you still have energy for another our or so to reach the Monastery. Bhutan is lovely, their people even lovelier. So gentle and caring.
28th December 2011

so envious...
i really am so inggit... super! how i wish i get to go here within 5 years time... baka mahal kase eh :(
29th December 2011

Adrenaline Rush
Sounds like a great adventure. Will you never stop!
5th January 2012

Spetacular blog. Loved the writing and the pictures. I am planning to go to Bhutan soon, to feel the last of the Himalayan Bhudist country on my list of places to visit. I'll write you a private message
18th August 2013

Tiger's Nest Hike
Hi Liliram! We are 3 moderately well conditioned people in our early 70's, going to the Himalayas this of us will definitely make the climb to the Monestery. The other two of us aren't sure how far to try to go. Could you describe the beginning part of the hike....we will do it on foot if at all. How long before we would reach the section where there are occasional glimpses of the mountain scenery? The Monastery? We are not likely to even make it to the Cafeteria, but don't want to miss out on all the ambience:)) How steep is the first part of the trail? When does the foot path become narrower and more unstable? When do the sharp drop-offs begin? Thank you for all ;your help, and what a wonderful blog you created!!! Best, Roz Shoemaker
19th August 2013

Halfway at the Cafeteria
My friend jut got back and she rode the horse all the way to the Cafeteria where there is a clear glimpse of the Monastery. Took an hour on horseback.... And it was a super slow uphill ride. I suggest you take the horse, eat a good lunch at the cafeteria and enjoy the view. No horseride on way back. From the cafeteria, you decide whether to go all the way (1 hour down/uphill climb; same 1 hr or more coming back). If you are walking from base to cafeteria, not much of a view walking around the mountain. And you need to always stand aside whenever the horses pass. Good luck!
19th August 2013

I think you can make it ---- take your sweet time -- to the halfway point/cafeteria. Some walked an hour, or 2 hours to the Cafeteria. If you don't like to ride the horse, walking an hour or so would get you to the area where you can view the monastery and the valley below. The footpath is wide enough for the horse and walkers to pass. At the narrowest, The horse takes the "edge" so walkers climb on the "safe" side. :-)

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