Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The March (or shall I say ride) to Taktshang (Tiger's Nest)

Today is our second day in Bhutan. We are beginning to adjust to the altitude around Paro. Arriving from the almost sea level altitude of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Paro, Bhutan (2250m, 7,382ft) is challenging for the first day or two, but the challenge does not include altitude sickness, it only includes occasional heavy breathing while climbing stairs and walking quickly.

Taktshang from valley

Yesterday, Rattu pointed out Taktshang to us. From the valley floor it looked like a white house high on the side of the mountain face. It looked to me to be a difficult climb. I began researching the climb in my Lonely Planet guidebook. The guide book said the trail could be done in a mere 1 3/4 hours. The guidebooks authors must have a different and more fit audience in mind.

A better view of our objective

The trail head begins 8km north of Paro at an altitude of 2600m (8,530ft) in a pine grove with a multitude of horses. Liz wanted to hike, but I knew our true fitness levels and a bit of knowledge of the trail grade. So I gently suggested we provide a boost to the local economy by hiring the horses to take us to the top. Rattu negotiated and got a locals price (1,000 nu) for two horses with riders and one pack horse (to carry our lunch, thermos of Bhutanese Butter tea, and a foam mattress so we could picnic in style). He is a good negotiator as the tourist price is 800 nu per horse. Rattu decided to walk.

Liz overcame her great fear of riding animals (horses, camels, mules, or elephants). But first the guide had to catch my horse who went running off across the meadow. Bhutanese saddles are basically a wooden seat on the horse with a blanket to protect both the horse and the rider. I think the horse had better cushioning. There were two wooden pegs to hold on to, rudimentary stirrups, and no reins or leads.

Liz at the first rest stop.  Get me off this horse!

With several slaps on the rump off we went. The first several hundred meters were relatively level going through a pine forest with what appeared to be Spanish moss hanging from the trees. I later learned there was a stream parallel to the trail, but I was trying to just stay on the horse. I tried to take pictures but was warned to just keep my hands on the pegs. We passed a water powered prayer wheel just before the switchbacks began. The trail s much wider than the trail down the Grand Canyon, but much steeper.

After about an hour we reached a rest stop at a cafeteria at 2940m (9645ft). We did now walk to the facility about 100m off to the side. The guide book warns to be careful as an archery range crosses the trail, but we saw no evidence of it. We dutifully spun the small prayer wheels and did the same with the large one. After 15 minutes we re saddled our horses (Liz and I switched horses for the horses sake to even out their load). My horse ran off again and the guide needed to chase it up the trail. About 45 minutes later we arrived at the ridge overlooking the Monastery of Taktshang. But we stopped to drink some Bhutanese tea, and released the horses to go back down the mountain. The trail is too steep to carry people down safely.
Good bye to our steeds

Rattu suggested we wait for him to go over to the Monastery, which involved descending a staircase, crossing over a bridge and ascending a staircase to Taktshang. Liz and I proceeded with Rattu. We had come up here, we were not going to wait. I think it took us 15 to 20 minutes to reach Taktshang, but Liz thinks it took longer (or as she puts it, "an adventure in survival").

At the monastery we had to check our cameras and cell phones. Bhutan is strict in preventing the taking of pictures inside of monasteries. In prior years people have taken photos inside of monasteries for commercial purposes without providing remuneration to Bhutan. And I think taking pictures is an intrusive invasion of the privacy of the faithful Buddhists. Police guards checked us, and even patted down some Bhutanese young men dressed in gho (the national dress required to be worn by Bhutanese in government offices, schools, and major religious facilities).

At Taktshang the altitude is 3140m (10,301 ft). This is an elevation change of 640m (2100 ft). However the best way to travel to Taktshang is on the back of a magic-tiger, but I am afraid I could not meditate long or deep enough for this to occur.

After visiting the various temple rooms, visiting relics, and observing prayers, we left the monastery as it closed for lunch. We retraced our path to the opposite side of the gorge. As we were walking, Rattu told me that a number of years ago a foreign tourist fell off the trail and plunged down the escarpment. However, for over 10 years his camera was still seen caught in a tree branch so way down the mountain. After this tragic event, railings were installed in dangerous locations.

Stairways and railings

We had our picnic lunch overlooking Taktshang, and finished as the horns announced the end of lunch break at the monastery. We then began our 2 hour walk down the trail.

Back at the Valley View Hotel, we rested and stiffly walked to our dinner.

Location:Paro, Bhutan


  1. Liz,
    So great to see you're still involved and well. It's been 40 years since you started the DC Rape Crisis Center with Karen Kollias and the rest of us. Someone just called me about 40th anniversary events. I hope you don't mind if I report on you (and SHout!!).
    Sue Lenaerts

    1. What a great surprise to hear from you. I read your message while I was in central Bhutan, which has unreliable internet service/connections. SHout has gotten off to a slow start - waiting for a Malaysian to take leadership. I work with Empower, a NGO to empower Malaysian women. Currently we are creating map to track achieving the "at least 30% women in political decision making roles" goal. Also part of a team to train teachers of refugees in classroom mgt (my role is limited). Keep in touch.

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