I’ll be honest, trekking isn’t a past time I’d choose (what are you laughing at?)
In fact, apart from a trip to Wales in my teens I’m pretty sure trekking has never featured in my life before now. Unless walking the dog around the local woods counts?
When I decided to go to Bhutan it was always part of the plan to see the Tigers Nest – but honestly, this was purely because it was suggested to me as a must see. A Buddhist monastery that clings to a granite cliff more than 3,000 above sea level and apparently every Bhutanese person should take a pilgrimage there at least once, as should every visitor if they can. So in for a penny and all that!
Really I went with little expectations and even less knowledge. It’s said that ignorance is bliss – this saying could not have been more true in this instance. I naively asked my guide Thinley how difficult the trek was. He laughed and said it depends on each person, but not to worry. Another guide I talked to told me the worst part were the steps at the end – around 800 of them. What he failed to mention was that you had to do them twice – obviously! There and back!
The morning of the trek we drove through Paro and I was struck by how pretty a town it is compared to Thimpu. Not as heavily built up, more land around and without the bustle.
As we turn a bend Thinley points to a dot in the distance that is apparently where we are heading. I squint. Mmm…put it this way. I couldn’t even make out the temple.
Having parked up and acquired a walking stick we begin the trek. I don’t know what I was expecting but it was not at all what I got. An open expanse of land that could be someone’s garden (if your garden looks like barren land at the bottom of the foothills of the Himalayas that is) is where you head through to start the trek upwards. Oh, and when I say upwards, I mean upwards. No, you’re not rock climbing – but it’s not a gentle stroll let’s be clear on that.
We pass a water wheel housed inside a white building that looked like the woodchoppers cottage from childhood fairy tales. Complete with icy cold stream and wooden bridge. Honestly, I think Grimm himself couldn’t have created a more fairytale like picture.
Thinley had offered me the option of taking a pony up (they only take you half way) and I scoffed at the suggestion. After all, I was fit woman in her prime – ha! as if I’d need to be carried up a little incline. We often had to stop to let lines of ponies coming down pass by. Interestingly some of them seemed to choose their own path and didn’t mind climbing the most awkward way down so I was feeling pretty good about my choice to use my own two feet.
Just ten minutes later I was regretting the pony decision. You see, it’s not that it’s a difficult climb per se. It’s just a really bloody difficult walk. Obviously you have to factor in the altitude – which was what got to me I think. (No, it was not that I’m very unfit) I literally had to stop every ten minutes to take a breather. The first half dozen times I was a little embarrassed at my tardiness and laughed it off, the next few times I apologised to Thinley for my stop-starting. After that I didn’t care – I had to breathe for Gods sake!
Each time the every gracious Thinley simply stopped with me and we took in the view – and a few dozen photos. So not really a bad thing to stop at all. As the path snakes up through the pine forest the views over Paro are amazing.
The path is a little treacherous in places. No hair raising drops, which is what I had been having nightmares about the night before. You just had to watch your footing, it’s dry and gravelly after all. But nothing the many sprightly elderly trekkers that we passed couldn’t deal with. There was a sense of camaraderie whilst walking amongst other trekkers too. A simple nod of the head (often talking was out of the question due to lack of breath) that said “I feel your pain, but keep going” or a quick “hi, how you doing?” as people passed you on their way down. A couple of “keep it up, it’s worth it” were thrown around too.
I played tag with a Japanese couple who seemed to be going at a similar pace. I’d pass them, stop, they’d pass me, they’d stop… The guy was playing buddhist prayers through his phone and this rhythmic chanting was fantastically uplifting and completely in keeping with the walk. I pushed to keep up with him at times just to listen to the comfort of the prayers. Funnily enough I saw them both at the airport a few days later and we greeted each other like long lost friends – even though we only ever exchanged facial expressions on that day.
On the way up there are rest stops where you can sit and admire the view. Prayer flags are strung in many places giving a real sense of calmness to everywhere. I also spot small pots here and there hidden in the rocks. Thinley explains they are ‘Tsatsas’ which are stupa-shaped clay statues that sometimes have the ashes of loved ones embedded in them, these are meant to liberate their souls.
After an hour we stop at an opening which all but shouts ‘here, take a look at how beautiful I am’ and is home to stunning giant prayer wheel that looks out over the valley and framed with prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.
Halfway and time for tea
Half way up and there’s a welcome place to stop and rest – and have a cuppa (as you do up a Bhutanese mountain). For me this rest stop was also somewhere to contemplate the fact that the worst was yet to come. The dreaded steps!
Oh, and have a comfort break, where I took the obligatory toilet selfie (not going to beat that one in a hurry!)
After fifteen minutes or so I could put it off no longer. So, with Thinley grinning like someone who knew something I didn’t, we headed to the white flag where the steps began (and dozens of sweating, bedraggled people gather either before or after climbing the steps).
Seeing the wooden steps snake down, around, down, around and then back up the other side of the mountain is daunting to say the least. Apparently it’s only in the last ten years that the hand rail has been put in place so I was dutifully grateful for small mercies. In fact, Thinley mentioned that the steps were an add on too – previously the only way to the monastery was picking your way on a precarious path. Again I was grateful.
As it turned out the steps were, for me, the easier part. It was simply stepping up and down right? I still stopped every ten minutes and my strange brain decided counting the steps as I went was a good idea. Distraction or motivation? I’m still not sure. I counted 390 up and 430 down. I’m pretty sure I got confused a couple of times but the numbers are not far out.
The waterfall at the bottom is a welcome distraction too and you can’t help but wonder at it’s power. Although no Niagara falls, the fact you know it’s path runs a very long way – and that you can spot it’s baby streams as you walk up the mountain is breathtaking. I also think back to the fairy tale waterwheel at the bottom of the trek.
Of course, once the Tigers Nest is within touching distance it’s all about the finish line. Luckily we made it just in time as the monastery closes for lunch at 1pm. Yes, it took me almost three hours to get there (we left just before 9:30am).
We went inside the monastery (and climbed even more steps!) and Thinley told me how this was the birthplace of Bhutanese Buddhism as Guru Rinpoche flew here from Tibet on the back of a Tigress and came to meditate here for 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days. He showed me the underground cave and I lit a butter lamp to honour lost loved ones in the intensely hot, glowing Butter Lamp room. We also visited the altar room where many come and offer their prayers. Others – like me – simply stand and take in the amazing display of offerings and the famous bronze Padmasambhava (or Guru Rimboche). This statue was the only thing to survive a fire in 1998 that destroyed everything else in the monastery! I also sat and spent a few minutes meditating as best I could, just to connect with the spirituality of the place.
You are not allowed to take bags or cameras in to the monastery which means it’s somewhere that naturally seems to imprint on your mind. As it was about to close we didn’t take in the breathtaking views as much as we could have. Instead, we started our descent back ready for the ascent up the 800 steps. On the way this time we stopped at a fantastic look out and I dutifully posed for what can only be described as travel photographer porn. Beautiful! The view, not me!
The walk back was, without doubt a LOT easier than the walk there. I got chatting to lovely gentleman on the way down and we said our goodbyes only to meet up ten minutes later at the cafe where lunch was laid on. A very tasty – and very welcome – vegetarian curry buffet. Just what the doctor ordered!
Coming down is tough on your knees though so the walking stick comes in handy. But it’s much easier on the lungs and not as hard work as it all downhill. Again, be careful of your footing. On our way down we hung the prayer flags I had been given at Changangkha Temple. The ever helpful Thinley thought nothing of pulling of his shoes and shinning up a tree to find the perfect spot to hang them. I truly felt like luck would be on my side leaving my prayers in such a spiritual place.
As the fairy tale water wheel came in to view my sense of achievement grew. I’d done it. Five hours of sweat, groans, puffing and huge wows and we’d made it. I spent the journey back to the hotel grinning from ear to ear. Literally.
I’d climbed a mountain!
Is this not the perfect place to sit and think about what you’ve just achieved – and take a photograph that will instantly become your profile pic..
Trekking up to the Tigers Nest really is a photographers dream. Here are some more of the shots I took.
Please do click through to the links to read about the rest of my time in Bhutan.
Here for how it all began
Here for sightseeing in Thimpu
Here for my volunteering experiences
I’d love to hear your comments and feedback…