My trek to The Tigers Nest

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!

Tigers Nest

The Tigers Nest perched on the edge of a very craggy rock

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.

Tigers Nest in distance

It’s up there you say?

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.

Water Wheel

The faiytale ‘cottage’

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.

Ponie rides half way

Ponies can help you half way

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.

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Just a few minutes to catch my breath

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.

Tsatsas

Tsatsas nestle amongst the rocks

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.

Tea & Biscuits

Tea and biscuits – a welcome break half way!

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).

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Just some of 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.

Viewpoint on trek

The viewpoint before the steps

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!

lunch on trek

Lunch time – a delicious buffet is laid on

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!

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The end is in sight

 

 

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Looking out at the view

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..

PHOTOGRAPHS

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…

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My Bhutan adventure

It was some time ago that Bhutan caught my attention. As a country that puts Gross Domestic Happiness ahead of Gross Domestic Product I watched a programme about the country and was fascinated. The fact that it sits landlocked between India and China in the foothills of the Himalayas was something that was so intriguing – and the more I read about this tiny country and its independent people, the more I wanted to go. However, it was clear from the protestations of “I don’t want to look at temples” from the kids and “mmmh, not sure I’m that interested in treks” from the husband that this was somewhere I’d have to explore on my own.

So I did. In a way that I had never explored a country before. Part tourist, part volunteer, part working, here’s the journey I took…

Getting there

With an early start, and despite being one of the first at the airport, I wasn’t able to get a window seat – which I’d been told to try to do so that I could get the full experience of flying in over the Himalayas. I needn’t have worried though – the excitement on the plane is palpable. The flight was fine, a little cramped as you’d expect from a small airbus but the service was good.  After a quick stop in Kolcatta where half the plane got off and new passengers got on we take off again for the 40 minute journey to Bhutan.

Soon enough the range comes in to view, the snowy cap of Mount Everest can be seen if you are lucky enough to be sat on the left, the rest of us have to crane our necks and hope for a glimpse. Before you know it you are gasping at the wonder around you – left and right on our journey. At one point it felt like we got so close to the side of the mountain that we could have reached out and touched it.

The slight swerve and sharp pull on the brakes as we land reminds us how tricky a landing this is and once we’re done there is a ripple of applause. Apparently there are only a handful of pilots trained to do this landing and I can see why. Skill is an understatement.

View from plane window

The view from the airplane window as it circles round between the mountains

Bhutan airport is a straightforward, old-fashioned type affair where you walk down the steps of the plane on to the tarmac and trundle off to go through customs. I love that kind of arrival – you feel like you’ve arrived in a new country, rather than just a waiting room. Having said that, as I’d find out all over Bhutan, the building itself is like a museum itself. Beautiful carvings, paintings and architecture.

Painting on building - Paro airport

The airport is slightly jazzier than Heathrow

Customs was quick and painless as was collecting the luggage and I was met straight away by Dorji, one of the ever smiling guides who welcomed me with a white silk scarf and warm greeting.

Gangtey Palace

A short drive took us to Gangtey Palace, a boutique hotel just up the mountain from the airport. Once a summer palace to the aristocracy and residence of the Governor, it was gifted to an ancestor of Tobgye Dorji’s family for services to the monarchy.  The family is justifiably proud of their gift. The gardens – looked after solely by the mother of the family – was reminiscent of an english country garden in its planning. Fuchsias, carnations and sweet peas were near to the end of their season but I’m sure were blooming resplendent throughout the summer months.  The whole landscaping was breathtaking. However the similarity to an English garden stopped there as the whole hotel is beautifully traditional.

Gangtey Palace

The entrance to Gangtey Palace. Beautiful inside and out.

Stone pathways lead to a huge lawn – a former apple orchard I believe – that would simply say ‘ta da’ if it could to the view. And what a view. Paro and it’s surrounding mountains glistened in the beautiful sunlight. The sky was picture perfect blue and the air was clear and fresh – and not at all cold! I felt I may have over packed slightly as had brought thermals and LOTS of layers. However I was assured that come that evening I’d be glad of them.

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The stunning view we had whilst we drank tea

Tea was served at tables on the edge of the lawn giving us all the opportunity to take in the view some more. Again a seemingly English affair with cups and saucers, milk and sugar (in Singapore you have to beg for milk) Although on tasting it was possibly condensed – but that didn’t spoil the moment.

Soon Tobgye, the owner of the hotel and his business partner and daughter Chukie came to meet us. It’s clear here is a man who has stories to tell – and he loves to tell them with aplomb. Not in a pompous or arrogant way, but in the way only someone who truly feels comfortable in his own skin can. Stories of past misdemeanours in the family, of the feisty Bhutanese battles with surrounding countries and most passionately of all, his Buddhist faith. Quoting various buddhist teachings he explained how he truly believes in karma and that we should all look towards altruism. He then invited us up to the altar room where he told us more of his fascinating families history and showed us family portraits and treasured Thangka’s (A buddhist painting on cotton or silk).

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Tobgye Dorji – we were all fascinated by his stories.

Tobgye then led us all in a meditation which, considering was our first time together, proved to be easy to slip in to and thoroughly relaxing. Trying to stay awake was a challenge for all I think – and this is the challenge of meditation. Finding that space between relaxation and peace whilst awake. I would have loved to have taken time to do this every day of the trip, but it wasn’t to be.

The Gangtey Palace chefs provided a delicious lunch of rice, chicken, fish and vegetables and the local cheese which is very similar to Indian paneer. Highlights were definitely the delicious vegetable balls and some little dumplings filled with what tasted like spinach and ricotta. The traditional ‘Ema Datshi’ chilli kick was served as an accompaniment – which, Tobgye explained was his idea. He realised that the Bhutanese taste buds were slightly different to tourists – and he always ensured his guests were happy. This also meant limiting the amount of salt that would traditionally be added.

Eazy

Eazy – a local side dish added to everything

Most of the group commented on the fact they had expected the food to be more ‘foreign’ and maybe difficult to enjoy at first – and considering we were a group including Chinese, Taiwanese, Australian, Singaporean, Brits, Czech’s and Americans – this wasn’t as ignorant as it sounds. Our guide Dorji said that things may differ at dinner (whilst laughing at our naivety).

As someone who doesn’t eat cheese and has a child’s palate for chilli, I had been a bit worried I’d be living off rice for the week. But, I was very wrong.

After lunch we headed to Thimpu and our hotel for the next few days. On the way we stopped at Tachog Lhakhang bridge. Apparently it was built over 600 years ago by a local engineer called Thangtong Gyalpo. He is said to have built around 58 iron chain suspension bridges around Bhutan and Tibet – many of which are still being used today.

Bridge in Paro

Tachog Lhakhan bridge

Unfortunately the bridge was shut for repair, but we got a chance to cross the wobbly enough wooden bridge next to it. With its fluttering prayer flags and unusual chain mail construction, there was something haunting about the bridge. This ten minute walk also gave us a chance to see how we were coping with the altitude. And yes, most of us walked back up (the not very steep) incline puffing more than we would usually.

Thimpu

The twisty turny mountain road was not as hair-raising as I had expected, although bit queasy at times. Driving in to Thimpu I realised  it’s much busier and more developed than I expected it to be. A mix of traditional style buildings and derelict looking places, as well as shops overflowing with local crafts, knick-knacks and souvenirs for the growing number of tourists now visiting. There are roads and pavements, but you need to watch your footing and take care as there are steep steps in many places, as well as the odd gap or two.

Thimpu was playing host to a car exhibition when we arrived which seemed to include a turn by local dancers, singers and a host who chattered away on the microphone. I didn’t actually see any new cars but just the logos. There was a pretty big crowd though and the heavy disco music went on for a couple of hours.

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Street dancers doing their stuff

Walking around town I was struck by the number of people there were. Many in groups just hanging out it seemed. I walked down one side street which will now always be known to me as “meat street” where people were queuing for fresh chicken and other meat I couldn’t identify in the shops there. It didn’t smell very pleasant as you can imagine and as I walked through spotted a lady doing something with some dried fish which involved pulling off a part and chucking it behind her. I walked past without stopping.

Local farmers – or their family – were sat on the side of the pavement with their produce spread out in front them. Many people were walking along carrying bag loads of vegetables. And I don’t mean a bag load of vegetables. I mean one bag full of one vegetable – mostly chillies. I watched one lady crouching down filling a whole bag full of green, red and orange chillies. I seriously cannot imagine how long it would take my family to get through that many chillies. I’m starting to see what Dorji could be referring to.

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Thimpu high street – where you could buy everything from ointment to shoes.

Some parts of Thimpu were not so pleasant to walk through if I’m honest, the drains full of rubbish, pavements with holes to break an ankle if you’re not careful and tired looking shop fronts that are maybe struggling to find a niche for themselves now. But, the overall feel of the town was quite festival like with lots of laughter and chat amongst people as they moved around. Stalls selling Cokes attracted a crowd and yet I didn’t spot any restaurants that seemed to be busy. Maybe that comes later in the evening?

The hotel itself – Thimpu Towers – was pleasant enough and offered a great view of the town square and the clock tower. The rooms are large and well equipped. I was slightly concerned by the supply of ear plugs though!

A developing city

Dusty, busy, lots of cars, lots of people, quite a few tourists. All things I didn’t think I’d use to describe Thimpu. But it is a busy city/town (by Bhutanese standards you understand). Rows of shops selling everything from balls and clothing to incense sticks and buddha statues. The streets are laid out in a way I couldn’t fathom, many steps up and down pavements, some missing steps where they were needed so jumping was the only option. The smell of petrol bothered me slightly and the number of stray dogs was also surprising. It soon becomes clear this is an issue in Thimpu as they sleep all day in the sun and bark all night. Apparently the government are introducing spading to reduce their number.

The Bhutanese people are also a mixed bunch. Men seem to have an air of authority about them wearing their traditional Goh, as many do. It’s funny to see them reach in to their Goh and pull out things randomly – it’s where they keep phones, keys, notebooks, sweets. cigarettes – you name it, it’s tucked away neatly. In fact, it often explains the portly shape of some of the men.

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Dorji, our  lead guide, in his traditional Goh

Lots of young people can be seen hanging around and children roam freely in the way children did back in the ‘good old days’. Sometimes their closeness to traffic made me gasp, but it’s clear these kids are street smart from an early age.

The women in their Kira amazed me with their elegance in heels, especially on the broken pavements and steep kerbs. Many are made up beautifully and I’m ashamed of myself for being surprised at this. Why wouldn’t women in Bhutan use make up and do their hair after all?

A wander along the craft stalls shows the various traditional crafts Bhutan is rightly protecting. Silk wall hangings, hand-made paper, simple knitted scarves, beautifully decorated scarves and throws, prayer flags, woven bags, even a traditional archery stall. Many of them selling the same as the next person, but each one important to the survival of many of these handicrafts (see Choki school below). Apparently the stalls are subsidised heavily in order to offer the workers a way to continue their tradition.

Sightseeing in Thimpu

Despite the fact Thimpu is relatively small, there are a number of sightseeing options. If you’d like to read about the places I visited, please click here. I also took on the ‘Tigers Nest Trek’ which you can find here. All of my cultural learning whilst there was part of a learning journey with Insightful Learning Journeys. which Founder Khatiza Van Savage facilitates. In this particular journey, I was included in a self funded volunteering and cultural immersion learning for Google Employees.

I travelled independently of the group but we met for breakfast and dinner most days. I also took part in my own mindful volunteering that you can read about here. As I was part of a larger group I was lucky to have a pick of wonderful guides – Dorji and his team of Bhakta, Thinley and Sonam are seasoned guides and drivers who have supported Khatiza Van Savage in her learning journeys for many years.  They are proud and gracious Bhutanese nationals, well versed in their culture and eager to ensure that your journey is memorable on many levels.

Bhutan Guides

The fantastic guides and drivers

LANDING AT PARO AIRPORT

For those, who, like my husband are airplane geeks here are some shots of the runway and airport. And, just for your enjoyment a video I took from Paro view-point of a plane coming in – amazing!

 

 

Please do click through to the links to read about the rest of my time in Bhutan.

Here for sightseeing in Thimpu

Here for my volunteering experiences

Here for the Tigers Nest Trek

I’d love to hear your comments and feedback…