The Trail to Taktshang

The iconic photographs of the monastery perched on the side of a sheer cliff face are ubiquitous.  A quick Google search for the site sends you to thousands of photos of this temple just to the north of Paro Town. It has become a tourist tradition to end one’s travels in Bhutan with a  final hike to the temple grounds and to visit the interior shrine rooms dedicated to Padmasambhava (and other important Vajrayana spiritual leaders).

As the story goes, Padmasambhava came to this place to meditate, subdue demons, and bring Vajrayana to the people of Bhutan (and of course to Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim and elsewhere in the region).  Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, is the first teacher of Vajrayana and is considered the second Buddha.  He made his way to Bhutan and meditated in a cave of resident tigers.  The cave can still be seen, if you come at the right time, and the system of caves that fill the mountainside are impressive.

Our trek up the mountainside and to the temple was a challenge in many ways.  The trip leaves a lasting memory on everyone who makes it to the Taktshang.  On this day, we started about 8:30AM.  A few folks in our group chose to ride horses to the tea house situated across the ravine from the temple.  We began our hike on a sunny day and made our way up, up, up.  How many miles and what elevation gain?  Total round trip was 6.7 miles.  Elevation gain and loss was 2250 feet.  Those numbers don’t really tell you the whole story.  One gains and loses elevation on the way to the temple.  In fact, in the last ¼ mile, one loses 800 feet and regains it on the same path (all in a series of mismatched steps).

The path was muddy from days of rain and the plodding of horse hooves on this narrow path.  As we started the hike, we followed about 10 horses on the way up.  Some of us quickly decided to take another, less well-known trail taken by pilgrims to the temple.  I learned of this trail on my last trip and a few of us climbed it.  It was a much more direct route to the tea house and climbs nearly vertically.  Some hand-carved steps were created in the dirt and the trail leads to a series of shrines hidden in the forest.

The rest of the group meandered on the horse trail to the tea house and we made it in a little less than an hour…a fairly fast pace.  We rested for about 15 minutes and then continued.  The next part of the trail climbs about 900 feet in ¼ mile.  The trail is wide but steep and well-trod. If this were a rainy day, the going would be a huge challenge.  As it was, the sun bared down on us and we hiked together, mostly, on the way up.

As you walk this part of the trail, the numbers of people thin and work at their own pace.  As you amble along, its common to strike up a conversation with your fellow hikers.  Most folks are from India and are eager to chat about the trek, your travels, and, of course, the United States government.  While this blog is not a testimony to politics, every single person expressed concern for our country.  I started to keep track of these expressions of concern and worry; of the people I talked to on this trip, all thirty people said basically the same thing: what has happened to the United States?

After that first ¼ mile from the tea house, the trail flattens and you are ABOVE the elevation of the Tiger’s Nest at 10,550 feet.  This gentle reprieve from the climb ends pretty quickly as you pass a small temple and then you see what is in front of you: stairs descending down the cliff wall, around the ravine and up the other side.  Someone said there are about 2000 steps up and down.  You descend steeply down the cliff face and lose elevation rapidly.  Every single one of us was thinking: holy crap, we’ve got to come back UP these steps!

IMG_2065
The long climb to the temple.

At the bend at the bottom of the stairs is a waterfall descending from the rock wall high above you. A small temple is here and a small bridge that crosses the ravine, open below you.  You can see 1000 feet to the trees on a distant hill.  Yikes!

Once past the waterfall, the climb, again, begins to the temple itself.  The steps wind around the cliff wall with a railing on one side. The steps get steeper as they rise until the last push to a police station and place to put all personal belongings (you can take nothing but your ciothing with you into the shrine rooms).

Now we are done climbing right!?  Wrong. The interior of the temple is filled with very steep steps.  The interior is built on a series of platforms for each of the shrine rooms.  The climbing has, in fact, not ended.  The very first steps past the guard station climb 200 feet in about 50 feet…it’s steep!  The steps are oddly shaped and the stretch is difficult for smaller folks. We are all pretty spent at this point from all the climbing…and yet we continue.

IMG_2069
The view across the ravine…

We entered four of the ten or so shrine rooms open to the public.  The entrance to the Tiger’s Nest is closed on this day and so we have to comfort ourselves in seeing the doorway to it.   Namgay tells us the stories of the shrines and the reasons for their placement.  All too soon our visit has come to an end.  It was as close to a kind of pilgrimage as many of us have ever done.

We retrace our steps and move a bit more quickly to the base of the climb.  It took us 3:00 hours to climb up and 1:45 hours to make it down.

IMG_2082
The lonely pony at Taktshang

As we boarded the bus, silence descended on us all.  We traveled a way down the Paro Valley to a farmhouse for a traditional lunch, archery, and a hot stone bath.  Yes, a hot stone bath.  This traditional form of bathing felt so good.  You sit in a wooden tub, the hot stones piled at one end, separated from you with a wooden series of slats allowing the water to move between the stones and you.  The bath was filled with wormwood leaves that left a wonderful scent and soothing calm on our bodies.

Our traditional lunch included a kind of pork fat, dried meat, potatoes, red rice, vegetables, and peaches for dessert.  All of the food was grown here in a wonderful non-pretentious take on farm to table. Every day in Bhutan are meals that are, literally, farm to table!

Sonam, the son of the owners of this farmhouse, taught us how to shoot Bhutanese bows.  The bows and arrows are handmade from bamboo by Sonam’s mother, Dorji Dema.  She was in the Bejing Olympics in 2008 and represented Bhutan in archery.  Through her notoriety, she is working to break down the very strict gender barriers between men and women in Bhutan, arguing that woman and men should compete together in archery, a sport that is not based on strength alone.IMG_2096

IMG_2093 2

IMG_2091 2IMG_2101

IMG_2094
Sonam hits the target; the ONLY one who did.

\Our last evening in Bhutan was filled with some laughter around a table, something we’ve all grown to love.  As we went to bed that night, as tired as we were, I imagine that we all reflected, for a minute, on what this trip has meant.

Tomorrow, on to Bangkok!

From Trongsa to Paro and Places in Between

Our days have been a bit more leisurely as we headed west to Thimphu and Paro.  The drive kind of lulls the traveler to sleep and we made our way back from Trongsa on a much improved roadway.

We stopped for a bite at the Lobesa Café and Hotel, a wonderful spot run by a local family.  We took in one last view of the Lobesa Valley and the Temple of the Divine Madman before heading into Thimphu.

At pretty much every waking hour, Thimphu is a bustle of activity.  The cars crowd the narrow streets and people are, literally, everywhere. Into this crowd we headed to Hotel Osel, dropped our bags and headed out.  Most of us headed to the Vegetable Market and the Crafts Market along the river. Since it was Sunday, many were off work, especially the Indian construction workers, and so we saw hundreds of these migrants carrying bags filled with all kinds of vegetables.  The one we saw most was the Bitter Gourd, a kind of prickly green cucumber sized vegetable.  The men were loaded down with these foods as they planned to head back to their various camps in Bhutan.

The Streets of Thimphu

In fact, Bhutan runs on this immigrant labor.  At every spot in the city and in the country, these workers are building roads, houses, buildings, and doing almost every kind of hard labor in the country.  These folks cannot become citizens and are on a kind of guest worker program.  They stay in very humble quarters, usually trap-covered structures scattered in the city and along the roadways.  I had the chance to talk to a group of these folks and they expressed their luck at finding decent work.  All send money back to family in India and they are from just about every part of the country.  I asked about their families and many had children and partners bqck home.  All hoped to finish work here in a few years and head back.

Walking with Veggies

As we walked through this mass of humanity, every single one of us are struck by the smiles….as I mentioned before it’s hard to stop smiling here.  People who are struggling smile, people who are well-positioned smile…it’s everywhere.  As you walk through the markets and among the people in the city, people make eye contact and smile.  So, it’s easy to think that those smiles are reserved for paying tourists, but you quickly realize and see that it is not about that at all.  We witnessed a minor fender bender and people calmly got out of their vehicles, talked about what happened.  The driver responsible claimed responsibility, numbers were exchanged and it was over.  That small incident is indicative of Bhutan.

A Break for Tea on the way to Chele-la

On the following day we headed to Paro, the place where the airport is and where we would hike to Taktshang, the Tiger’s Nest.  On this drive to Paro, we headed up to Chele-la Pass the highest pass in the country at 4,000 meters.  We went in search of the elusive Blue Poppy, a type of flower unique to this part of Bhutan. We hiked up about a ½ mile above tree line, finding the flowers…just a few, on the carpeted tundra flora.

Prayer Flags at Chele-la

Back in Paro, our group stayed in the really wonderful Hotel Olathang, the first hotel constructed for tourism in Bhutan.  The grounds are beautiful and we stayed in little cottages scattered over the grounds.  The rooms are rustic but very nice.  A great place to rest and prepare for our hike tomorrow.

From Trongsa to Thimphu and Beyond

Our days have been a bit more leisurely as we headed west to Thimphu and Paro.  The drive kind of lulls the traveler to sleep and we made our way back from Trongsa on a much improved roadway.

We stopped for a bite at the Lobesa Café and Hotel, a wonderful spot run by a local family.  We took in one last view of the Lobesa Valley and the Temple of the Divine Madman before heading into Thimphu.

At pretty much every waking hour, Thimphu is a bustle of activity.  The cars crowd the narrow streets and people are, literally, everywhere.  Into this crowd we headed to Hotel Osel, dropped our bags and headed out.  Most of us headed to the Vegetable Market and the Crafts Market along the river.  Since it was Sunday, many were off work, especially the Indian construction workers, and so we saw hundreds of these migrants carrying bags filled with all kinds of vegetables.  The one we saw most was the Bitter Gourd, a kind of prickly green cucumber sized vegetable.  The men were loaded down with these foods as they planned to head back to their various camps in Bhutan.

In fact, Bhutan runs on this immigrant labor.  At every spot in the city and in the country, these workers are building roads, houses, buildings, and doing almost every kind of hard labor in the country.  These folks cannot become citizens and are on a kind of guest worker program.  They stay in very humble quarters, usually trap-covered structures scattered in the city and along the roadways.  I had the chance to talk to a group of these folks and they expressed their luck at finding decent work.  All send money back to family in India and they are from just about every part of the country.  I asked about their families and many had children and partners bqck home.  All hoped to finish work here in a few years and head back.

The Streets of Paro

As we walked through this mass of humanity, every single one of us are struck by the smiles….as I mentioned before it’s hard to stop smiling here.  People who are struggling smile, people who are well-positioned smile…it’s everywhere.  As you walk through the markets and among the people in the city, people make eye contact and smile.  So, it’s easy to think that those smiles are reserved for paying tourists, but you quickly realize and see that it is not about that at all.  We witnessed a minor fender bender and people calmly got out of their vehicles, talked about what happened.  The driver responsible claimed responsibility, numbers were exchanged and it was over.  That small incident is indicative of Bhutan.

Having Tea on the way to Chele-La

On the following day we headed to Paro, the place where the airport is and where we would hike to Taktshang, the Tiger’s Nest.  On this drive to Paro, we headed up to Chele-la Pass the highest pass in the country at 4,000 meters.  We went in search of the elusive Blue Poppy, a type of flower unique to this part of Bhutan. We hiked up about a ½ mile above tree line, finding the flowers…just a few, on the carpeted tundra flora.

We headed back to Paro and stayed in the really wonderful Hotel Olathong, the first hotel constructed for tourism in Bhutan.  The grounds are beautiful and we stayed in little cottages scattered over the grounds.  The rooms are rustic but very nice.  A great place to rest and prepare for our hike tomorrow.

Out of the Rain and into Perfection

OK, I get it. I tend to gush about Bhutan, the people, the experiences, the moments of sheer unadulterated laughter, the kinds of conversations that open you up to a wider world and new ideas that transform one’s mind and heart.  Bhutan has always been that place for me.

And…and it’s the students that have brought joy by seeing their eyes opened to another way of thinking, to see another kind of world, one that they will, without question, run.  I am heartened by the fate of our planet when I see these people finding their way through moments on this trip.  It is at once life affirming and truly wonderful in ways that transcend the moment.

That prologue leads me to this day.  It started as it ended yesterday in rain; pouring rain at Yangkhil.  We made it to breakfast and were ready but weary of what we thought was to come: a day of slogging through the mud.  At the same time, this is Bhutan, and happiness is not too far away from one’s mind in this place.

We gathered on the bus and headed to Trongsa Dzong.  The rain eased slightly as we walked, almost entirely alone, through the courtyards of this massive structure.  As we meandered around, monkeys climbed all over the roof tops and along the walls.  They came in pairs and scoured the grounds looking for food.  We walked into the upper courtyards toward the classroom for novices and Namgay regaled us with the story about the stages of life and the three poisons: ignorance, lust, and fear.  We listened intently as he told us of Buddhist cosmology and understanding of the world. By the end, questions were asked and our minds were opened to how this culture, these people view their world.  It was an insight few people have the chance to hear.

The rain slowed markedly, and we headed to a local growers market, looking at the wares and wondering at some of the vegetable produce. Even Namgay had no idea what some of the fruit or vegetables were, commenting, “they must be from India.”  When we asked other Bhutanese folks, they were equally flummoxed!  That one mini experience was the kind of day this one turned out to be.  A shared, joyful moment in time.

After the market, we boarded the bus once again to brave the treacherous road.  The mud, sand, and gravel mixed into a light brown goo spread across the roadway as we headed up the hills toward Pele-la pass.  The thing is, something had happened.  The weather was still yucky, the road still a mire and yet we had somehow changed.  The challenges seemed less difficult; even our driver commented on how it seemed easier in some way.  The mood, the feeling of the group was a little bit lighter, a little bit easier going.

Along the way we made two stops: a waterfall near the road and a small restaurant.  The waterfall was gorgeous, the water coursing down the rocks into the stream that crossed under an ancient looking bridge.  The bridge, covered in moss and lichen, was clearly crumbling around the edges and one section of its wall had entirely collapsed making way for water on the bridge to flow into the stream below.

I won’t bore you with our stop for food.  We headed up the road toward the pass and then on to Phobjikha Valley.  This massive valley, cut long ago by a receeding glacier, is awe-inspiring.  The landscape opens in a way that is rare in Bhutan…a wide valley with a small stream running through the center.  We found the start of the trailhead for the trail that spans the valley, and made our way along the hillsides to eventually land in the floor of this verdant landscape.

Along the way we saw cows, yaks, horses, donkeys, and the occasional monk.  Our group split into two.  One group chatting the whole way made it to the road very quickly, as the conversation spilled out into this open space.  The other group found a patch of wild strawberries and gathered hundreds.  Namgay taught the group how to make a basket from ferns to carry the bounty and they made their way, much more gradually, back to the road.

It’s in these moments when one realizes what perfection is.  We all found, in our own way, the perfect day, the perfect moment, the perfect experience.  It could not have been better, it could not have been different.  It was magical in ways that only Bhutan, it seems to me, is capable of creating.  I know, I know; these experiences can happen anywhere.  Yet, I must say that on this day and in these few hours, you would have a hard time convincing me of anything else.

Making it Through to Trongsa

We left Punakha, boarded our vehicle and bounced, rambled, and otherwise headed down the road toward Trongsa in Central Bhutan.  The day started overcast with bits of sunlight streaming through the clouds; however, as we neared Wangdue-Phoedrang and the river communities of the Lobesa Valley, the storm clouds gathered above the mountains surrounding us on three sides.

Traveling in Bhutan on the main road through the country is a testimony to patience.  One has to relax into the journey because, at some point, something will hinder your progress.  As I’ve said before, to be in Bhutan is to let go of expectations of traveling on a set schedule.  This one lesson could be among the most profound one can learn in this land of happiness.

IMG_1855
Along the road all over Bhutan are small tea houses like Nobding Teahouse in Nobding.
IMG_1856
A cup of tea in this setting?  I think so.

So, we drove up into the central region of Bhutan climbing in elevation from the valley floor of about 3,000 meters.  The road winds back and forth, contouring around the mountainsides.  As we climb, the hills become verdant with every color of green the eye can see surrounding the vehicle as we head up and up to the Pele-la pass.  AS the bus drove on the clouds descended and we were, within about an hour of driving, surrounded by a fine mist.  At one point, the road disappeared, and the black top of the highway gave way to the dirt track I have seen so many times before.

Road construction has been ongoing in the eight years I have been traveling to Bhutan.  A massive road widening project was begun more than ten years ago and change the very nature of the highway across this country.  From Wangdue to about 30 kilometers before Trongsa, the road is a smooth blacktop, the road wide enough for two cars to pass. However, the paved track ends and the construction of drainage channels, hard rock bed, and destruction of rock walls begins.

IMG_1868
The road to Trongsa (kidding…it’s a river)

On dry days, this road is a mere nuisance, a small inconvenience on the journey east.  On this day, the mist turned into a full rain storm and the hard-packed dirt surface became a skating rink of mud.  Our bus driver, Tenzin, is a remarkable man and he braved the elements both in the air and on the ground very well.  As we neared our first stop in Tshangkhap and the Tshangkhap Central School, our pace slowed to a crawl.  Rain came down hard and we faced a very narrow roadway filled with foot-deep ruts of mud.  At one point we simply could not continue, and the bus stopped in the muck and mire of the road.  Our driver, patient, practiced, rocked the beast back and forth until, in a few moments, he rocked the bus forward, through the dense material and down the road…we all clapped for joy at our luck.

IMG_1865
Through the view of the bus…a good section of wet road ahead.

We finally made it to the small village of Tshangkhap, the home of my friend and guide Namgay.  We pulled off the side of the road and headed to this rural school.

IMG_7892
The new dorm and a new road to Tshangkhap School.
IMG_7897
Even the dogs learn at this school.
237491a1-3f27-4467-a0e6-86e53806dd9f
The classroom just before receiving the tacky sacks (photo by Sarah Witten)

Since our last visit, the school has seen the construction of new classrooms and dorms for students. I brought with me money raised by our group for the school, fearing that in the face of these changes that our donation would be puny and impact small.  I met with the principle and counselor of the school and we talked about the donation and establishing a letter writing exchange with Sandia Prep. When I handed over the funds from the fundraiser they were so glad to receive it and said that the impact would be profound. I was relieved.

02de6603-47a3-407e-b88a-ec15a8668ad6
Hacky! (photo by Sarah Witten)

While I met with the administration, our students had brought hacky sacks to students and we disturbed those and played together for the rest of the afternoon.  As you will see, the videos tell us a lot about our reception in a way words simply cannot.

We walked in the hard rain back to the bus and our planned walk through the local village and visits with the farmers of the community were cancelled.  We made our way to Yangkhil Resort, an absolutely gorgeous location directly across from Trongsa Dzong.  We settled into an evening of food and conversation as the rain continued to pound outside.

As I write this at 5:30AM, the rain continues to fall.  Our plan is to travel back over the bog once called a road and drive to Phobjikha Valley and the home of the Black-Necked Crane.  May our travels go as easily as possible and may you feel from afar our growing patient minds as we make our way west.

(I will load many more photos of our group in the next post….)

Journal Entry #1: Hailey

Each student, over the course of the trip, will write a brief reflection on their experiences.  Today is Hailey’s reflection:

Today consisted of a breathtaking adventure up the mountains of Punakha, Bhutan where we got to experience yet another mesmerizing temple. The gold plated walls and hand carved statues and intimate details of the shrines were indescribable. The 45 minute hike in the pouring rain was well worth it to reach the top and see the once in a life time views of not only the temple, but of the entire city, rolling mountains, braided river and clouds bellowing through the steep hills.

The slippery hike down, with a nice break to munch on some fresh corn, was equally beautiful and gave the perfect opportunity to talk and admire the adorable cows roaming the rice fields below. Once back into town and changed, we had a lovely picnic lunch down by the river, accompanied, of course, by numerous stray dogs. We then left to trek the longest extension bridge in Bhutan where a fairly equally matched rock throwing competition had to take place. Logan won.

The beautiful fluttering prayer flags laced along the bridge led us straight back to the next temple where we learned the history of the Buddha and how to properly point in Bhutan, with all five fingers so none are selfishly pointed back toward youself. The day ended with some well deserved relaxation at our hotel on top of the hill, a delicious Indian dinner, and the anticipation of another spectacular day in this amazing country.