Bhutan’s most famous site by far is called Taktsang—or, more commonly, the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. It’s famous because it’s perched almost impossibly on the side of a sheer cliff, at an altitude of more than 10,000 feet. The only way to get there is by a long, steep trek with an elevation gain of about 2,000 feet.
The legend is that the second Buddha, Guru Rinpochhe, flew to the site on the back of a tigress in the 7th century. He meditated in a cave there for three months. Somewhere along the way the Buddhists erected a monastery and temple on the site; it burned in 1998 and was reconstructed.
Tourists like us typically trek to Tiger’s Nest on the last day of their trip—partly because it’s a high point (no pun intended) of a Bhutan trip, but probably more so to allow time to adjust to the altitude. I suspect also that the guide is taking mental notes on the easier hikes earlier in the trip, noticing who does well and who struggles, and therefore who’s going to need extra time to get up to Tiger’s Nest.
There’s an option to ride horseback up to the halfway point, but Yeshey, our trip director and guide, opposes that. He says it’s more dangerous than hiking, and it’s sinful besides. I’m a little fuzzy on the sinful part, but I think it has to do with respect for animals. Yeshey says that Buddhists believe those who ride horses for transportation won’t fare well at reincarnation time—they may end up coming back as horses themselves and have to carry people on their back up steep hills. (On the other hand, he says, the horses that carry the monks, the royal family, and other important people clearly must have done something right in their previous lifetimes.)
Yeshey did advise us that, when we saw horses coming, we should move to the side of the path to let them pass—and that we should move to the mountain side, not the cliff side. That way, if the horse squeezes you off the path, the results won’t necessarily be, um, fatal.
On our Tiger’s Nest hike, we encountered people from all over: China, Japan, Kolkata, Santa Fe. A group from Thailand came up from behind us on horseback and passed us, looking relaxed and happy and shooting photos of our sweaty selves with their iPhones as they passed.
As is the case everywhere in Bhutan, every visitor or group of visitors hiking up to Tiger’s Nest is accompanied by a Bhutanese guide—almost always male, it seems, and recognizable by their attire, the traditional gho. No tourist explores Bhutan on his or her own, for reasons I’m not sure about. Whether it’s a group of 24 or just a couple or even a single person, a guide goes with them.
The trail is your basic steep mountain path, a combination of dirt and rocks and horse plops, but with an added bonus: Buddhist prayer flags everywhere along the path, strung from one tree to another. They made great photo ops. Yeshey also brought some along (you can buy them in Paro; a bag of five prayer flags costs about five bucks) for us to put up when we got to the monastery.
My goal was to get as far as the cafeteria, which is roughly halfway up. I’d heard there’s a good view of Tiger’s Nest from there, and considering my plantar fasciitis and my general out-of-shapeness, I figured that would be a fine accomplishment.
We got to the cafeteria—and to say I brought up the rear would be a massive understatement—and took a break for tea and crackers. When the rest of the group hiked onward, I followed for about five minutes to another good overlook, then headed back down to the cafeteria to hang out and wait for them. (I was lucky to find a friendly stray kitty who jumped into my lap and slept while I looked at photos on the back of my camera and jotted down some notes on my iPhone.)
When the group came back, they reported that the second half of the climb was way harder and steeper than the first, and that they had to hustle to get to the monastery before it closed at 1 p.m. for the monks’ lunch. They were able to visit three temples in the monastery complex, and at one temple could look through a trap door in the wooden floor to see the cave where the Lord Buddha spent those three months meditating so many centuries ago. No photos allowed in the temples, though, as has been the case at every temple we’ve visited.
The Penn Staters also had the great fortune to meet the head lama of the monastery, who listened as Yeshey showed him our prayer flags and explained to him in the local language what specific wishes were behind them (a safe journey back home to the U.S. and so on). The lama blessed their prayer flags and sprinkled the Buddhist equivalent of holy water on them. Right after that, and I am not making this up, he took a call on his cell phone.
If you ever have a chance to hike to Tiger’s Nest, here are some suggestions:
—It might not be a bad idea to get a prescription in advance for Diamox, as virtually all of the veteran travelers in the Penn State group did. Everything I’ve read says that you have to respect the altitude: 10,000 feet isn’t Mount Everest, but it’s definitely higher than most of us are used to. There’s no predicting who will get altitude sickness, and those in great physical condition can be just as vulnerable as those who aren’t. When the doc I talked to at Penn State explained the consequences—cerebral and/or pulmonary edema, both of which could be fatal—he had my attention in a big way.
—It’s also good to bring a walking stick, or rent a bamboo one from the Bhutanese guy in the parking lot before you go up. Two walking sticks are even better. They really help with your footing, especially if you encounter mud, as we did. Two of the Penn Staters showed me how to inch sideways down the muddy path by using the poles to side-step as you might when walking up or down a ski slope.
—Take lots of water with you, and stop often to drink it. I used the water breaks as an excuse to just stop walking and catch my breath. “I think I’ll stop and drink a little water now,” I’d say, and the others would say, “Oh yeah, good idea,” and I’d think, Yes! 60 seconds of oxygen!
—Be sure to bring lightweight rain gear and good walking shoes or boots with a grippy tread. The weather is so changeable up there: We went from overcast to sunny to sprinkly to pouring rain and back to sunny again. I somehow managed to not grasp the importance of rain gear when reading the pre-trip info, and failed to bring a rain jacket. So when it started to rain—hard—on the way down, I got pretty wet. And when my walking shoes, which are just fine on ordinary surfaces, proved to be no match for the rain-slicked path, I fell. So I got pretty muddy too.
Then again, some people seem oblivious to all the sane advice and somehow get away with it: One of our travelers noticed a family heading up the steep, muddy trail in flip-flops.
Tina Hay, editor
Bhutan is said to be one of the most ecologically diverse nations in the world, and is a paradise for bird lovers, with something like 700 species. Our Alumni Association tour isn’t really focused on birding, but I’ve been keeping my eyes and ears open for birds when I get a chance.
My favorite bird so far, hands down, is a largish one that looks something like an exotic woodpecker with a plume on its head and a long bill. (See photo at right.) There were a pair of them pecking the ground for insects outside our hotel in the Phobjikha Valley, and I asked a few people if anyone knew what they were. At one point I struck up a conversation with a pair of travelers from Bangalore, and I asked: “Are you birders?” One of them said, “Of course,” as if everyone who visits Bhutan is a birder. I described the birds in the lawn and asked what they were, and they told me they’re common hoopoes. A great name, if you ask me, and a great-looking bird.
Otherwise, most of what I’ve seen is fairly similar to what we have back home. I’ve seen a few magpies (common in the western U.S.), a ton of crows and/or ravens, and a lot of sparrows that I can’t identify but that I suspect are not terribly exotic.
We also see a lot of some sort of grackle that’s black with white wings and a tail.
On our hike in the Phobjikha Valley, we heard a cuckoo calling loudly and repeatedly, but didn’t see it. I also heard but didn’t see a bird that, if I were back home, I’d say was a red-bellied woodpecker; they have a very distinctive chirring sound. The bird book at our hotel here in Paro says they have something called a rufous-bellied woodpecker over here, with a similar call, so who knows.
Probably the most famous bird in Bhutan is one that spends its winters here and the rest of the year in Tibet: the black-necked crane. It’s endangered—we watched a documentary that said only 800 of them remain, though I’ve since seen higher estimates. It’s also considered sacred to the Buddhists who make up most of Bhutan’s population. Supposedly the penalty for killing one is life in prison.
The cranes aren’t here right now, alas—their summer breeding grounds are north of here, on the Tibetan plateau in the Himalayas.
As evidence of their special standing among Buddhists, when the cranes fly south to Bhutan’s Phobjikha Valley in November, they circle over the roof of the Gangteng Monastery several times before landing in the valley. And they do the same on their way out of town in March. This isn’t some sort of apocryphal story—we saw some pretty cool documentary footage of them doing it.
There’s an organization here called the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature, an NGO that runs the information center we visited. A few of the Penn State travelers bought some handicrafts in the center’s gift shop, happy to know that a portion of the proceeds will benefit those beautiful cranes.
Tina Hay, editor
I knew going into the Bhutan trip that there would be a few drives of three hours or more—from Thimphu to Punakha, from Punakha to Gangtey, and so on. I pictured at least a two-lane highway, if not four, and I certainly assumed it would be paved. I figured I’d use those bus rides to knit, maybe edit photos on my laptop, or sleep.
Surprise! The “highway” is bumpy, winding, and narrow—practically a one-lane road by U.S. standards. Some sections are paved; others, not so much. The road is also not for the faint of heart: a few feet from our van window lies a precipitous drop-off to the valley below. The guardrails, when they were there, didn’t offer much reassurance=—especially not the brief stretch of guardrails we saw that were made of bamboo. We passed signs announcing an “accident prone zone” and warning of “shooting rocks.”
If you could ignore the sheer cliffs below you, the views out the window were spectacular. Here’s just one example of the scenery through which we were driving:
According to the Altimeter app on my iPhone, we were at about 10,916 feet before we started our descent into the Phobjikha (pronounced roughly like “pope JEE kuh”) Valley. We saw lush green mountains and terraced hillsides, sometimes a white-water river way down below, and occasionally some snow-capped peaks in the distance. At one point on the way back from Phobjikha, we asked the driver to stop so we could get out and shoot photos of a herd of yaks.
I cranked up the ISO on my camera to about 1600 or 2000, so that I could get really fast shutter speeds—like 1/4000th of a second—which, I hoped, would negate the effect of the bouncing bus. I had just a small amount of open window to shoot out of, but eventually I figured out that I could just poke the camera out the window, point in the general direction of the vista, and fire off a few shots. I got a lot of junk, but also a few half-decent ones.
I checked the speedometer several times and it was rarely higher than 20, which I assume is kilometers per hour, which translates to 12 miles an hour. And every time a vehicle approached from the other direction, we’d slow down or even stop, so the two vehicles could safely squeeze by each other. At that rate I can understand why it supposedly takes two days to get from one end of the country to the other—a distance of only a few hundred miles as the crow flies.
Incidentally, we’ve all been impressed with the politeness of the drivers. The etiquette seems to be that when you come up on a slower vehicle from behind, you honk your horn gently, then the other driver turns on his left turn signal, as if to say, “Go for it” (keep in mind that they drive on the left-hand side of the road over here and pass on the right). Once you pass them, you honk again to say, “Thank you.” (Or, as they say in Bhutan, kardenchae la.) Almost never do you hear drivers honk their horns out of frustration or anger—honking here is a nice thing to do.
Our driver, whose name I can pronounce (SEN-tcho) but not necessarily spell, was unbelievably adept at navigating the hairpin turns—and dodging the loose rocks, the potholes, and the seemingly oblivious cows that frequently stood directly in our path.
Apparently this road, bad as it is, is an improvement over what was there before 2008. (Carolyn Welden, one of the Penn State passengers, speculates that until then it was a yak path.) The road was widened for the coronation of the Fifth King at the Punakha Dzong in 2008. Nowadays the locals refer to it as a highway, without a trace of irony in their voices.
Tina Hay, editor
We’re just back from two days in the Phobjikha (pronounced roughly like “pope JEE kah”) Valley of Bhutan, a valley that’s really more of a mountain valley: The altimeter app on my iPhone said we were above 9,600 feet. It was noticeably chillier there than any other place we’ve visited, with nighttime temperatures in the 40s, and it’s also where some of us first started to really feel the effects of the altitude. Most of us got a prescription for Diamox—a drug that accelerates your body’s adjustment to high altitudes—before we left home, and those who hadn’t already started taking it, including me, definitely started once we got to Phobjikha.
The base for our Penn State group for our two days in the “valley” was a lovely place called the Dewachen Hotel, which had the look and feel of a deluxe ski lodge, complete with the gentle smell of wood smoke in the air. Each of our rooms was heated by a small wood stove, and there was a big wood stove in the dining area. The place had electricity, too—off and on. It seemed to be available in our rooms early in the morning and after about 5 p.m. So if you had camera batteries, a laptop, or an iPhone to charge, you had to plan around the electricity schedule.
Incidentally, when you come to Bhutan, you have to bring several different kinds of adaptors. Some outlets require an Indian-style adaptor; others, the European kind.
This has also been the only hotel on the trip to have no wi-fi—though the wi-fi at some of the previous stops has been so pokey as to make me think the Comcast Slowsky turtles were in charge. Of course, one might argue that when in Bhutan, it might be a good opportunity to stay away from the Internet anyway and just enjoy being here. And for the past two days, we did just that.
While in the Phobjikha Valley we visited the Gangteng Monastery—we’ve seen a lot of Bhuddist monasteries and temples on this trip, but this one is associated with a different sect, the Nyingmapa sect. This particular monastery doesn’t receive government funding, and you could tell: Its buildings seemed more run-down, less spiffy, than the others we had seen. But we still loved wandering around its courtyards, photographing the prayer wheels and the murals, asking the monks passing by if we could take their pictures, and visiting the very ornate temple, where the monks happened to be chanting a special prayer service.
(The photo here is of the entrance to the temple, where the monks and visitors must leave their shoes before entering.)
We took a hike of 4 kilometers—about 2.4 miles—through the valley, checking out the tiny wildflowers, noticing how odd it was to encounter cows in a pine forest, photographing the sweeping vistas, and (in my case anyway) gasping for breath at times in the mountain air.
In a few days we’re scheduled to hike to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, a long and steep trek that’s the highlight of any trip to Bhutan, and I sure hope I adjust to the altitude by then. At the very least, I hope to make it halfway up, to the cafeteria area, which I’m told affords some pretty sweet views of the iconic monastery clinging to the side of the mountain. But others in our group are fully intending to hike the whole way to the top.
Tina Hay, editor
The local currency in Bhutan takes a little getting used to. It’s spelled Ngultrum, which I struggle to pronounce, but luckily the locals just abbreviate it to “Nu,” which is pronounced like “new,” or more accurately, something like “nee-YOU.”
The Nu is pegged to the Indian rupee, so if you’re comfortable with the rupees-to-dollars exchange rate, you’re all set. Unfortunately none of us on the trip are conversant with rupees.
The exchange rate is about 54 Nu to the U.S. dollar, or so says the Oanda currency app on my iPhone. In reality it’s a little lower than that—and, interestingly, it depends on what kind of U.S. dollars you’re exchanging. Our tour director from Odysseys Unlimited, whose name is Yeshey, took us to the currency exchange in Thimphu to get some local cash, and we found that 50-dollar bills and larger denominations get something close to the 54-Nu figure, while 20s get more like 48 Nu. I’ve also heard that the crisper and newer the bill, the better the exchange rate. Yeshey had to sign the paperwork for each of us, apparently to verify to the bank that the U.S. money we were trading in was’t counterfeit.
The exchange rate makes things look really expensive over here, when in fact they’re not. At the handmade-paper place, for example, we bought packets of three or four notecards plus envelopes on lovely textured paper for about 250 Nu, or about five bucks. I can get a can of Diet Coke—where available—for about 100 Nu, or two bucks. The iPhone app has come in very handy in the local shops.
If you take a look at the photo above, the topmost bill is 1,000 Nu, or about 20 bucks U.S. Pictured on the bill is the country’s 33-year-old king, referred to as the Fifth King, who is revered around here—as was his father, the Fourth King. The Fourth King is still alive; he abdicated to his son in 2006, in part to accelerate the growth of democracy in the country.
The Penn State travelers, by the way, are all pretty impressed with the efforts of the kings to introduce democracy into their kingdom over the past few decades. Bhutan currently has both a king and a prime minister—and you may be familiar with the prime minister: Jigme Thinley ’76g, a Penn Stater. Actually, he’s referred to around here as “the former prime minister,” as the country is in the middle of elections and those currently in office had to step down from their positions in order to run for reelection.
The second bill in the photo above, worth 500 Nu, shows a photo of the dzong we visited in Punakha. And the bottom bill, worth 5 Nu (about 9 cents in U.S. money), shows the famed Tiger’s Nest Monastery, to which we hope to climb on the last day.
Incidentally, the money over here is all currency—no coins, for some reason.
Tina Hay, editor
Greetings from Punakha, a city of about 30,000 in western Bhutan. It’s the former capital—Thimphu is now the capital—and is still the spiritual capital of the country. I’m a little fuzzy on what qualifies a city to be the spiritual capital, but I suspect I’ll have a better grip on that after we visit the dzong (kind of a combination of fortress and palace) later today.
Here’s just a sampling of what we’ve done in our first few days over here:
—visited a school where Bhutanese teenagers spend six years learning any of 13 handcrafts, such as woodcarving, painting, sculpture, and embroidery;
—visited a small factory where workers make paper by hand from the bark of the daphne plant;
—went to the post office to browse (and buy some of) the fancy stamps that Bhutan is famous for;
—eaten a lot of foods that I can’t pronounce, but that involve things like red rice, river grass soup, mustard oil, and green chiles;
—seen lots of Buddhist prayer flags and smelled so much incense I thought we were back in the ’60s; and
—hung out for an evening with the country’s chief elections commissioner, who happens to be a Penn Stater: Kunzang Wangdi ’80.
I’ll share a few photos with you for now, and hope to update you more in a few days, when we get to a spot that has better wi-fi access. First, to give you a sense of the scenery, here’s what awaited us when we landed at Paro airport (Bhutan’s only international airport) the other day:
That’s an Airbus operated by Druk Air, the national—and only—airline of Bhutan. If you click to enlarge the photo, you can see that on the tail is the national flag, the emblem of a dragon.
Next, some of the students at the painting school. Check out the guy on the left—apparently the occasional bout of boredom in the classroom is a universal phenomenon:
Something we noticed from the moment we landed is how thoroughly Buddhist a country this is. Prayer flags are everywhere, and when we visited the Memorial Chorten (a large Buddhist shrine in Thimphu), you could see people like the guy below, walking around twirling their prayer wheels:
After a couple of days in the capital city of Thimphu, we headed off to the Punakha Valley, a three-hour ride over a bumpy, narrow, mountain road that is essentially the national highway. It’s the only road between Thimphu and parts east. Here’s a glimpse of what it looked like out the front windshield of our maxi-van:
By the way, people drive on the left side of the road over here.
After our stay here in Punakha, we head to a city called Gangtey, where we’re told the electricity will be a little hit-or-miss. I’m guessing that Internet access will be out of the question. Other than an upcoming post about the local currency, it may be a few days before I can post again. Talk to you then.
Tina Hay, editor
Right about now, the Penn Staters who are signed up for the Alumni Association’s “Bhutan: The Hidden Kingdom” trip are making their way to airports in order to begin their journey. Some are flying out of Dallas; others out of JFK; and I’m at Dulles. Regardless of the gateway city, we all have the same itinerary, and it’s probably not one that you’d expect.
We’re all flying on Emirates Air, and our first stop is in Dubai. It’s the easternmost green dot on the map above, on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Why that’s our hub, I don’t know—I only wish we had a longer layover there. I hear the airport is very cool and upscale, and the downtown is even more fascinating; among other things, it’s the home of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa (remember Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol?). But we only change planes there, and then it’s off to Delhi, India. By the time we get to Delhi, it’ll be late afternoon on Tuesday, local time—and from checking the weather forecast, I see that it’ll be 102 degrees. Much better than the highs of 111 I see predicted for next weekend.
Anyway, after spending the night in Delhi, we’ll head back to the airport in the morning, this time to board our flight on Druk Air—the Bhutanese national airline—to the city of Paro, home of Bhutan’s only airport.
Oh, and I’m told the plane makes a stop in Kathmandu en route to Bhutan. So let’s just recap: Dubai, Delhi, Kathmandu, Paro—pretty cosmopolitan, huh?
The thing I find interesting in the map above (click on it to see an enlarged version) is our flight path. It takes us pretty far north before dropping down across Europe and into Dubai. That’s because that’s the shortest distance between the two points. It has to do with the shape of the Earth and with geometry, trigonometry, and something called “Great Circle navigation.” And that’s pretty much everything I know on the subject.
When I fly, I’m always torn about whether to choose a window or aisle seat. The flight from Dulles to Dubai is 13 hours (!!!), so I requested an aisle seat—I like the freedom to get up regularly and stretch my legs, and just the thought of 13 hours pinned against the window makes me claustrophobic. But I hate to think what scenery I might be missing by not being near the window. Often there’s a window in the very back of the big planes that I can go peek out of from time to time.
But on the flight from Delhi to Paro, I’m hoping for a window seat. It’s a fairly short flight, 90 minutes I think, and I can’t begin to imagine how gorgeous those Himalayas will look from the air.
Incidentally, Paro is one of the more difficult landing approaches in the world. The pilot has to make a couple of relatively quick turns and then, after the last left turn, has to straighten out in a hurry to hit the runway. There are lots of videos on YouTube showing how it looks from the pilot’s perspective; the one below was shot by someone standing on a nearby hillside, and it’s fun to watch.
Depending on the Internet access in Bhutan—some of the hotels do have wi-fi, for example—I’m planning to Tweet a lot of updates and photos throughout the trip. Follow me on Twitter (@tinahay) or “like” our Facebook page to hear about our adventures.
Tina Hay, editor