Tuesday 15th October 2019
I awake at 6.50 after a decent night’s sleep. Sleeping has been difficult in Bhutan. It’s been a bit hit and miss: time zone changes, altitude and the beds having variable layers of blankets and duvets along with thick hard pillows, just the opposite of what I like. However, the daybreak is wonderful, the air is white diamond clear, no hint of pollution, and a cloudless periwinkle sky, an ideal day for a good walk.
We breakfast at about 7.15 and there’s nervous anticipation in the group. The Tiger’s Nest is probably the most iconic image Bhutan gives to the world. Indeed it is a metaphor for the country itself: isolated, scenic and religious. Like the country, it too has modernised in the last twenty years following a disastrous fire in 1998. As we drive towards the mountain departure point, Kunzang is being cautious advising us on clothing and the need to stay hydrated. He’s responsible in some measure for a group of people whose levels of fitness and ability he barely knows. We stop at a small shop to buy last minute supplies of nuts, biscuits and water.
Febrile speculation spreads around the bus like a forest fire when Kunzang points up and up to the monastery. ‘It’s a long way,’ says someone. Others say, ‘If you feel funny, turn round,’ and ‘Heavens, it’s high,’ and ‘It’s quite exciting.’ The sun flashes light and dark like a stroboscope as the bus twists up the road through tall pines to a parking place already full with many cars and minibuses.
Just a few paces from bus in the thin cold air are enough to tell me this will not be easy. Marjorie hires a horse for 2000 Nu. Tony urges me to hire a walking stick (50 Nu).
We depart. The path is rocky and even still a little muddy from the summer’s rains. There’s a community feel as we ascend. Indians, Europeans and Bhutanese guides are all sharing a common experience.
‘Only one kilometre, com pot, com pot,’ says Viswanath from Bangalore. It’s a common encouragement to Indian pilgrims. In the friendly atmosphere, I playfully add ‘Challo, challo,’ and we start talking.
Hindu pilgrimages in India and the Himalayas involve notions of obligation, piety, ritual austerity, hardship and suffering. Simply, travelling to a sacred site is not sufficient to identify the traveller as a pilgrim, but it may suffice to define him as a religious tourist. The chief difference between religious tourists and pilgrims, I am told later over a cup of tea, therefore, lies in the motivation and in the execution of the Indian’s journey.
Have I been to Bangalore, Silicon City, Viswanath asks? I have. I tell him (see here) and we start chatting about cricket – Viswanath was a great Indian cricketer of my era – as we climb together among many Indians, the women in long saris and loose flip flops. Viswanath presses on while our small group of three, Alison, Tony and me, stop for a breather and to take pictures of the mountains and people.
I pass Vishwanath again. He has taken off his jumper and I joke he’ll be naked the next time we pass. It’s a friendly climb. Karin from Frankfurt looks disheveled, her curly hair falling around her face. Her compatriots have gone on ahead. I tell her I thought this climb was a schnapsidee but she ignores my attempted demonstration I can speak German and only replies in English. We part.
I meet Lloyd, a cheerful fat Indian in a white shirt from Bangalore. Is all Bangalore up on this trail? At last we see the restaurant. We’re halfway up. There’s a giant prayer wheel and Katherine takes my picture with the monastery barely visible in the background.
A welcome cup of tea and biscuits, offered without charge to everyone who reaches the halfway restaurant, creates a renewed camaraderie. Marjorie is sitting waiting for me, but she must do the last stage on foot. Hannah has made it, but will go no further, nor will her husband Tony and neither will Roz from Bournemouth. Someone’s computer watch tells them the first part was the equivalent of climbing 105 flights of stairs.
The sun is high and hot as we set out on the final climb. A short way up a signboard carries a hand-painted quote: ‘Nature never betrayed a heart that loves. Keats.’ Although the quote is from Wordsworth, I think of the Lake Poets and the similarity of the unspoilt beauty of the 19th century Lake District to Bhutan. Eventually we reach the steps which will end at the monastery. Marjorie has the walking stick as the first section is downhill to a waterfall and crowded. Across the ravine, the full majesty of the Tiger’s Nest glows at us in the sun. Then a final climb, we reach Louise and Steve and stop inside the monastery but outside its walls. The Tiger’s Nest hangs precariously on a crag with a sheer drop below. The views are spectacular and the camera shots do not do them justice. At 3000 ft, it is literally and figuratively the high point of the holiday.
We visit the temple itself and see the boarded up cave, open once a year, where the hermit Guru Rinpoche meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in the 8th century, after arriving on the back of a tiger which flew to the spot, hence the name. Why do Buddhists make life so difficult?
Outside I bump into Vishwanath and his beautiful daughter, my heart beats a little faster and she takes a picture of the two of us. It’s a nice way to end the pilgrimage, strangers united by a common goal.
We return to the restaurant. It’s as if we had emerged refreshed from the waters of Jordan, the group is at one, strangers no more and united by a common experience. We have a delicious late lunch, despite aching legs and hard-breathing lungs.
Back at the hotel, we have a family get together before dinner in Clare and Alison’s anteroom. Unfortunately Kunzang had a prior engagement and Hannah cannot present him with his tip nor can he hear my poem. I read it anyway to the amusement of everyone, I think.
Tomorrow, we have a wake up call at 4.30 am to fly to Kathmandu. Our last moments in this wonderful country will be a group buffet dinner and stories about a land we barely knew ten days before.
It was a costly holiday for two. Spending in total eight days in Bhutan and two in Nepal and one flying to and from London set us back, with minimal expenditure on presents, a little over £8000.