wandering amphibia

Climbing the impossible: Bhutan’s Tiger’s Nest, or “how did they get all those stones up there in the first place?!”

So a little bit of background is in order, I suppose. Tiger’s Nest is a Buddhist monastery, considered to be the holiest Buddhist site in all of Bhutan. It’s situated at 10,000 feet (about 3,400 3,120 meters) above sea level, and the parking lot is about 2,000 2,220 meters, so that’s more or less a 1.4km 900m thank you to my fact-checking friends, because who else keeps you honest elevation change. The trek length is 4.5 kms, most of it pretty much up, up, up. None of the things I’ve read about Tiger’s Nest mention the trek – everyone talks about how beautiful it is, how spectacular it is, and all that. Nobody actually talks about getting there. So like, I knew there was a trek to do. I also knew you could ride horses halfway up, which I consider cheating. What I didn’t know is just how hard this trek is. The previous night during our drunken debauchery with the tour company’s owner, he mentioned that there was a shortcut; that it was “harder”, but made the trek “shorter”. Since I am not one to ever shy away from a challenge, I demanded we take the shortcut. My guide looked very skeptical, but acquiesced… and so off we went.

The beginning of the trek takes place in a nice pine forest, with some pretty temples and waterfalls. This, for example, is a water-powered prayer wheel. Rather than turning the prayer wheel by hand, it’s connected to the stream, so it turns by itself. What puzzles me about inventions like this is that when you turn the prayer wheel, you are the one who executes the prayer, and therefore you are the recipient of the results of the prayer. But when a stream does it … who benefits, so to say? Or am I missing the point of Buddhism, where a stream can turn the prayer wheel for the good of the universe where everyone indirectly benefits?

A little lake was also nearby.

As was a waterfall. You can’t not take a picture of a waterfall. It’s basically required.

At this point the fun ended, and the trek upwards began. Here is where I first realised that I might be in over my head. The climb wasn’t quite vertical, I shouldn’t exaggerate, but it was by far and away the steepest climb I’d do “on average”, and it was four and a half kilometres of it. Which I also didn’t know at the time. All I knew was that the climb in front of me was basically vertical, and Tiger’s Nest was REALLY REALLY REALLY far away and above me.

Just to piss me off (okay, I’m not sure that was the reason in all fairness), a local guy was taking up supplies to the Cafeteria – the midway point. He was climbing with two boxes on the steep route, and he was going faster than we were by a good factor. I was really not happy about that. At least he was wearing Adidas Firebirds. I’ll cut him some slack for that.

The steep climb continued. I’d cheat my way out of it and stop for a few seconds at a time taking pictures, pretending that I didn’t stop because I was dying, but because the scenery was so pretty.

… which honestly, incidentally, it totally was.

I kept checking my Apple Watch to see if it would cause a red alert and warn me of impending heart failure, but no warning came. Maybe because I had no Internet.

So we kept climbing.

My guide, in the meantime, was keeping the mood up.

After some more insane climbing … (and really, these pictures do not do the incline justice. I sound like a wussy complaining about something that looks like the local park that families hang out with their kids at. It really wasn’t.)

… we made it up to the Cafeteria, which is the midway point.

I was overjoyed to be here. It meant I survived half of the climb! Apparently the “shortcut” also ended here, from here forward it was the same route for everyone. How bad could it be from here, right? The view of Tiger’s Nest from here was obviously spectacular.

The cafeteria was built to help hopeless Westerners take a break before getting to the actual monastery, as the road beyond is narrower and there isn’t any place to take a break anymore.

A shrine sits on the side.

Some smug-ass m’f’s were sitting on the bench reviewing their photos. They rode up to here on horses.

The monastery didn’t look any closer than it did before, though. Hrm. That was still a good walk away.

The road got a little bit flatter, and a bit wider, so the incline got a lot more manageable.

The place is home to a number of actual functioning monastic schools, signs to which are posted here and there.

The furry trees are apparently indigenous, and my guide quipped that the forest can look so alien that they chose this place to shoot Lord of the Rings. I sincerely doubt the US Union of Carrypack Complainers would ever let anybody drag camera equipment this far up into the mountains (and last time I checked, LoTR was shot in NZ), but the trees were decidedly cool.

As we walked and walked … (it’s a reference to a Japanese movie, Aruitemo… aruitemo), we passed through various hills and valleys and the road was generally not nearly as steep as the so-called “shortcut”. I still took random pictures to uh, allow a minute for a break.

No hills they said. Flat road they said. It won’t be hard, they said. OK, nobody said that last one.

We soon came across the platform from which you had the best view of Taktsang Monastery. We were finally close! But before that, we were confronted with a puzzling sign. It forbade various dangerous activities in progressively perplexing order. “For safety,” it suggested, “visitors are strictly prohibited from lighting fire, smoking, chewing tobacco, shouting and raising flags from this point.” So I missed the opportunity to raise flags somewhere along the way while shouting?!? Egads!!!!!!!!!

There were a bunch of stray dogs who were just about exhausted as I was.

We turned the corner and… of course, this was the view that I had come for. I sort of made it! I was the king of Instagram, the ruler of Twitter, and the emir of Pinterest – I could now dominate all those platforms with my picture that a thousand other people have posted before me. Oops. It was still really cool, though, for lack of a more intellectually enriching adjective.

And a zoomed shot, of course.

On a brief serious note, it’s really magnificent. Maybe it’s exacerbated by the adrenaline or whatever it is that you’re full of after walking three kilometres up the mountain (astute reader? ah … yes, we’ll get to that number), maybe it’s the sheer beauty of the vertical cliff and the monastery hanging off of it, or maybe something else, but it really impresses when you turn that corner and see it. It’s absolutely amazing. Then it occurs to you that someone actually climbed up there and brought all the materials and, you know… built it. That blows your mind even more.

Incidentally, we were really high up at this point.

Ok now… about that three kilometer figure. At first, I was mega excited that we finally made it. As Jesus Christ said in Jesus Christ Superstar, “First… I was .. inspired. Now … I’m sad and tired.” This very emotion overflew me when I saw what was remaining. And what was remaining… was this.

“Surely … I’ve exceeded… expectations… tried for three kilometers. Feels like thirty. Feels like ninety.”

This staircase was heading down, which was exciting, but that still was a solid walk.

In the meantime, we passed by a waterfall.

Eventually, we made it to the monastery entrance.

Of course, when we got there I saw things that made me shrink in shame and question my sanity at the same time (in the sense of, am I really seeing this?). You see, Taktsang being the holiest of all places in Bhutan, it is considered the place to take your child when they are born, or at least sometime in the first several years of their life, to receive a blessing. Now, no child can climb this mountain. Maybe part of it, but not the whole route… and yet people bring them there.

Like this.

And I thought I was impressed with the guy with boxes………..

We spent some time in the monastery. Unfortunately, photography is forbidden (there’s a sign that says “visitors carrying guns, explosives, mobile phones and cameras will be punished”), so I can only keep it in my memory. Since we managed to get there before the Indian tourist flood (I omitted to mention this, but because Bhutan and India are so close, Indians do not need a minder, or the $250 fee, to come in – or a passport even. So there are a lot of Indian tourists). We managed to get there before the largest groups came, and so I had a few moments to spend some time alone in some of the rooms. It was an interesting experience; when you stood outside, you could hear the sound of the waterfall, and the rustling of the trees, and even some human voices of the tourists who got there. But specifically these two rooms, when you walked in… it was complete silence. It was peculiar as well, since there were no doors or windows – just openings in the structure – but despite that, there was complete and utter silence, reinforcing this whole “peacefulness” concept. It was so quiet, in fact, that I just sat in a corner for a quarter hour and just listened to the silence. I’ve never done that elsewhere, but it just seemed… appropriate here. It was a transformative experience. While I’m under no illusions of having become a “better” person in any way, I did at least get to experience complete silence, which I sorely miss.

Eventually, it was time to head back out. We went back over the waterfall bridge…

… and then we started climbing those insane stairs. This is when I truly realised just how tired I was: I wasn’t really ready for another thousand-step (or whatever) climb.

Of course, in another way of looking at it, I couldn’t exactly remain there, since besides the visa issue, I don’t think the monks would appreciate me just dying on the mountain, so I had to get out of there if only to save them the trouble of burying me, so I persisted. I was very slightly rewarded when we got back to the observation platform from which I took the Taktsang photos before – the flow of tourists was verrrrrrry different from before…

And they just kept coming and coming.

On the way back down, I took relatively few pictures, because I was focussed on just getting back. We came across a few people who asked us “how much further” it was, and the further we went away from the Cafeteria, the worse I felt telling them “you’re not even a quarter of the way through”. Came across an idyllic picture of a calf grazing in front of the monastery.

More animals chilling, ridiculing the human owners.

Came across a herd of horses halfway at the cafeteria point.

Came across another mother carrying a child and reminding me that my problems are minuscule in comparison.

Yup. We climbed this on the way up!

Rhododendrons were no longer in full bloom, but apparently, it’s rather a sight to behold.

Eventually, we made it all the way down. It felt exhilarating to no longer have to jump from rock to rock, walk on steps – and, have a bottle of water (I stupidly walked up with a single bottle to conserve weight, but obviously it ran out exactly halfway up, at the monastery).

And now just to put in context just how crazy this climb was, here’s a few screenshots from the Apple Activity app (the one time I was happy to have an Apple Watch). Note that this is just one way – the return was, well, about the same (though I guess less calories used since it was sort of downhill – except the staircase at the beginning which almost killed me).

All in all, though, it was a profoundly moving experience. I did have certain expectations of what it might look like and what it might be, but they were completely overshadowed by reality – if the only thing I did in Bhutan was fly in, do this trek and fly out, it would still have been worth the trip.