Sunday, October 9, 2011

Worthy of the Hype: The Climb to Tiger's Nest

When all the guidebooks and previous visitors to a place tell you that something is a must-see, you can usually count on two things: crowds and something pretty spectacular. Taktzhang, or Tiger's Nest, delivered a bit on the former and big on the latter.

Taktzhang is the site of a monastery, and for the Bhutanese, it is a place of great spiritual significance. It is built on a site visited in the 7th century by Guru Rinpoche, considered by the Bhutanese to be the second Buddha and responsible for the introduction of Buddhism to Bhutan. Of course, when he visited the site, he did so riding a flying tigress, which made for a much quicker ascent. We went the old fashioned way: we trudged.

The main structure of Taktzhang was built in 1692, at the location where Guru Rinpoche meditated in a cave for three months. But other choesum, or small temple-like structures, dot the landscape below and above the primary Lhakhang (temple). From below, the Lhakhang looks like this:

The Bhutanese people make pilgrimages to this site several times in their lifetimes. They believe that as you climb toward it you can walk off your sins and pursue blessings. There are horses available for hire to take you up part of the way, but only tourists would avail themselves of that assistance. Smart tourists. Other tourists, like us, declare it hikable and commence from a small parking area for what is, on average an hour and a half-to-two hour hike.

Betsy and I were joined by Dechen, her cousin Pema, and the ever-patient driver and guardian Dashi, whom I suspect was told by Col. Kado not to let the visiting Americans fall off a cliff. Off we went up the trail, joined by elderly Bhutanese, families with small children, some strapped to the backs of their mothers, tourists from the far corners of the world, and a herd of small horses that knew their well-worn path and had no interest in sharing it with any of us. In fact, along with the wind whistling through the pine trees, the sound I will always associate with Tiger's Nest is hearing "Sorry! Excuse me! Sorry!" in multiple languages as horses with minds of their own ignored any attempt by their riders to avoid those of us on foot.

About halfway up is a cafe where you can stop for refreshments and consider the wisdom of proceeding up the second half of this steep climb. We stopped for a bit and rested. Dashi shared a chat with an old man we'd been hiking behind since the start:

The area around the cafe is full of prayer flags placed by pilgrims seeking blessings. Prayer flags are hung and left forever, or at least until they disintegrate from age and weather. So in a place like Tiger's Nest, you can find collections of flags that range from a hundred years old to brand new:

At that point, having walked off all the sins in my life I could recall, I decided
to press on, figuring I could bank all the blessings to be earned on the second half, as well as walk off any sins I couldn't recall, which might be the most important of all to leave behind on the trail.

There are also spots along the way where you can see the progress you're making toward your destination:

Such perspective provides a little encouragement. Horses, by the way, seem to resent people stopping to take photos of the view and may decide to nudge you off the edge if you're not paying attention. In fact, at one point, Betsy tried to anticipate the path of a horse coming down the trail, riderless, and almost got knocked on her ear, saved only by the quick reaction of Dashi, who caught her. I'm sure he didn't want to have to explain to Col. Kado why the nice American woman had a hoof print on her bum.

Pema and Dechen were good company. Pema is a sophomore at Royal Thimphu College, and the two of them grew up very close, so act more like an amusing pair of sisters. However, they met some guy at the cafe and headed up with him at a quicker pace than either Betsy or I were able to sustain, so for the second half, it was us and Dashi, hovering behind us, occasionally answering his phone and generally smiling at our attempts to avoid being trampled by horses on their way down the trail after depositing their loads up further.

There's a point on the hike when you are literally at the same altitude as the Lhakkang, which gives you a moment of great joy, and a good photo opportunity:

And then you realize that you're about to hike DOWN into a deep chasm which will, of course, require you to hike UP again. At that point, it is faith that moves you forward, that and the promise of a Mojo bar somewhere near the end.

We began the descent into the chasm which is bisected by an enormous waterfall criss-crossed by prayer flags.

Just across the bridge that traverses the waterfall, we saw Pema and Dechen high above us in a choesum, waving us up. A detour! One that involves another steep climb! Oh, goody.

But up we went, and found the two of them in front of a colorful altar and a statue of Guru Rinpoche's consort.

Each altar in the various choesum, along with those in the Lhakkang, are attended by monks who will also dole out holy water blessings. The monk in this particular cave, however, was busy:

We descended from there on very wet, steep steps, and then began the final climb to Tiger's Nest. The view was incredible, as you might suspect.

Views are one of the many things they do well here in Bhutan.

Up until 2005, only Bhutanese could enter this holy place, but now tourists, with a permit, can register at the top and have access. However, at the entrance to the Lhakkang, you must leave your bag, your camera, even your hat. The Bhutanese must wear only their traditional dress of kira (for women) and gho (for men). Pema, who had hiked up in pants, pulled a half-kira (long skirt) out of her bag and put it on, and we continued up the stairs into what is something of a complex: several rooms, caves with altars, stairs going in every direction like an Escher drawing. While Pema, Dechen and Dashi performed their ritual prostrations and received their blessings from the monks, Betsy and I plopped down on a rock and people-watched, happy to have both a seat and so many people to look at, each in colorful dress, even toddlers.

We were also happy to have our Mojo bars, though a dog heard our crinkling wrappers and came over to see what offering we might make to her. "Friend," I said to her, "Trust me: nobody comes between Betsy and her honey-nut-pretzel snack." She stared intently at Betsy long enough that I began to wonder if Betsy should give up the bar to a being that might one day be reincarnated as a faculty member in her Division. But at that point, the dog wandered off, and we were rejoined by our hiking companions and started the long hike down...then up...then down for good, Dashi ever watchful over us.

It was a privilege to see a place of such significance to these people, and to see how generous they are in sharing it with outsiders. They take great pride in its beauty, as well they should. It was one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had. Even the sore muscles I have as I write this early the next morning feel comforting, a reminder, I guess, of a perfect hike in a holy place under a bright blue sky high among the tallest mountains in the world.

Today, we're off to Thimphu with the suitcase full of protein, leaving our beautiful room at the Haven Resort. Lazhimbe jon! Goodbye!


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