Friday, 3 October 2014

Destination Paro Taktsang - The Tiger's Nest

I had not heard of Tiger's nest till about a year ago though I spend a good time browsing about travel. My cousin mentioned the mysterious monastery up in the sky and I was totally blown away. At that instance Bhutan dropped into my bucket.

My fitness level has always been questionable . So my treks and hikes have been limited and easy. Tiger's nest would be my first high altitude hike on the mighty Himalayas. The monastery is considered an important pilgrimage for Buddhist and many a times listed under top ten places to visit for the avid traveler.

The monastery is perched on a vertical cliff at about 3150m/10250 ft above sea level. Considering that I have already traveled to Leh which is at 11,500 ft and Khardungla pass at 17,500 ft, Tiger's nest didn't seem very close to the heaven. But the fact that we were were going to hike the moderately difficult trail from an altitude of 7400 ft to 10250 ft made it different.

As suggested by every travel book and travelers we came across, we started the hike early at 7.00 am . Considering it had been raining a day earlier, we were wondering if we will be greeted by the rain god again. Instead of rain drops, we were accompanied by the thick blanket of fog.Joining us were groups of pilgrims and travelers from Japan,Italy ,USA and other parts of the world. every one had a choice betwen a horse /mule ride upto the first pit stop or hike all the way up. Tintin had mentioned that a horse back ride is considered very inauspicious and does not wash away our sins but will pile on more. We wanted to conquer the nest on foot auspicious or not, Tintin or not!!

Tintin pointed us towards the general direction of the monastery . As the cliff was covered in thick clouds, we had no clue how far up we would have to climb up. I guess that was a good thing. The visual distance and height did not get a chance to defeat us before we started.

The hike comprises of three stretches and I would consider the first one to be the most difficult one. All we did was look straight at the trial as the fog had covered the views and  concentrate on the climb . We passed fellow hikers and pilgrims of all fitness level. Some huffing and puffing , some passing us like they were on a leisure walk, some holding on tightly to their horses, some like the gusty Italian elderly lady  attempting the hike on  2.5" block heals.

 After about an hour of hiking, we reach the first pit stop. The clouds were slowly clearing and  the Tiger's nest finally peeked at us or did we peek at the nest. After a tough hike , to see your destination ahead of you motivates you to reach it more than ever.

The first glimpse of Tiger's nest- The white spec surrounded by clouds!

 A close up of the nest

 The start of the second stretch of the hike

After about 15 minutes to catch our breath, we started the second stretch. This is a gentler hike. The trail is not very steep and the view was finally giving us company. Horses are not allowed on this stretch. The monastery kept playing hide and seek between the clouds and the tall blue pine, juniper , ferns among other plants and trees. The high altitude and low oxygen and the possible onset of high altitude sickness could be a damper in this stretch. But the cliff top building beckons you at intervals till you step onto the second pit stop and suddenly the expansive view opens up.

The cliff

 The mysterious monastery

The sight from the second pit stop is unbelievable and the excitement you feel after 45minutes of hike is unmatched. The second stop is a favorite destination to take portraits with the tiger's nest at eye level  in the background. So we waited for our turn and relaxed our tired selves. 

Tiger's nest Finally!!!

 The view of the valley

Bird's nest or is it Tiger's nest on the granite ledge

With the nest giving us constant company we started the third and final stretch. This stretch comprises of man made steps lines craved out of the cliff. Though the monastery is at a short distance as crow flies from the second stop, the steep steps lead down and away from the nest. A lot of steps, some claim it to be 700 and some 850. Constant stopover for pictures and the climb down of about 450-500 steps and then climb up was not a cake walk but not difficult either as it took us about 30 minutes. We were awarded with a waterfall 200 ft high at the end of the climb.

 View at  the start of  third stretch

The climb down begins


 And down we go!

The 60m waterfall at the bottom

At the waterfall, we crossed the bridge and started the last stage to the destination. It cannot get more difficult. All we had to do was climb about 200-250 insanely steep steps up to the entrance. One has to push and pull themselves up these steps to reach the summit and collapse. Tintin asked us to hand over all our belongings and lead us into the entrance archway. Lo behold! what laid before us were more steps. The monastery has 4 main temples and residential shelters. Also around are caves, the most important being the one where Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) meditated. The pious temples create an atmosphere of bliss that cannot be recreated any place else.

After recovering all our senses and with a feeling of triumph , we started our hike back. It was mid day by the time we left the monastery and the clouds had completely disappeared giving us unlimited views. Finally it was a chance to take in the surroundings and enjoy the hike back. The climb up of 500 steps didn't seem very difficult this time around. The first and second stretch back was done fairly easily and in shorter time.

 On climb back mid afternoon

 At the first pit stop on way back

 The hike down

  The views we missed climbing up

At the second pit stop, we had a late lunch at a cafe with a clear view of tiger's nest looming over us. Most traveler end their hike here and return. We were lucky to reach the monastery and enjoy the hike. I guess all the 8 auspicious symbols of Buddhism were with us.
The Parasol- Protected us from obstacles
The Treasure Vase- Helped us manifest our superficial desires
The Lotus -Got us to understand compassion
The Couch- Banished any natural disaster
The Knot of Eternity-Lead us to a meditative mind
The Dharma wheel - Helped us build discipline and concentration.
The Golden Fishes- Got us closer to state of happiness
The Victory Banner-Victorious enlightenment

May we have more such holiday!

 The veil of clouds had disappeared by afternoon

At the second pit stop or the first stop while climbing up

More hiking  before we reached the parking lot

The view from parking lot which we missed in the morning

Date : September 2014
Place : Paro Taktsang, Bhutan

Tip : Pace out the Hike, There are no victory medals to be won here.
First :High altitude hike
The travel connection :Because in the end, you wont remember the time spent in the office or mowing the lawn. Climb that mountain -Jack Kerouac

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Thursday, 2 October 2014

Destination Paro

Paro, home to what is considered as one of the most dangerous airports, was our final destination.  The drive from Punakha to Paro was a long and uncomfortable one because of the road work and long road blocks. One of the roadblocks was close to Dochula resort . A short walk to the resort and we were in the comforts of closed environment. The resort boasts of a 360 degree view of Himalayan ranges on a clear day. But we were not so lucky.  All we were greeted with was the silhouettes of sparrows, Doves and pine trees. The resort has a souvenir shop with some very interesting exclusive  pieces of knick knacks and should not be missed.

Itinerary at Paro had a repeat of activities and sights similar to Punakha and Thimphu. The exemption was the finale of the trip. Every traveler we came across spoke with such excitement while sharing their experiences that all the other sights felt dull. But more about it later.

Like with other places , Paro has its own Dzong with its wooden bridge. A poor cousin of Punakha Dzong, we did take in the sights with a little less enthusiasm. The overload of Dzongs and the long tiring journey had dampened our spirits. But that did not stop us from capturing the memory into a still. So here you go, images of the Rinpung Dzong!

The only other stop over was at the local National Museum of Bhutan. Among other things , it reminded me of the various Zorig Chusum or the arts and crafts we had come across so far. And let me reintroduce some and list out the others that I missed out.
Do Zo      - Craft of Stone work
Gar Zo     - Craft of Iron work
Lug Zo     - Craft of Bronze work
Tshem Zo - Art of tailoring
Thag Zo    - Art of weaving
De Zo       - Craft of paper making
Troe Ko    - Craft of traditional ornament making
Jim Zo      - Art of clay work
Tasha Zo   - Craft of weaving bamboo and cane
Shag Zo    -Art of wood turning
Lah Zo      - Art of Bhutanese painting
Shing Zo   - Craft of wood work
Par Zo        - Art of craving

We would have loved to spend more time taking in the various displays. But the long drive that day and the long trek the next day made us rush to our home for that night.

On  arrival to our room at the Dewachen resort , we immediately went into a meditative mode and took in a deep breath of breathtaking views. Yes, we were all set to trek to Tiger's Nest next day.

Date : September 2014
Place : Paro, Bhutan

Tip : Look out for the airport strip from the museum and Dzong
First : Paro!
The travel connection : A museum is a place where one should lose one's head- Renzo Piano

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Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Destination Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lhakhang Nunnery

The well organized holiday was put together by Eco Expedition in association with Norbu Bhutan. I would totally recommend them. 

After a quick stopover at Punakha town , we drove to one of the most beautiful locations in Bhutan. If only i could retire in a place similar to this!!. Have a small little business to keep me going and spend the rest of the time perched on a ridge amid pine trees , overlooking valleys with 360 degree panoramic view

Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lhakhang Nunnery  overlooks valleys of of Punakha and Wangduephodrang.The temple houses a 14-foot main bronze statue of Avalokiteshvara (Chenrigzig chagtong chentong). Other statues include those of Guru Padmasambawa, Gautama Buddha, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, Tsela Namsum, the 21 Taras and Tsepamay (Buddha of longevity). The Avalokiteshvara statue, one of the biggest in the country, was the handiwork of entirely local Bhutanese artisans.  
The temple complex also houses a permanent higher learning and meditation centre for nuns where, apart from religious trainings, it provides life skill training such as tailoring, embroidery, statue making and thangka painting. 

We choose  Punatsangchhu cottages in Wangdue as a stopover in this region. A basic hotel overlooking the river with decent rooms and manageable food. It offered decent bird watching opportunities and that made up for everything.
We were fortunate to see the phenomenon of "River smoke" for the first time in our lives! The shallow fog was locally restricted to some parts of the river. The internet informed me that when the air is colder than the water, the temperature difference causes evaporation and forms the smoke. Interesting natural phenomenon, something i would not have come across in the city I live in. Another reason to travel!!! Earlier in the day, we also managed to see few otters at a distance. Happiness is looking out of the window and discovering something!

Opportunities multiply as they are seized - Sun Tzu

 Date : September 2014
Place : Punakha, Bhutan

Tip : Look out for otters in the river.
First : River smoke!
The travel connection : Experience natural phenomenons!

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