Monday, 14 December 2009

Day 32 - Paro, Bhutan

The Tigers Nest is, without doubt, one of the highlights of the trip, if not my life.

It begins with pain – the trek is two hours of very very steep paths. I began to feel tight-chested which at first I thought could have been down to the altitude. But then I realised that the highest we were getting was around 11,000 feet – not only that, I was barely a third of the way up. Much more likely that it was down to my lack of fitness. Head down: left foot, right foot, etc etc...

At half way you get a fantastic view of the temple – if you've ever heard of Bhutan you'll have seen it – it's the national symbol, a buiding that balances precariously on the side of a sheer cliff. Tradition says it is held aloft by the hairs of angels. But to be honest, at this stage you're much more impressed by the conveniently (for trekkers, though I'm not sure if it is for the owner's bank balance) positioned café. After a bitter coffee and some dry biscuits, we walked on, finally reaching the temple - my head was light and my legs were heavy - maybe the altitude was having a little effect after all.

There are a number of religious sites at the Tiger's Nest, but the first one we entered was the most special. It was the Tiger's Nest itself – named thanks to the “divine ruler* who arrived into Bhutan from Tibet on the back of a tiger; he left the animal here to live as he entered the country. Today it is a grotto deep in the cliffs where monks go to meditate. The temple opens as normal, but in the corner of the room there is a tiny door: ducking through there takes you to a rickety ladder that then leads to the cave. It's not a simple climb, you have to lodge your body tightly against two walls before clambering down, making sure you don't fall down a fatal-looking chasm. There's then another piece of improvised rock-climbing before you reach the tiger's nest. It's not surprising that Buddhists 1200 years ago found this place sacred – just surprising that they found it at all!

But this is not the end of the adventure – by squeezing through a tiny passage you find yourself looking out into daylight again. A quick hop over a heart-stopping gap and you're finally on a ledge, on a sheer rock face, over 10,000 feet above the forested floor. My guide beckoned me to join him sitting with his legs dangling over the edge and whie my head said that it was fine, my body seemed to be telling me that this was the worst idea I'd ever come up with. I crouched down behind a large, somewhat precarious, rock and enjoyed the view without being an itchy-bum away from a 3000 meter drop. My cowardice was eased by the assurance from Samgay that anyone who makes it this far has all his sins forgiven - considering you normally need to walk all the way around a stupa for a single sin to be quashed; this heart-thumping adventure was probaby worth the effort.

After seeing another three temples which were great in their own right, but somewhat overshadowed by the Tiger's Nest, we began our descent. As well as the steep, steep paths, there are 800 steps on the route and so when I reached the bottom my legs were like jelly. - though my head was like a 5-year-old full of jelly and ice cream. It was the one morning of this whole trip that I'll never forget.

A quick lunch before we drove out to a fortress razed by the Tibetans 400 years ago. They're impressive ruins, but the main reason for this walk was to see the country's highest peak which is visible from here – like a white-finned shark rising over the ocean of the Bhutanese Himalayas. By the time I got back to the hotel at 4pm, I had done an awful lot of walking, and needed a lie down.

I leave Bhutan tomorrow, but hopefully not before seeing the National Museum. I will be very very sad to leave the country – maybe I'll be back one day soon. Apart from anything else, the Yeti has proved elusive.

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