India and Bhutan: 10/13/2017 - 10/25/2017

Sunday, 10/22/2017 - Paro: Hiking to Paro Taktsang (Tiger's Nest)

Today was a very important day for us; we would hike to Taktsang Goebma (Tiger's Nest monastery). This is an incredibly sacred site, possibly the holiest place in all of Bhutan. Many Buddhists make pilgrimages there.

According to legend, Guru Rinpoche flew to the site as the fiery Dorje Drolo, one of his eight manifestations, on the back of a tigress, a form assumed by his consort Yeshe Tsogyal to subdue the local demon, Singye Samdrup. After that, he meditated in a cave for three months. It is said that when the monastery was first built, it was anchored to the cliff by the hairs of khandroma (female celestial beings).
The monastery clings to the mountainside 2000 feet above the valley floor. The hike to access it is 10 km round trip. It begins at an elevation of 8000 feet above sea level, and reaches its zenith at 10000 feet, a couple hundred feet higher than the monastery (which is at 9678 feet).

The lhakhang suffered several fires over its history, and was tragically destroyed in 1998. Though they had no architectural plans or drawings, photographs of the monastery were successfully used to reverse engineer the design. The Tiger's Nest was rebuilt starting in the year 2000, consecrated in 2005.

Craig's greatest regret from our previous trip to Bhutan was that we did not have time to visit the Tiger's Nest. When Craig was later diagnosed with MS, he assumed that it was a dream that he would never be able to fulfill. His illness causes balance issues and sometimes his legs are weak.

But as we talked more and more with Sonam online, it became clear to us that it was important to him that we visit this sacred site. Sonam is a very spiritual individual, and he encouraged us, saying that he would personally see to it that that we made it. We were a bit skeptical. Not only was Craig's MS a potential issue, I was in the midst of a year-long hiatus from yoga, and was not in great shape. A vigorous hike at high altitude seemed a bit ambitious.

We spoke with Toni at Myths and Mountains to get her thoughts. She had traveled with us in Myanmar a year ago, so she had witnessed his physical limitations. She visits Bhutan and regularly climbs to the Tiger's Nest, so she knows firsthand what is involved. She suggested that we give it a try. There were options: we could ride a horse partway up the trail, and then decide whether to travel the rest of the way on foot or just turn around and hike back down at that point.

Sonam wanted desperately to be able to take us there, and promised that he would help Craig every step of the way. We promised him that we would do our best, but we couldn't guarantee that we would make it. We assumed that we would probably be too big for any available horses, so we suspected that we would probably end up hiking for the duration.

We awoke early this morning. We wanted to get an early start for several reasons: we would start the ascent before the sun got too hot, and we could take our time, resting along the way as necessary. We didn't care if it took us twice as long as everyone else; slow and steady would be our best chance at success.

Craig and I woke up and tried to quietly get ready to avoid waking Sonam. We thought that it was cute that he had indeed only slept in a single corner of the bed, though he had made use of all four of the fluffy pillows. Craig made coffee, and soon Sonam woke up.

The three of us got dressed and headed down to the dining room for breakfast at 6:45 a.m. There were many other earlybirds in the dining room who would be doing the same hike today. Kinley joined us for breakfast, and we all fueled up for our adventure. Craig and I each got a made-to-order tremendously fluffy omelet.

We headed out to meet Gyem Phub at the car at 7:30, right on schedule. I borrowed a wooden walking stick from the hotel. Craig would use his cane. Unfortunately, Craig would be hiking in less-than-ideal footwear. He had carried his hiking boots halfway around the world for this day alone, but the sole of his left boot had become completely detached. His only alternative was to hike in the black Skechers loafers he had worn to the tsechu.

Gyem Phub drove us 10 kilometers to the start of the hike. He parked the car in the parking lot, and got a photo of the four of us setting off on the hike. We walked under a covered walkway where vendors were selling souvenirs and religious offerings.

We then stood in the shade of a grove of evergreens among dozens of horses. As soon as we saw the horses, we knew that riding one wasn't even an option for us. They were far too small, and the last thing that we would want to do is to exploit an animal. So the choice had been made for us: we would proceed purely under our own power.

We gazed up at the Tiger's Nest, perched precariously onto the side of an impossibly high cliff. The angle of the sun made the naturally occurring "demon's face" in the cliffside easily recognizable. (It is located above the monastery and resembles the Transformers logo).

Colorful prayer flags glowed in the sunlight. The sun was bright and strong, even this early in the morning. We made sure to put sunscreen on our faces as we could tell that we would easily get a sunburn otherwise.

We started the hike at around 8 a.m. Craig used his cane in his left hand, and Sonam held his right arm and helped him literally every step of the way. Sonam also carried our backpack, allowing me to hike unencumbered. Kinley carried Craig's backpack, which contained his knee brace for the descent as well as extra water.

The trail was quite nice and well-maintained. We had to take frequent breaks, as a result of both the high altitude climb and the heat of the strong sun. But the sun afforded wonderful views and photographs. Craig was glad that he had his sunglasses, as the thin atmosphere at this altitude made everything almost painfully bright. We passed a water-powered prayer wheel in a heavily forested valley, and then started the ascent

Early on, Sonam's phone rang and it was sister Kinley. She and Bumchu would be flying back to Bangkok today, and they wanted to say goodbye. Kinley told me that she didn't really remember her mother, who passed away when Kinley was 5 years old. She is so happy that with us in her life, she now has a mom and dad, and that Bumchu has grandparents. We definitely know what she means: not having biological children of our own, we feel that we have children all over the world.

We each talked to both Kinley and Bumchu on the phone, wishing them a safe trip home and hoping to see them soon. It brought a tear to our eyes and was additional inspiration for us to complete the hike, no matter how challenging.

As we climbed up, horses passed us. They carried tourists up (many of whom were too large for them, and we could see the horses straining - exactly why we didn't choose this option) and came back down unladen, ready for another trip.

At times we had gorgeous views of the Paro valley below us, a patchwork of rice fields in various stages of harvest. White cottony clouds congregated along the mountain ridges. And every once in a while, we would catch a glimpse of our destination: the Tiger's Nest. We were making noticeable progress, gaining altitude, and it didn't seem as impossible as it had at the start of the hike. The sky was bright blue and the weather was absolutely gorgeous. Small stone cairns were carefully arranged beneath colorful prayer flags along the trail.

The camaraderie on the trail was wonderful, with everyone encouraging one another. There were hikers of all ages and backgrounds. When people would see Craig hiking arm-in-arm with Sonam with his cane in his other hand, they would offer kind words of encouragement.

As we gained elevation, we saw orchids growing in the tree canopies. A very fine lichen hung from the trees like tinsel. This is an environmental indicator species; it can only grow at this altitude if the air is particularly clean. Tree bark was covered in lichen and moss as we passed into this high altitude microclimate. There were tall straight pine trees with large cones hanging from their topmost boughs like Christmas tree baubles.

After a particularly steep section of trail which was in the sun, we came across a rest area. There were benches which had a lovely view of the Tiger's Nest. We sat for a couple of minutes, catching our breath, sipping some water, and enjoying the view of our destination. Sonam got a cell signal here, and he posted photos of our journey in real-time. He captioned one of them "Just a little more # 5minutes". And thus an injoke was born.

It was near this area where people must dismount from their horses. From here on it is hiking on foot only, whether you choose to press on further or return to the start.

We came to a clearing where there were many prayer wheels. We spun the largest one, and a line of smaller ones. We were delighted to see a second set of small prayer wheels made from used plastic Gatorade bottles, painted in primary colors. They were adorable and spun surprisingly well. What a great craft activity to do with kids! Sonam, you could do this in your classroom!

One step at a time, we reached the cafeteria. There were outdoor tables filled with hikers gazing up at the Tiger's Nest. We went inside the building, out of the sun. It was a large room with bench seats along the perimeter. In the center was a buffet table and a wood stove.

We purchased ice cold bottles of orange soda. Just to be on the safe side, we each bought an additional bottle of water as well. Although we thought that we had brought enough with us, we can never be too careful. Craig gets dehydrated easily with his MS, and that can cause serious problems. The sun and the altitude make us more susceptible to dehydration, so we always carry extra water. The bottles that we bought at the cafeteria were cold, so we moved them ahead of our others in the rotation.

Kinley asked if we wanted to turn around here or continue to the Tiger's Nest. Craig and I were both feeling much better and more energetic than we had anticipated, thanks in no small part to our son's tireless help. We were determined to make it the rest of the way, and we were bursting with newfound confidence. Onward and upward!

After resting, rehydrating, and chatting with an Indian family, we stopped in the gift shop. Although the items were overpriced due to the location, I wanted to buy a souvenir. We were actually going to make it to the monastery, and I wanted something to forever remind us of this sacred pilgrimage we undertook with our son. I chose a small pink Mahakali mask. We have a similar blue one at home, and this one was a smaller more feminine partner for it.

We continued on the trail, admiring a long tailed magpie in a tree above us.

Soon after leaving the cafeteria, we were devastated to see some guides carrying a stretcher down the mountain. On it laid a motionless pale tourist, whom we would later learn had passed away of a heart attack while on the trail. Obviously this kind of medical emergency required immediate action and teamwork. Kinley asked us if we would be comfortable continuing the hike with Sonam so that he could help with the emergency. Of course we agreed that this was what must happen.

With heavy hearts, we continued our ascent, while Kinley helped to carry the stretcher to the parking lot. Sonam took his responsibility as our guide very seriously. I followed behind him and Craig, and he would often call out "Everything ok, Mom?" or words of encouragement: "Five minutes, Mom!" "Watch your step, Mom!" My slip on the staircase at his family house yesterday mustn't have instilled much confidence in my ability to stay upright. Luckily, the footing was solid and the trail was well-maintained, so I didn't have any problems.

Sonam also was very cognizant of other tourists on the trail and making sure that they were safe. A Chinese gentleman who didn't speak English was paying more attention to his camera than his footing, and Sonam made sure to keep an eye on him and usher him away from the edge of the trail.

It was very lucky that we had purchased extra bottles of water at the cafeteria. In the aftermath of the medical emergency, we hadn't thought to get Craig's backpack from Kinley before he helped to carry the stretcher down the mountain. That backpack contained Craig's extra water bottle. But because we had bought two more bottles, we had plenty available.

The trail leveled out a bit, and for a while it was an easy walk. We looked up to see Machig-phu Lhakang perched above us. This is a temple where couples go to pray for children.

We passed a shrine at the cave where Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot of the Central Monastic Body of Bhutan) Geshey Guenden Rinchen was born in 1926.

As the trail turned to the left, we were once again able to see the Tiger's Nest. But this time we were gazing down upon it! We had gained over 2000 feet in elevation. All that stood between us and the Tiger's Nest was one final ravine. There were several lookout points that gave you the quintessential view of the Tiger's Nest for photos.

Many people turn around here. Although your destination seems so near, you must climb all the way down the ravine and then all the way back the other side in order to reach the Tiger's Nest. The number of stairs involved seems to be somewhere between 700 and 1000, depending who you ask.

Unbeknownst to us at the time, the other tour guides were telling Sonam in Dzongkha not to take Craig any further. When they saw his cane and the fact that Sonam was helping him with every step, they thought that Craig would never be able to climb in and out of the ravine twice! Sonam admitted to having had his doubts too. But he silently chanted prayers and we continued on.

At around this point, hikers who had passed us earlier on the way up were now making their descent. They encouraged us, telling us that we were almost there and that it was well worth it. Sonam asked me if I wanted to take a rest. But now that we were so close to the Tiger's Nest, I just wanted to keep going. I was energized!

Craig was doing well; he has a lot of stamina. To get down into the ravine and up the other side, we would have to climb a seemingly endless stone staircase. Sturdy railings had recently been installed, which made this part of the hike quite safe. If there had been a sheer drop-off, we probably wouldn't have attempted it due to Craig's balance issues.

We climbed down the stairs and arrived at a footbridge with a 200 foot tall waterfall tumbling down the cliffside behind it. Tucked into a crevice, we passed the Singye Phu Lhakhang (snow lion cave) where Khado Yeshi Tsogyal (Guru Rinpoche's consort / tigress) had practiced meditation.

We then started the ascent on the other side of the ravine. We took it slowly, savoring any part of the staircase that happened to be in the shade. The sun was brutal!

My energy was falling fast. I had eaten a good breakfast, but I had burned it all off trekking. I got a bit "hangry" and knew that I must take a break. I sat down right where I was on the stairs. Craig and Sonam stopped too, and Sonam got the snacks out of my backpack. These were the snacks that Sonam had brought to Shelmakha for us. Apa had kept us so well fed that we hadn't needed snacks there. But today, they were just what we needed. We shared nuts, trail mix, and ema datshi flavored "Happy Chips" which featured an atsara on the bag. People passed by on the stairs, and a Chinese woman handed me a wrapped tamarind candy, which was very sweet of her! A little toddler girl was ascending the steps toward me. Her legs were barely long enough to reach the next step, but she did it. If this wasn't motivation for me, I don't know what is.

I recouped some energy and climbed the remainder of the stairs to the temple. I followed Craig and Sonam through a wooden gate / door near the top of the stairs. With the angle of the sun, it looked as though they were truly on a stairway to heaven.

We arived at the check-in point. From here you didn't have much view of the Tiger's Nest, as it was directly above you. We had to check our belongings before entering; no cell phones or cameras are allowed inside. Sonam took care of this, and he talked to the security staff. Tourists are not allowed to enter the Tiger's Nest without a licensed guide. But Kinley was no longer with us; he had descended the mountain helping with a medical emergency. Luckily, Kinley had phoned security ahead of time to explain the situation, and asked that they let us in with Sonam acting as ad hoc guide. When they were satisfied that Sonam's story matched up with Kinley's, they let us proceed up the staircase to enter the monastery complex.

Sonam led us into the various temples housed within the main lhakhang. The building has several levels. There are rooms which are constructed from timber with wood plank floors, and others are actual caves in the mountainside.

We took off our shoes and entered the Drubkhang. This cave was crowded with people. Pilgrims were eager to earn merit in the form of a blessing by making an offering and touching the holy water which flows from the cave walls. One woman was so eager to get through that she pushed Craig aside, nearly knocking him off of the step where he was standing. She looked mortified when she realized that he had a cane. Others had seen this happen and they all reached out to stabilize him so that he didn't fall. As the crowd thinned out we made our way to the back of the cave. We made an offering and placed it upon a shrine on a door which blocks off the section of the cave in which Guru Rinpoche meditated for three months (Pel Phug). This chamber is only accessible once a year. After getting our blessing of holy water, we exited this cave and explored the rest of the complex.

The complex is a lot larger than it looks from the outside. We went from one room to the next, up and down staircases, into dim caves and into rooms with windows and light. However, there were no butter lamps. It is suspected that they might have been the cause for the fire which destroyed the structure in 1998, so butter lamps are now housed in their own separate building where they pose less of a threat.

We entered eight temples in all. There were altars on which offerings had been placed, including some of the most elaborate and delicately decorated ritual cakes that we had ever seen. There were gorgeous paintings on the walls. Large statues depicted the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche, as well as the god of wealth and other Buddhist avatars. One cave in a lower level had a large golden chorten in the center with a holy spring behind it. From one of the rooms, we were able to look down through the floor to the Pel Phug cave where Guru Rinpoche spent 3 months meditating.

Sonam explained everything to us, and even answered questions that other tourists had. People just assumed that he was a guide, which really amused him. When he didn't know an answer, he would ask one of the monks on duty.

Others who had made the hike said very encouraging things to Craig, congratulating him for persevering and reaching the Tiger's Nest despite his physical limitations.

We spent an hour and a half exploring the complex, and by the time we were ready to go, the sun was hidden by clouds. It was nice not to have to worry about climbing those stairs again in the hot strong sun.

We descended the ravine again, crossed the footbridge, and walked up the steps on the other side. Once we had gotten past the steps, it was pretty much all downhill, and everything went much faster. Although Craig's knee was sore as it always is when he walks downhill, we were still able to make good time because we didn't need to stop to catch our breath.

Sonam once again held onto Craig's arm and helped him every step of the way. If Craig stumbled or his knee felt weak, Sonam was there to support him and help him regain balance.

On the way down we met a family from Darjeeling. They asked Sonam some questions, assuming him to be a guide. He answered them, and impressed them by speaking in Hindi. They had an adorable little girl who posed so that I could take her photo.

We met back up with Kinley at the cafeteria. He said that he had looked through binoculars and could see us preparing to enter the Tiger's Nest, so he knew that we had made it safely. We took a short rest in the cafeteria, and had some food at their buffet to fuel up for the remainder of the descent. We had scrambled eggs, rice, and veggies. There were no chilies and cheese on the buffet, but Kinley ducked into the kitchen where the guides eat and brought us each a bowl. Craig loved it so much that he asked for seconds!

As we left the cafeteria, they were preparing to close the buffet. It was late afternoon, and we were among the last hikers on the trail. Most people who had climbed today were long gone.

Craig put his brace onto his weak right kneee, and we continued our descent as the light waned. The further down we got, the higher the Tiger's Nest loomed above us. Had we really walked on foot all the way there and all the way back?

We made it to the car at 5:30 p.m. It was so late that the hawkers were all packed up. It was a good thing that we had bought our souvenir up on the mountain!

It had taken us all day to complete the hike, but we had done it on our own power. It was such a feeling of accomplishment; I now truly believe that I can do just about anything.

Sonam admitted that he had ben worried, especially when other guides addressed him and told him that he shouldn't take Craig up there because he wouldn't be able to get back down. But Sonam listened to his heart, and his determination allowed us to make it. Sonam said that it was a dream come true for him, to have us make that pilgrimage with him! He had prayed the entire way for us to have a successful and safe visit to the Tiger's Nest, and we had.

We were all silent on the way back to the hotel, in a state of satisfied exhaustion, lost in our own thoughts. We arrived at NakSel at around 6 o'clock. I made use of the bath tub to do a quick soak of my weary bones, and then the guys took showers. We started to get packed, as tomorrow morning we would be flying back to India. Surprisingly, neither Craig nor I were really very sore (except for his sore knee). We were invigorated.

At around 7:15 we went down to dinner. Craig had a well-deserved Druk 11000 beer. Sonam went with him to the buffet and helped him to fill his plate before getting his own food. He is truly so thoughtful. We joked that Sonam was getting spoiled by this hotel treatment, and that he would now require utensils (they usually eat with their hands), cloth napkins, etc. A tourist hotel was truly culture shock for him.

We went back to the room and finished packing. I posted to Facebook about the hike. We broke out the peach wine bottle that Apa had given to us. Craig poured a glass for each of us. I took a large swig only to notice that this wasn't peach wine! He had refilled the bottle with ara, the local moonshine. Whoa! Not the taste I had been expecting, but we certainly enjoyed it! We felt like we earned it after our exciting adventure today! Cheers, Apa!

We looked at photos from the hike on my laptop while we finished off the small bottle of moonshine.

We were hesitant to go to bed; we wanted to make this final evening with our son last forever. But we knew that it would be an early morning. Our bodies were tired from the hike, and the moonshine quieted our excited adrenaline fueled minds, and we went to sleep.

Tiger's Nest
Fueling up for the hike with a nice breakfast

Fueling up for the hike with a nice breakfast

Starting our hike to the Tiger's Nest with Kinley and Sonam Tshering

Starting our hike to the Tiger's Nest with Kinley and Sonam Tshering

The start of the Tiger's Nest hike

The start of the Tiger's Nest hike

#On our way (photo couresy of Sonam Tshering)

#On our way (photo couresy of Sonam Tshering)

Hiking (photo courtesy of Sonam Tshering)

Hiking (photo courtesy of Sonam Tshering)

Prayer wheel along the hike to the Tiger's Nest

Prayer wheel along the hike to the Tiger's Nest

Spinning prayer wheels made from Gatorade bottles

Spinning prayer wheels made from Gatorade bottles

Sonam and Craig on the trail

Sonam and Craig on the trail

Prayer flags

Prayer flags

Sonam helps Craig every step of the way

Sonam helps Craig every step of the way

Approaching the Tiger's Nest

Approaching the Tiger's Nest

Getting closer

Getting closer

Descending the steps

Descending the steps into the last ravine before the Tiger's Nest

Sonam and Craig ascend the final staircase to the sacred Tiger's Nest

Sonam and Craig ascend the final staircase to the sacred Tiger's Nest

Dinner at NakSel

Dinner at NakSel

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