Thursday, September 30, 2010

Clinging to the edge. Taktsang Dzong.



U
ndoubtedly, today's hike to Taktsang Monastery was the highlight of my trip to Bhutan! Taktsang Dzong is commonly known as Tiger's Nest and it is only accessible by foot.


At dinner last night, I asked Tenzing what the hike would be like. He basically said an hour long uphill climb to the tea house which is about 1/2 the distance to the monastery. From the tea house, it would be another 1/2 hour or so up hill climb at which point we would be standing on a mountainside looking down at the famed monastery. We would then have to climb down about 700 steps, cross a small bridge and then go up another 700 steps to get to the base of the monastery. Then, a final 30 steps or so to get to the entrance of the monastery. Round trip would be between 4-5 hours. For me, I figured it would be more like 5-6 hours as Tenzing is used to hiking at higher elevations and I'm not.  Plus, he's done this hike countless of times.

Keep in mind that most of Bhutan is above 8000 feet in elevation and Tiger's Nest is perched on a cliff side ledge at 10, 200 feet.  We would be hiking up about 1600+ feet or so in elevation....sounds easy but with my weak lungs, I was concerned about whether not I could do the hike. Someone asked about horses and Tenzing said that you can ride a horse part way up to the tea house but that it was not advisable unless you were a really experienced rider because some of the stretches of terrain are extremely uneven so you need to know how to control a horse and stay firmly seated in the saddle.  I'd rather not go the route of having to ride on a horse so if I do the hike, I will just take it slowly.

Even though I had come prepared with my inhaler, I was a bit apprehensive about whether or not I could complete the entire hike. I decided that if I could make to the tea house I would be happy because from there, you have a spectacular view of the monastery.

We left the hotel at around 7am today.  Good that we got an early start as we were all preferred to hike during the cooler hours of early morning.

It was about a half hour ride from the hotel to the parking lot where we would begin our hike.  On our ride, Tenzing was straining to try and a glimpse of Tiger's Nest but it was obscured by clouds.  We all hoped the skies would clear so we would have scenic views.

We all piled out of the van, adrenaline already pumping.  I was definitely excited to get going.  Though I was still a bit apprehensive about completing the hike, I was determined to make it as far as my lungs would let me.  A few puffs of the inhaler and I set off.  As expected the rest of the gang scampered ahead.  Rhonda and I became hiking partners and we decided we would climb at our leisure.  We even sent Tenzing to walk at his own pace rather than at our snail's pace.

An enterprise local had set up a path side stand renting out walking sticks.  I decided to go for one so I handed over my 30 ngultrums....about 75 cents. 

As with a lot of these hikes, the first part is easy, peasy.....gentle uphill slope.  Rhonda and I had already started a conversation so it was really nice way to pass the time.

First stop a long the way.....a little building sitting alongside a small woodland stream.  A good excuse for a photo op and to catch my breath.

Then the hiking began.  A rugged dirt path.  Up.  Pant.  Gasp.  Pant. Gasp.  Two people on horses passed us.  Up, up, up we went.  More panting and gasping :-(

Lucky for me that Rhonda was very understanding about my need to take breaks along the way so I could get my breathing and heart rate back to normal. Although.....come to think of it, she was the one who kept suggesting we take the shorter path which always meant the steeper route!   Hmmm....so, maybe I can blame the breaks on her?  No, all my fault :-(


 By now, the sun had broken through the clouds and we knew we would have a good view of Tiger's Nest.

That gave us more motivation to continue onwards.

Conversation helped to distract us though with all the breaks, it felt like we had been hiking for an eternity before we caught sight of our goal. 
 
As we started to hike up one stretch of hill, we could see Tiger's Nest in the far distance.  That sight was, in itself, motivation to push on.  We were certain we were near the tea house.

As we had expected, we were the last ones to arrive at the tea house. Most of the others had already had their morning break.  If I didn't know better, Tenzing looked very relieved to see that we had finally made it. 

The tea house is situated on an adjacent mountain to the one that Tiger's Nest is perched on.  From tea house, we had a spectacular, unobstructed view of the monastery though it looked so far away.  I had to really zoom in with my camera lens to get a good look at it.  What an amazing view!















While Rhonda and I enjoyed a cup of tea and some biscuits, the rest of the gang headed off.  By this time, I knew that I could make it the rest of the way even though the rest of the hike would be, at times, more difficult than what I had just completed.  I just needed to continue at the pace that was comfortable for me.

As we sipped our tea, we noticed its smoky flavor.  As the young man who served us explained, there is no electricity up here so everything is cooked over burning wood.  He asked if wanted to see the kitchen and of course I did so I followed him back.  There, another man was preparing lunch for a large tour group. 

Soon, it was time for Rhonda and I to continue to our way. 

Back up on the hills.  More up.  More pant.  More gasp.  More conversation as diversion.   We also inspiration from the other hikers we crossed paths with.  "You're almost there" was just the motivation I needed to keep me marching on.  All was good especially the views of Tigers Nest which we would periodically catch glimpses of.


Somewhere along our walk, we met with a threesome of local Bhutanese - a man and two women.  For some reason, they decided to keep us company.  I had thought we had parted ways when we arrived at the tea house but lo and behold, we met up with them again.  Rhonda decided to take a picture of them and as always, they were curious to see the digital image on the camera.

On our walk we came across a small building that marks the cave that is the birthplace of Je Khenpo Geyshe Guden Rinchen, a revered Bhuddist master.

Rhonda climbed up the ladder to peek inside.  Nothing to see but a cave.
  






Short break over.  Back to our uphill walk.  A short distance later, we arrived at the steps.  
At this point, we were actually at an elevation above Tiger's Nest so we were looking down on the monastery. 



700 steps to go down and just took them one at a time.  The steps were set switchback style so we zig-zagged our way downhill. The steps were pretty steep and at times uneven so we had to step down with care.  Fortunately, there was a hand railing on the cliff edge.  It was nice to have something to hold on to for balance so worries about accidentally tumbling over the edge.....it's a l-o-n-g way down!

Down, down, we went....walking back and forth against the side of the mountain.   We began to descend to an elevation that is lower than that of the monastery so we soon found ourselves looking up at it.  That can only mean one thing.  Eventually, we would have to climb uphill again.  Ugh.


The steps ended at a small foot bridge that traverses a 200 ft tall waterfall.  On the other side of the bridge were another set of steps but these went uphill.  They would end at the base of the monastery.  By this point, we were so close to getting to the monastery, we didn't even take time to look at the waterfall.  We just marched on.

Before we knew it, we had arrived at the base of the monastery.  Tenzing was there to greet us!!  I was so happy to see him and very excited and relieved to have made it.  You have no idea the sense of accomplishment I felt.  All along the 2 1/2 hour hike to get here, I had to take periodic puffs from the inhaler so I could breathe easier.  I'm convinced it was a combination of adrenaline and Albuterol that kept me going!

You're not allowed to take anything with you inside the monastery so we had to leave everything behind at the guards booth. 

Opposite the guards booth was a small altar.

We followed Tenzing up another flight of about 30 or so steps to get to the entrance of the monastery.  After having climbed up and down at least 1000 steps, what's another 30?  Piece of cake :-)

When I reached the top of the steps, I saw Libby and Paul.  Libby knew about concerns about whether or not I could make it all the way and when I saw her face, all could see was her big smile.  She knew I had made it and I knew she was happy for me! I screamed out in delight at seeing her and we gave each other a big bear hug. 

We wished Libby and Paul a safe walk back and followed Tenzing to see the monastery.  He took us inside two rooms....the only ones that are open to the public.  Both rooms are dedicated to Guru Rinpoche who of course is credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan.

With only two small rooms to see, our visit to Tiger's Nest itself was really brief.  I would say that we were back at the guards booth in less than a half hour.   All this way up for a half hour visit.  Was it worth it?  Most definitely yes!

With our possessions back in hand, Rhonda and I began the journey back.  We sent Tenzing along on his own way as we wanted to keep to our own pace.

Back down the flight of stairs to the foot bridge. Along the way, we took in the sights we had ignored on our way up to Tiger's Nest.

There was another cave of significance though I don't remember what. I just remember marvelling at how the building that marked it was tucked into the side of the mountain.

Every so often we would spot a stone ledge that had been transformed into an altar of sorts with offerings scattered about.....little stupas.



Pilgrims to the monastery had constructed stone cairns, presumably in honor of deceased relatives, on the tiered stone wall that marked the bottom of the steps.

This time, when we reached the footbridge, we actually took time to take in the waterfall and its surroundings.  The sound of the cascading water was so calming.  I had made it through the difficult part of the hike....which was getting to Tiger's Nest.  I found myself now relaxing a bit that is....until I crossed the foot bridge and started my way up the 700 or so steps.  I have to admit it was tough going back up the steps because they were so steep.  But, we went slowly so we could enjoy the view and catch our breath.


Before we knew it, we were back at the tea house.  We took a few minutes to rest and to have one last look at the monastery before continuing.

Back down the hill we went.  This time, it was Rhonda who struggled.  She has a bad right knee and was not long before pain set in.  Now it was my turn to encourage her on.  I made sure she took baby steps, leading with her left foot to take weight off her right knee and we took the longer paths down as they were less steep.  Lots of good conversation and plenty of distractions along the way and before we knew it, we were back on flat ground.

Hallelujah!  We did it!  Five and a half hours after we started out on our walk, we made it back!

Sitting on a rock, waiting patiently for us to return was Tenzing.  We were as glad to see him as he was to see us!!

A short break and then we followed Tenzing to a nearby clearing in the woods.  There, we saw a few of our tour mates, including Libby and Paul who again greeted us with big smiles.  The others were inside the van, taking naps :-)

Turned out, this was a spot for our picnic lunch.  There was a buffet table and chairs had been set up for us to sit on.  A picnic in the woods was a perfect ending to our hike!

Everyone else had long finished eating so Rhonda and I helped ourselves to food.  Again, maybe it was the combination of adrenaline and Albuterol running through my system but I was not at all hungry though I think I was very chatty :-)  Our poor tour mates had to endure me rambling on about our hike as if they didn't already go through the same thing themselves.  So kind of them to put up with me :-)

After we all ate, we had a few minutes to relax and then it was back into the van.  We had another place to go to before calling it day and what a great day it had already been! 

Hiking up to Tiger's Nest was truly the highlight of my trip to Bhutan and I'm so glad that it came at the end of my trip because anything else would have just paled in comparison to today's experience.  I most certainly won't forget this day and all that I did anytime soon!!