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Sunday, 30 June 2019

Climbing to Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan

Written by Dale Fehringer
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Today is the day we have looked forward to; the reason we flew half-way around the world. Today we are to climb up to see Bhutan’s famous monastery, Tiger's Nest.

It’s a long way from the U.S. to Bhutan. If you take a globe and put a finger of one hand on the U.S. and a finger of the other hand on Bhutan, you will find your two fingers at nearly opposite points. And it’s not all that easy to get there. There are no direct flights from the U.S. to Bhutan, so you fly through Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Singapore, or Thailand. We flew from San Francisco to Delhi, India where we spent a night. The next day we boarded a DrukAir (Bhutanese Airline) plane for the three-hour flight (over the Himalayas and through Kathmandu) to Paro, the only airport in Bhutan. The view of the snow-capped Himalaya Mountains (including Mt. Everest) and the refreshingly-clean air of Bhutan made the effort worth it, as did the reception we received from locals and our tour guide at the airport. The people of Bhutan are welcoming.

Bhutan is a small, mountainous, lightly-populated country in Asia west of Nepal, sandwiched between China and India. It's about the size of Switzerland, with a population slightly more than Wyoming. They have a king, and an elected council of ministers and a prime minister. They refer to their government as a constitutional monarchy.

It is a Buddhist country, and the vast majority of people practice that faith, but all religions are accepted and visitors of other faiths are made comfortable. By law, everyone in Bhutan is equal in all respects. The country’s largest export is hydroelectric power (most of which they sell to India), and they encourage tourism, which they tightly control, and with a few exceptions tourists must be accompanied by a guide. Bhutan charges tourists a fee, which helps pay for their universal health care and education programs.

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The people of Bhutan we saw are happy, hardworking, and industrious. Men and women wear robes (women ankle length, men knee length). Everyone speaks English (they are required to learn it in school), and it's interesting to approach waiters in restaurants, hotel desk staff, and people on the streets and engage in conversation with them in English.

At the edges of the cities we saw small, makeshift homes, but everywhere else the homes appeared to be well-designed and well cared for. It is a relatively advanced country, and most people have cell phones, televisions, and access to the internet. We saw no indication of homelessness, unemployment, or addiction.

There is a lot of history in Bhutan, and a lot of tradition, and our guide (Nom Gay) eagerly showed it to us. We saw three dzongs (former forts, now monasteries), two temples, several chortens (memorial religious statues), an impressive art school, a sanctuary for takin (strange-looking mountain buffalo), a huge farmers' market, a gigantic gold statue of Buddha, rice farmers plowing with oxen, and the spectacular Himalayan mountains.

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Our hotels were clean and up-to-date, with cable television and wifi. Our stay in a former palace offered brightly-colored painted wooden furniture and fantastic views of a nearby temple lit up at night.

The food is hearty and tasty, but not fancy. Typical meals include vegetables, rice, potatoes, chicken or pork, (often with red chili sauce to spice it up) and we've been able to get wine, beer, and espresso coffee drinks at restaurants and hotels.

Nearly everywhere we've been, including hotel lobbies, restaurants, stores, and temples we saw framed photos of the king, often with the queen. We asked Nom Gay if it was a law. No, he assured us, the people do it because they love the king, and he said the king lives a simple life in a simple house, walks to his office, and mixes with his people. And he proudly told us about meeting and talking with the king during his time as a guide.

We have had a full schedule each day with hikes to temples, bicycle rides, and tours of points of interest. The spring weather has been sunny but cool, and some hikes have been on trails packed with snow. We’ve experienced breathtaking views of snowcapped mountains, hiked past herds of yaks, toured former palaces, monasteries and nunneries, and had lunches and dinners at an assortment of small restaurants with friendly wait staff. We’ve seen prayer flags waving in the wind outside most special places, and prayer wheels are common at temples. We became adept at turning prayer wheels and found it to be comforting.

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Although many younger Bhutanese play soccer or tennis, archery is the most popular sport, and we were lucky to see a match. Teams of archers wearing traditional robes stand more than the length of a football field apart from each other and take turns trying to hit a target the size of a dart board.

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From our hotel in Paro, it’s a short drive to the parking lot where the hike to Tiger’s Nest begins. Even at 8:00 AM there is a lot of action: vendors setting up souvenir stands, women leading horses (which provide an alternative as far as the café for those who can’t hike), guides getting their groups organized, and locals carrying supplies. We walk through it and start our ascent.

The way up is on a dirt trail, shared by hikers and horses. The weather is chilly, but eventually the sun breaks through the clouds and it warms. We start at around 8,000 feet, and climb up another 1,000 feet, stopping often to catch our breath. There are other hikers on the trail with us from all over the world, and we are all excited. After about two hours we arrive at a small cafe, where we sip tea, and stare up the hillside to Tiger’s Nest.

Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest), is Bhutan’s most famous landmark. It is also the country’s most religious site. It dates from 1692 when legend has it that Guru Rinpoche (the second Buddha of Bhutan) flew on the back of a tigress and meditated in a cave in the side of a mountain. After three years, the Guru began the process of converting the people of Bhutan to Buddhism. On that spot a temple was built, and despite some fire damage over the centuries, it stands today, perched on the side of the mountain. The cave and the temple are now considered sacred sites, and most people from Bhutan and religious figures from around the world come to meditate there.

As we resumed hiking the air grew even thinner, and we frequently stopped and gasped for air. Tiger's Nest grew larger and clearer as we got closer, and we could better see the scope of the temple clinging to the side of the mountain. As we drew near, the trail began to descend, heading down a ravine, then turned into a final uphill segment to the entrance. That last uphill portion was a challenge, but as the goal drew near we pushed on.


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Security at Tiger’s Nest is tight, and we had to leave our cameras, cellphones, bags, and shoes in lockers outside. The complex consists of three temples, each filled with religious icons. We climbed up and down several levels within, admiring the colorful details and gasping at the amazing views back down the mountain. We walked to a spot deep inside the temple to see the cave where the Guru meditated. It was cold, and there was a sense of spirituality and peace.

Nom Gay told us about the people who built the temple (carrying the supplies up the mountain), and the deities and saints represented inside, and we watched as other visitors prostrated themselves and prayed in this holiest of shrines.

There is something special about spending effort to get to a sacred place. We had studied about it, and anticipated it, and as the arrival date got closer, we worried it might not live up to its hype. But the minute we entered the temple we were awed. There is an aura about Tiger’s Nest; a sense that it is not completely of this earth. We’re not Buddhists, but we felt comfortable – cleansed, and purified. And we felt certain that it will always be there; always a place to leave one’s troubles behind and connect with a higher power.

After our tour we headed back down the trail, proud of making it to the temple, fascinated by what we had seen, and purified. The trip down was much easier than the one up, and we stopped in the cafe for lunch and discussed what we had seen. We now knew why Tiger’s Nest is such a popular tourist site. It’s one of the most difficult to get to and one of the holiest places we’ve seen. As we headed back to our tour van we knew we had been changed. It was an amazing experience we will not forget.


© Dale Fehringer

Last modified on Monday, 01 July 2019