A friend of mine is currently bicycling around Bhutan.
Bhutan! That magical, mysterious, land-locked country on the southern slopes of the eastern Himalayas where happiness is valued and elevations range from 200 m (660 ft) to more than 7,000 m (23,000 ft). Cycling! What a wonderful, life-embracing, inspirational woman she is.
In spite of watching her progress with total awe and some envy, I haven’t been moved to ride my own bicycle for more than a toddle around the block. I was motivated, however, to revisit my Bhutanese photo-set from this time four years ago.
September is festival season in Bhutan: a wonderful period of colourful costumes, dancing and celebration – and that’s what we were there to photograph. (Two of the banner photos (, ) on this website are from one of Bhutanese festivals I attended while there – more about that some other time.) Our first complete day on the ground, however, was spent hiking up to The Tiger’s Nest – that sacred collection of monastery and temple buildings perched some 3,120 metres (10,240 ft) above sea level.
Our itinerary said the climb would take about two hours, and we’d be back in Paro for lunch. This seems, in retrospect, rather optimistic. Every travel site I’ve looked at suggests allowing 2-4 hours for the uphill portion, and doing it after you have acclimatised to the altitude.
I suppose we could (possibly?) have walked it faster than we did, but who would want to? It is a truly beautiful hike – even if rather more strenuous than the guide book suggested. We started trudging up, up, and more up, just before eight o’clock. The dirt path sets off gently enough through tall blue pine and it wasn’t long before we spotted our first stream tumbling downhill to meet us. Across the stream, gaily painted white-washed buildings (chorten) house water-driven prayer wheels. Large stones nearby are painted with prayers and images of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava, “The Lotus Born”).
From a field off the trail, we were able to look up, way up, to where the Tiger’s Nest perches impossibly on a neighbouring mountain peak, 900 meters above the Paro Valley below. Wow! I got vertigo just looking at it.
As we continued the walk up hill, through birdlife and trees draped in Spanish Moss and prayer flags, we came to a sign: “Walk to Guru’s glory! … For here in this Kingdom rules an unparalleled benevolent King.” This is the realm of Guru Rinpoche who, in the form of Doriji Drakpo, one of his eight manifestations, flew to the top of this mountain on a flaming tigress, giving rise to the monastery name: “Taktshang” or “Tiger’s Nest”.
Up and up we tramped: past small stone cairns in memory of the dead; past trinket sellers with an abundance of yak bone and mountain-coral jewellery, and religious objects in silver and bronze; past wild flowers and prayer wheels; until we finally reached the half-way point – the cafeteria rest stop (2940) – by ten o’clock. I asked what time we were supposed to reach the top, and was told: “Fifteen minutes ago!” Hmm.
Already, one of our group of nine had resorted to riding one of the sturdy horses that service the lower half of the track. Now, it is true that none of us were particularly young and most of us had been living at sea level in Bangkok, and therefore were not used to the altitude, but seriously – two hours all the way up???
After drinking cups of tea or coffee and stripping off excess clothing, those of us who continued to the top took plenty of pictures, pausing regularly as we wended our way up, up, and more up. This was not only as an excuse to stop and breathe – it really was one of the nicest trails I have ever trekked.
It is true what they say: at the lookout, you feel you as if you could reach out and touch the monastery across the ravine. The bad news is that to actually get to it, you need to climb down and up again on the other side. It probably isn’t that far, but it is steep and I wasn’t the only one gasping for air!
After visiting various altar rooms in the monastery (without our shoes, hats or cameras, as per requirements), we set off back down the hill to collect our missing group members at the coffee house.
One of the hallmarks of the Bhutanese has to be their flexibility; when it became clear we were going to be nowhere near Paro by lunch time, our guide arranged for our lunch to come to us! Once we had finally made our way back down the hill, our food was waiting, and mid-afternoon, seated on cushions in a field, we finally ate our well-deserved meal.
There is a real risk when going back to old photos: they were taken with an old camera and processed with an old version of Lightroom, so everything had to be re-edited. Then, looking at the framing or aperture or lack of clarity, there were all those “What was I thinking??” moments…
But, I loved Bhutan when I was there, and I enjoyed revisiting some of my photos from this happiest of Himalayan Kingdoms.
And it was ever so much easier than cycling!