There’s a reason Windhorse Tours, and probably every company arranging travel in Bhutan, puts climbing to the Tiger’s Nest at the end of your stay.
Taktshang Pelphung, the sacred temple complex known as the Tiger’s Nest, clings to a sheer rock cliff in thin air at an elevation of 3200 metres—10,500 feet. That’s more than 1000 metres above the town of Paro, home to the second-highest airport in the world. (We read that only eight pilots are authorized to fly into Paro.)
When you see the Tiger’s Nest grafted onto the edge of the mountain cliff, it’s easy to believe the story Namgyel told us. In the 8th century Guru Rinpoche flew from Tibet on the back of a mythical tigress to this mountaintop where he established Buddhism in Bhutan. How else but through flight the sacred monastery of Orgyen Tsemo on a rock crevice above the Tiger’s Nest be built in 1508 and then the complex itself, Taktsang Pelphung, in 1692? When you see Bhutan’s holiest place, it’s no wonder the Tiger’s Nest is in line to become a UNESCO site and be declared the eighth wonder of the world.
“Are you okay for an early start tomorrow?” asked Namgyel the night before our hike.
By 07:30 the tapping of our hiking poles was the only sound accompanying the singsong of birds as we set out on the hard-packed trail zigzagging through a forest of oak and pine.
In the monastic silence of the early morning, Namgyel told us that when Guru Rinpoche arrived at Tiger’s Nest, he meditated in a cave for three years, three months and three days. As the Tiger’s Nest is the country’s pre-eminent Buddhist site, Namgyel said the first question the Bhutanese believe they’ll be asked in the afterlife is “Have you been to Taktsang Pelphung?”
It’s not a long hike, only four kilometres in. But the elevation gain is 600 metres before you add in getting across a steep gorge that requires a 400-step stairway descent to the bridge over a waterfall and then a climb back up the other side.
This is not Everest. But Bhutan does have the world’s highest unclimbed mountain, Gangkar Puensum at 7,570 metres.
Teams from Austria, Britain, Japan and the US have made four unsuccessful attempts to scale Gangkar Puensum. The last expedition was in 1986. Yvon Chouinard, a founder of the Patagonia clothing line who was on the American team, described Gangkar Puensum as a point of frost blue ice as threatening as a thunderbolt from a Bhutanese deity. When violent thunderstorms flattened high-country crops soon after these mountain-climbing attempts, villagers believed the gods were furious at climbers for trespassing and taking revenge. As a result, in 1987 Bhutan imposed a total ban on mountaineering, one of the few countries in the world to take this initiative. As Yvon writes, for the Bhutanese “mountains are sacred citadels no more meant to be climbed than the dome of the Sistine Chapel or the minarets of Mecca.”
Like Everest, the Tiger’s Nest does have its sherpas. On our way down we saw local Bhutanese men and women leading donkeys and ponies laden with tourists (not jubilados like you George, but many able-looking young adults) up the trail to the Taktsang cafeteria at the halfway point.
The donkeys and ponies can’t go any further than the cafeteria because of the steep ascent and the stone steps down-and-up as you cross the gorge. Many hikers abandon the trail here, too.
On the way down, we saw a lot of people hiking up who would be lucky if they made it to the halfway point. The most memorable were two young women, laughing and in great spirits, who had just arrived from London. Wearing makeup, hats, sweaters and shiny black latex pants, their long puff jackets wrapped around their middles, they were astonished when we told them they were less than a quarter of the way up. But happy to hear about the cafeteria and the promise of cold drinks.
Hot tea at the cafeteria must have attracted the only people ahead of us that Saturday morning in March because we were the first hikers to arrive to the top. Yeah for jubilados!
Being the first to reach the summit gave us lots of time for Namgyel to elaborate on the jewel-coloured shrines, paintings and sculptures in the series of small temples and to share the results of conversations he was having with the resident monks. As the butter lamps we lit began to flicker, Namgyel told us “It’s actually oil not butter. They stopped using butter lamps here after they caused so many fires here.” The last fire reduced two of the temples to ruins in 1998. Namgyel told it was pretty much rebuilt in two years, miraculously, and everything reopened in 2005.
One of the monks asked Namgyel if we we’d like to roll the dice (here they roll three at a time) to determine our luck. Why not? When I rolled 13, the red-robed young monk’s face lit up with joy. Turns out 13 is an auspicious number in Bhutan. And luck prevailed.
As we arrived safely back at the trailhead, there was Tashi waiting with real horsepower to drive us to lunch at a local farmhouse.
Crossette, Barbara. So Close to Heaven. New York: Borzoi book published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1995.
Lumley, Joanna. In the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. London: BBC Books, 1997.
Martin Uitz. Hidden Bhutan. London: Haus Publishing, 2012.
Paul, Katherine Anne. “A Tiger’s Nest in the Land of the Thunder Dragon.” More info about the fires and cultural reconstruction.
Pommaret, Francoise. Bhutan, Himalayan Mountain Kingdom. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009.Wangchuk, Ashi Dorji Wangmo, Queen of Bhutan. Treasures of the Thunder Dragon. Penguin Books: India, 2006.
Total climbing: 959 m