On our recent FAM trip to Bhutan, we set out on an endeavor to try everything that we would want our client to experience. Sounds fun, right! But it has its cons too. We were not left with a choice,but had to take on everything that was out of our comfort zone. One such daunting task was to scale the Tiger’s Nest. As funny as it sounds now, it wasn’t so funny while I was going through with it. Guess, that is what traveling was all about. Read my experience of scaling The Takshang Monastery.
As fascinated as I could get, my high point was to reach Paro which was just 75 minutes away from the capital city of Thimpu. While my friends were all gaga about its beauty and architecture, I was more focused on Taktsang Monastery. Being a couch potato on weekends and warming my office chair for hours a day, I was very sure about my capability to do this 900 meter climb, or shall I say incapability! If it is any consolation, on comparison, this climb is 10% of the climb to the top of Mt. Everest. That is, if you make it, you are 10% ready to scale the highest peak in the world. Now, that’s something!!
This adventure was being scripted with a star cast of 4 from Alluring India Tour family; Danish Khan – The Narrator | Unaizza Khan – The Organizer | Adhiraa – The Motivator | Anisha – The Courageous. While I am the narrator and will be communicating everything from my perspective, let me tell you something more about the rest of my group. Unaizza being the operation specialist she is, is always the planner which she does to perfection. Adhiraa, the newest addition to the AIT family, comes with 10+ years of experience in travel and with the crazy traveling history she has, is the first one to say “Let’s do this” and Anisha: The one with childlike enthusiasm could have climbed Mt. Everest if she had to.
Our stay at Paro was already shortened to 2 days, due to some miscommunication about the entry permit. While planning the trip, we had kept 3 days with 1 day for Spa and rejuvenation after the ‘epic climb 900’. With any shortening of the plan, relaxation always has to suffer, so we had to throw the plans of spa, out of the window. However, we changed our start time for Tiger’s Nest to 10 am instead of the earlier 6 am. Our guide reported at 9:30 am at our hotel, which is beautifully located parallel to the airport runway, only separated by the beautiful Paro Chhu (Chhu = River). The sight of airplanes approaching the landing strip from amongst the mountains is breath taking, as a spectator which I am sure is equally breath taking (in a horrifying way) for the pilots. So cutting to the chase, we tried to keep our gear light, but stuffed our bags with lots of fluids, our car exited the gates of the hotel on a bright sunny day, which otherwise should have been rainy in the second week of June. Anisha – The Courageous was caught on to a bad back and neck spasm due to which was jittery at first but decided to still join us, as reach as far as she could.
The first things we spotted on freeing ourselves from the confinement of the car were Staffs (sticks used for trekking), Ponies and the sight of the Taktsang Monastery that looks dangerously nailed to a huge, vertically steep rock way above in the skies. My brain shouted “Walking Aides!!!”, which also for a moment pictured myself as an old man with a walking stick, but I forced myself to remain practical and picked up a stick which fitted my grip and height, the best. I had to wear jeans, as shorts and 3/4th are not allowed inside the monastery. Jeans made the climb a little uncomfortable, but it was any time better than carrying it in my backpack and changing it right in the open on top of the mountain, amongst hundreds of gazing eyes.
I turned to our guide, who looked like a lead actor of a regular Chinese or Thai movie and said, “Kinley, how about we taking the ponies?” My mind had already started to find hacks. But my big male ego always kept it in check. Kinley looked at me and smiled and very humbly replied, “You can hire a pony for about 1000 Nu per pony, but you will never be able to enjoy this climb through the forest. Besides, the ponies only go half way. You see, it is not good to have so many ponies go to all the way to the top as they keep egesting filth and that is not good for the temple”. All the lady Rambos in my group agreed to walk instantly also because they could see how cruel it was, to make the climb on a pony. However, what they couldn’t see was the cruelty I would be doing on my feet to let them take me this high. I put up a brave face and poked the earth with the sharp end of the staff and made the first step of the climb.
The initial climb is covered partially by trees and its roots are spread across the ground that also serves as a natural staircase for your walk. Kinley was very clear in suggesting us to enjoy the walk, rather than focus on making it to the top. Retreating midway is no shame. I knew that if I make it to the top, it will be a huge boost to my morale and I would be able to rekindle my romance with work outs. Well yes, we had broken up the day I had become one of the maggots of the corporate world, some 15 years ago. And we tread along, after about a kilometre, I muttered, “Well, this is easier than I thought”. I wish my time remnant from the future would have whispered in my ears, “Dude, isn’t it a little too early to say that? Why don’t you just wait for it?” The climate was just perfect as the snake like trail led us closer to the monastery. On the way, we kept coming across a few temples, resting areas for the climbers and lots of 5 coloured flags and white flags (I will be writing about the 5 elements that represents the colours and it importance, in my next blog) drinking water pods for the horses. Oh yes! There were not just horses, there were mules and donkeys as well, that were used to carry tourist till the half way mark. All of these carriers were trained well enough to walk from the side of the valley and while they move, all the walking audiences are reminded to walk from the opposite side. Well you know donkeys, they don’t change their route for anyone. If you get in their way, they may just make your downhill trek a lot easier. But, I rather stroll down in one piece, that to reach the parking lot in multiple pieces, so I stuck to the instructions. The trail is dusty and as we went up it kept getting cooler, the wind picked up gradually and we kept getting beautiful glimpses of the nearing Taktsang Monastery. It still appeared dangerously clinging to the end of the cliff and the closer I inched towards it, the more impossible the structure appeared to have endured centuries of being glued up this way.
2 Hours in to the climb, Kinley gave us a good news that we will soon be reaching the Taktsang cafeteria. I instantly looked up to see that we have the most beautiful view of the monastery, thus far. By this time, I was about to rejoice and self-proclaim the climb to be fit for people in their 90s but my legs were shouting out, “Dude, you are already90”, given the number of stops I had to take to gather my wits and gasp for breath. But for now, I felt like a winner and in a split second I planned for myself and the group that we will have our breakfast in the cafeteria, visit monastery and head for our trek, down. But it looked that fate had something else planned for us. Fate said, “Hello!!! Knock!!! Knock!!! Kinley is not done giving you the news”. Kinley then slipped in a twist in the tail informing us that, this is just 50% of the climb. My dreams shattered, plan was thrown down the drain by Kinley and I could hardly hold back the tears of my crying feet. We make over a bend in the trail and saw a delegation of horses and donkeys gathered, as if being invited for a Hi Tea. It surely reminded me of our corporate events that I use to attend, except the suits were missing.
With cafeteria in sight, my strides doubled and though the sun by now had turned angry, throwing its rays on us like darts and arrows, the view of the nest was so splendid that I sat with a cup of tea right there in the open, facing the view. Unaizza walked up to me and cautioned me of sun burns, but I was in that phase when a man can hear but can’t listen. I was smitten with the architecture and the artist in me suddenly started coming to life. This was the moment when my willingness to reach the building intensified and I got myself back on my only to realize that my skin had already been barbequed. We visited the washroom. Anisha, who was not feeling all that well, decided to call it a day and while my darling wife Unaizza who had sensed this at the beginning of the day, had a contingency plan ready for her. We had asked our driver ‘Kinga’ to escort us too. It also gave us comfort to ask Kinga to take Anisha back to the hotel, while we carry on to complete this feat.
Sensing the air getting cooler, I asked for the umbrellas to stay with us while we sent the rest of the load with Anisha and Kinga. We decided to travel lighter. Heading on, there were no menace created by the ponies and the tourist crowd had thinned out, after the cafeteria stop. Initially it appeared as if they had all gone ahead of us, but then we realized that about 50% of them retreated. What was inspiring though, was that I saw many tourist above the age of 50 making the climb further, but at the same time made me feel ashamed of my health. What didn’t go well was that we had very light breakfast and the cafeteria servednone. However, they were open to book us up for lunch which closes at 3:30 p.m. We were doubtful that we will be able to come back so soon, so we didn’t book. But this means that we had proceeded with a growling stomach, which was made to believe that water is as good as food. It didn’t take time to note that the climb had become steeper and more challenging. Yeah, right! That was the last thing I wanted. Our resting stops had become more frequent and could hear my heart pounding with the same effect that you feel in an EDM concert. I turned back and realized that my group had scattered and my guide, who appeared to be strolling in a garden throughout this climb is completely out of my sight. On my next break, I heard another guide explaining to a group that we will not just have to climb at the level of the monastery but get higher than it from where we will have to descent through 400 stairs and then climb another 400 stairs to reach our destination. Destination? I thought our destination is the parking lot where I have the comforts of my AC car waiting for me? Kinley will have get this goals right
Stairs!!! Why can’t we just have this muddy trail that we have been walking? Why don’t we just have a cable car ride from here? Infact, why can’t I just take the blessing of Buddha from here itself? As by now, I had developed keen interest in base jumping and I was ready try it right then and there.My mind was giving up on me and I was losing sanity, which is when I saw the rest of my group trotting to my location with Kinley. I could see Kinley with both his hands together behind him like a walk was in the park, and here I am huffing and puffing my way to the top. It just brought me down to ground zero and face to face with reality. I took control of my thoughts and joined the group.
I had started talking to myself and I had already said this to myself a million times, “No Retreat, No Surrender” as I reached the level of descent via stairs. After 3 hours of climbing, I could feel the pleasure of taking an easier Next step. I picked up speed and cruised my way down the stairs. Right at the bottom of the descent, I had to look straight up to see the monastery. I could hear the sound of water falling somewhere which appeared to be a beautiful yet a very narrow stream of water falling down the cliff. There are many other structures around it too, which are smaller temples. But my eyes were set on the main structure. Now wait a minute, we are not there yet. What stands between me and the monastery is climb of 400 stairs. I could by now, see my legs shaking. The base of my feet were burning because of the friction every time I put my foot on the ground. Every step made me realize the efforts of the slaves of Egypt that were used to carry heavy loads on top of the Pyramid. Though for veteran climbers it was a cake walk, I was the only slave climbing the ascent of an Egyptian Pyramid with tonnes of limestone on my back.
A man passed me by, who had already started on his way back. He posed as talking to his friend, rather he intended to announce it to everyone around. “The monastery closes for lunch from 1 pm to 2”. Really!!! I turn to Kinley, who nodded in agreement. 1 Hour for lunch? In Mumbai, we always enjoy 30 mins of lunch breaks, which we finish in 15 mins and get back to work. On top of that the monks look so perfectly in shape, do they really need 1 hour of break. “Danish”, my mind spoke back. “They are monks and they do everything at leisure. They don’t report to a boss and have no productivity charts. They don’t have targets and timelines. They can take 2 hours to have lunch if they want. So, why don’t you just shut up and wait?” I was put right in my place by my own mind. I pacified myself and the moment I reached the top, took a place on a bench right outside the locker room and started my 1 hour long wait.
I was informed earlier that I will not be allowed to take cell phones, cameras and also not allowed to wear a cap inside the monastery. But I was not told was that the lockers where I was supposed to deposit my valuable needs an external lock, which you need to carry yourself. Kinley popped out a lock and key and surprised us with his readiness. We deposited our cameras and other barred items and locked it, only after taking some great pictures of the view from the exteriors of the monastery. A man wearing a ‘Gho’ strolled towards the ticket counter and Kinley traveled almost at the speed of light to book the first spot in the ticket line, which had not formed as of yet. Well, he got the spot and we were the first once to enter the temple after lunch.
This is the most famous monastery in Bhutan, in fact across the world. Dedicated to a Buddhist leader Guru Padmasambhava, who is said to have landed on this cliff on the back of a flying tiger, thus the name, “Tiger’s Nest”. He is also is believed to have meditated here in the cave for 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days that was created by his own weapon which he used to subdue a demon. The impact of this triangular weapon created a triangular crater in the earth. The guru meditated at the bottom of the pit for the period. Kinley also explained the belief of the local that if you drop a paper currency in the pit and it reaches the bottom of the pit, you will be blessed. And we did try it. The temple has 3 levels which hosts statues of Guru Rinpoche in its various forms. After you visit each statue the monk out there gives you a few drops of water mixed with camphor in it, which you are supposed to drink and apply the rest on your head as blessing, same as you do for “Prasad” in a hindu temple. On the second level, the monk also gave us a little yellow coloured cooked rice which was not great in taste with the hunger we carried, tasted better than caviar. I took it as a blessing of the Guru and moved to light the butter lamp. It is was cold and windy and entering the lamp house, was quite a relief due to the warmth from the lamps. We lit candles and prayed there. We also proceeded to the top floor of the temple where we meditated for some time. I could hear the silence, the freshness in the air at this altitude and the room was so peaceful that I could feel my head get lighter, or was it due to the low oxygen levels in the air. Guess, I would never know. But I sure can say that the feeling was surreal.
Kinley gave me a nudge and the next moment I found myself tying my shoe laces. The pain in the legs was gone and I was floating. Guess, this is what 10 minutes of meditation can do to you. I sprung up to make the descent, but before I can hit the raw, muddy trail I was again posed with the herculean task of climbing the 400 stairs that I had recently climbed down. The pain in my legs returned. By now, I could feel myself getting heavier. When I started the climb I was 75 kgs, but bynow I was more than 140. Along the way, I could see well built, full size men collapsing on the resting benches, cursing their smoking habits. But for me, smoking habits cannot be an excuse, since I never smoked in my life. So who do I blame, for joining them? I finally made it back to the top and with a small walk we approached the descent. The 4 hours that we took to climb up, this was relatively easier and quicker, since we made it down in 90 minutes. But while taking that walk, I could feel the stress in my back and toes. My desperation to make it to the parking lot before it turns dark and to get something called Food, down my throat made me attract spasm in my hamstring. We had just 10% of the path to be covered when the rain gods threw open a light drizzle, which I hoped stop soon. For the sheer temperature of the water was so low, as if the rain god was melting ice slabs on us. Luckily we had umbrellas. I was in such a state, I wouldn’t have objected of trying to jump from there using the umbrella. Got lucky there too, since I didn’t really find the right place to do so.
The parking lot was in
Though Paro is a gorgeous town and the people are rich in happiness and culture. Taktsang Monastery is the one place that undoubtedly became of my most savoured moments of the trip. I would at any given point in time, recommend all our guests to not miss such an amazing experience. Definitely it is in my list of 100 places to go before you die.
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