I was starting to get sick getting onto the plane in LAX, that telltale scratchy throat, the body aches, but 23 hours of flying time later, a day in bed in Bangkok, and I was ready for the first adventure -- climbing up to Tiger's Nest.
Really, the first adventure was flying into the valley of Paro, descending over a high Himalaya ridge into the town that used to be the capital of Bhutan. Our guide, Phil Ershler, had clued us that the approach to Paro was going to be interesting. I might have some other words for what seemed to be nearly vertical banking, more than once, in a commercial airliner to enter the narrow valley. I could look down the plane's wing to the river below. Not much choice, this was the only airstrip in the whole country. I looked over at Phil. He was smiling.
Fifteen of us were here to follow Phil and our Bhutanese guide, Tschering (prounounced chair-ing), through 150 Himalaya miles... on foot... the only trek for which I've had to submit a climbing resume' to be accepted.
The first test... a steep hike from Paro at 7,500' to Taktsang Monastery, or Tiger's Nest, at 10,500'. Actually, thank God, we drove to the trailhead at 8,500'. I know Phil is watching us and deciding whether he's going to need to bring along a "sagwagon" once we get started on the real thing. In the US, it's a van that follows cyclers or runners who can't go on in a race. In the mountains, it's a horse. Not quite as humiliating as being "bagged" on Rainier, but close. I'm tired from my cold, weak from the altitude but I'm drinking, drinking, drinking, trying to pee clear, and hoping I don't look to Phil like I'm going to need a sagwagon on the expedition.
A couple hours up a well worn dirt path through pine, oak and rhododendren forest we get a look at Tiger's Nest through the clouds. Mystical, magical, perched on a granite ledge that drops 3000' to the valley floor, it definitely has that Wow factor.
More walking and some time later -- time has mysteriously become irrelevant - the clouds have cleared.
A closer look at what has become the image of Bhutan, and I am compelled to wonder, as everyone must -- how did they do this? Not only is the monastery built on a narrow ledge, but the approach is even narrower. The monastery burned completely down in 1998 and was reconstructed using an electric tram car from the valley floor. But in 1692 when it was built? It's not like there were electric trams or thousands of Egyptian slaves.
Look closely at the bottom of the above picture and you can see a string of prayer flags from the monastery across that 3000' gorge to the other side. How did they do that? My thought is -- it was shot with an arrow. Archery is the national Bhutanese sport and I have seen a Bhutan archer hit a bull's eye from a football field length distance.
The next question -- why here? It's not from lack of flat places on the valley floor.
Well, it seems in 747 A.D. the founder of Bhutan Buddhism, Guru Rinpoche, or Padmasambavha, flew across the Himalayas from Tibet on the back of a tiger to Taktsang and meditated in a cave for three months. He came out of the cave and converted the people in the valley below to Buddhism. There are several sacred caves at Taktsang, one inside the monastery. A small temple was built above the site in the early 1500's and they thought about building Tiger's Nest for a couple centuries, but they were always busy building some other dzong or monastery until finally a high up monk assigned the task of Tiger's Nest to a teenager! Never underestimate kids.
Non-Buddhists can enter the monastery only with a special permit from the government, and we had one. Most view the monastery across the "ravine", but we were fortunate to go inside. A monk blessed our trip and gave us a Buddhist symbol to wear around our necks. Climbers going into the Himalayas seek out blessings before heading to the hills, and I suspect Phil had something to do with our permit.
Bhutan Majestic tells us:
"It is believed that more merit is gained if we meditate one minute in Taktsang than to meditate months together in other sacred places. Its sacred essence is that of Drubkhang/Pelphug, the holy cave in which Guru Rinpoche and many other renowned saints meditated, and also the body of Langchen Pelgyi Singye had been placed deep in the rocks under the site of Kudung Chorten."
No question, this is a very special place.
Heading down, I paused at a curious place just below the monastery.
It was another cave with what appeared to be hundreds of cupcakes.
I looked closer, still looked like cupcakes, little decorated tasties.
Not so, Tschering said.
Turns out each cupcake was a person, cremated, mixed with a little water to make these shapes, and brought by a relative to this holy place. The soul has left the physical body to await the next reincarnation.
Bhutan Majestic has an excellent historical background on Taktsang as well as daily Bhutan news, well worth reading.