Day 5: Paro Valley
The cock-a-doodle dogs wake me up. The power is out again so it is still, misty and very quiet across the city.
Jaim Yong has plans. He must have taken one look yesterday and declared us fit for we are off to the Tiger’s Nest today. I had hoped for one more day to acclimatize to the altitude but no, today is the day. I started a regime of Acetazolamide for altitude sickness before we left Bangkok but this morning I am tingling all over. This happened in Peru several years ago and apparently is a reaction to the drug so I skip the next dose and hope for the best. Drugs that attack your central nervous system cannot be good.
It’s ten interesting kilometers from town to the parking lot where we begin our ascent. I know I am making this sound like we are about to tackle Everest but it probably is as close as I will get so its best that I make the most of it.
As we head out of town on the narrow road along the Paro Chu, the work crews are already busy hand building the underpinnings for a road bed that will both hold back the river when it floods and support a second lane of traffic. Many of the fifteen thousand residents of the Paro District are on the move in cars or walking. Kids on the way to school are wearing traditional kiras and ghos. Some show their individuality in their choice of backpacks. “Hello Kitty” is very popular with the younger ones. They giggle and horse around like kids do everywhere. Adults carrying heavy bundles walk along the shoulders and periodically a farmer heads into the rice paddies. Dorji dodges them all and the cows too.
Traditional houses with ornate and colourfully painted decorations line the road. Homes are generally two or three stories high and are sometimes surrounded by fences that keep the goats from the corn. But the design is basically the same. It would not pay to train to be an architect in this country.
Red Poinsettas fall over stonewalls. Chickens run here and there. Dogs are everywhere minding their own business. The narrow pavement fades into gravel and then back to pavement as the road heads steadily upwards through the tall blue pine. The ditches are thick with long brown needles. The air is fresh.
Dorji turns into a car park that looks like we all slid to one side of a box but he is happy with our location and will remain behind while Jaim Yong, LeeAnn and I climb to the Tiger’s Nest. At this point it is a small dot high up on the mountainside. At the edge of the parking lot, a man is sells raw wooden sticks that serve as hiking poles. We cross the stone that bridges a drainage ditch and head into the pines.
Before we left the hotel Jaim Yong declared that we might be back there for lunch and that in the afternoon we would drive to Chelela Pass. The day would unfold differently.
The path starts out friendly enough but soon the grade increases and I look, somewhat wistfully, at those who pass me on ponies. Jaim Yong explains how it is not safe to ride them as the footing is not good in places and they get skiddish. He jumps to keep us out of harms way when they gather speed coming down hill or clamor to climb up.
The path is a challenge and not just because of the ever increasing grade and the precipitous drops. The footage is uneven and each step is into a dust bowl. After a rain, it would be just plain treacherous.
We stop at a chorten with a prayer wheel inside that is driven by a mountain stream. The sound of the water and the sound of the prayer wheel follow us. Gazing up, the Tiger’s Nest is getting closer but we have a long way to go yet.
The monastery we are headed for is very sacred to Tibetan Buddhism. Guru Ripoche is believed to have arrived in this valley from Tibet on the back of a Tigress. He meditated for three months in a cave that is enclosed by the current structure built by Gyetse Tenzin Rabgey, his reincarnation, in 1692. Padmasambhava is credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan. Through time many other Tibetan saints have come to Taksang to meditate.
In 1998, a fire, allegedly ignited by an electrical failure or a butter lamp, destroyed paintings, artifacts and statues. A monk also perished. The King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuk oversaw the restoration at a cost of over 2.5 million US dollars.
We stop at the BTCL coffee house for tea, a bathroom break and to just gaze across the vast valley and up to the monastery. Jaim Yong says there is another monastery a couple of hours further on the next mountain. I hear him but I will be thankful to reach Tiger’s Nest.
LeeAnn is in the lead and keeps telling me we are almost there. She lies. Jaim Yong is now carrying my camera. Oh well, it pays to know when you need help!
The view from the cliff that is level with the monastery is breathtaking. There is a calm here. The place makes you pause. Across the abyss is the “copper–coloured mountain paradise of Padmasambhava”. It hangs on a precipitous cliff, at 3,120 metres and about 900 m. above the Paro Valley.
We start down the stone and wooden staircase into the valley,pass the most beautiful towering waterfall and then begin to climb back up past the Monk’s residence to the temple itself. I want to take a picture but I am focusing on breathing.
I am fading but I am still making forward progress.
We put our cameras into LeeAnn’s backpack and relinquish it to the guards at the entrance to the monastery. Then a few more steps and we enter the main temple with its entrance to the cave used by Guru Rinpoche. The entrance is behind a wooden door that is only opened annually during a special ceremony. Buddhas and gifts for the monks are piled high on each side of the main altar. Monetary gifts are intermingled with plastic bags of food. It seems that monks like to snack as there seem to be an abundance of bags of chips. The whole place is watched over by a video camera. A lama and a monk live here. Others are at the smaller monastery near the waterfall.
We follow Jaim Yong through a hallway and up steps to an entrance to a second temple. The mountain itself bulges into the passageway. Here we gaze down into the cave whose entrance we viewed minutes earlier. It is a sacred place. Monks who practice Vajrayana Buddhism, the formal state religion of Bhutan, at this cave monastery live here for three years and seldom go down to the Paro valley.(I think I know why and it has little to do with meditating in isolation)
Up a few more steps and we enter the third temple. Outside, its golden roof sparkles in the sunlight but inside the silk draped ceiling and the statues of Padmasambhava stare down as I stare up and try to identify and begin to understand the eight manifestations of the Buddha.
Too soon it is time to turn around and head back down. This is a place that one needs to just experience. It is more than the sum of its parts.
We reclaim our bags and head back down the stone steps towards the base of the 200ft waterfall. Going down is good. Going up is not. I degrade into a person only able to take 25 steps at a time. Then I rest and try again. (Now LeeAnn tells me later that she was fine. I told her that was because she had so many rests waiting for me!) It is hard. I think it is more the altitude than my state of fitness but then I want to believe that don’t I. I can usually force myself to just push through. This time there was no choice. I had to stop, rest, breathe and start again. My friends waited with me. Better that, than have to carry me out I guess!
We start our descent back through the fragrant pines. We meet trekkers still heading to the summit and are passed by monks going to the valley. I can only imagine what this place would be in early morning light or when clouds curl around the mountain.
Jaim Yong had been hopeful that we would reach the summit, visit the monastery and return to the cafeteria by lunch. Our twelve o’clock lunch is at 3:30 pm. I am not hungry. I am exhausted. LeeAnn is ravenous and polishes off a heaping plate of rice, noodles, chicken, potato salad and of course ema datsi.
It’s a glorious forty-five minute downhill ramble back to the car. My hiking poles are a blessing and although steep, and dusty, the way is rough but passable. Note to self. Definitely, do not do this in the rainy season.
Dorji is patiently waiting when we emerge from the pine grove. Local artisans have their wares spread out under the trees in the hope of a late afternoon sale but we smile and move on.
The traffic going back into Paro is heavy with large army style trucks. On these roads, size matters. They get the road while we hug the shoulder and rattle through the ditches along the Paro Chu. Its waters are crystal clear as they tumble over whitish boulders. In places it is just more than a trickle but the riverbed is wide. In full flood, it must be spectacular.
A three-story building is under construction to our left. A ramp made from poles laid parallel to one another goes from the ground to the top. Amazing ingenuity but would a health and safety committee be amused?
Today was about the patience of my friends and my own perseverance. I think I may have chocked up considerable karmic points as distance and difficulty are supposed to matter. I was privileged to be able to visit such an amazing place as Tiger’s Nest. I was touched by the depth and complexity of the beliefs of the people in this country. Despite my difficulty, it was meant to be that I would have this experience. Amazingly the toe that gave me such grief yesterday did not hurt at all today. I mean “not at all”. Yesterday I could hardly get my foot in my shoe.