A Trek to the Tiger’s Nest
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