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Published: December 26th 2011
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 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"
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!
My guide Norbu told me that the monks observe a lunch hour. That
Target 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 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.
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 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
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.
With 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
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?
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
Off the horse, down the stone steps........and now the footbridge, just before the last flight of killer stairs.
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 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 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!
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