Saturday, July 2, 2016

Hike to Taktsang Monastery,Bhutan

Day 1 of my Bhutan Trekking Trip. Click here for the prologue. 

Today,on our first day in Bhutan, a visit to Taktsang Monastery was scheduled.Owning to the location of the monastery this also served as a warm up for the upcoming trek. Taktsang Monastery or the Tigers Nest as it is popularly called is a Buddhist Monastery perched on a cliff in the Paro valley of Bhutan. The present structure grew from a temple built in the 1692 on a site where Guru Padmasambhava,the most revered teacher in Bhutan, is said to have meditated. The name Tigers's Nest is believed to have come from the legend that stated that Guru Padmasambhava came to this temple from Tibet flying on the back of a Tigress.

Apart from the spiritual and the religious aspects, the most striking aspect of the temple is its incredible location.The whole temple clings to the side of a cliff and looks right out from a fairy tale.I had looked up the pics on the net before the trip and I was mighty excited to finally see the structure with my own eyes.

The day had begun quite nicely. I woke up to bright sunny light spraying into my room.As I lay in bed I saw that Ravi had already gotten up and was looking out from the window. I jumped out and joined him. For the first time we had a good view of the Paro city.The day before we had arrived in darkness to the city and also in our tiredness we couldn't get a good view.Now in broad daylight the city looked gorgeous. From my window I could see the street which lay diagonally ahead. The street was lined with buildings in traditional architecture.Like I mentioned in my previous post its mandatory for all buildings to follow Govt rules which include having a traditional look. On the clean pavements, people were going about their daily chores.Men in their ghos (traditional dress) and women in their beautiful and graceful kiras hurried along.There were kids in their colourful ghos running to school. It was a sunny day and this scene woke me up completely. We got ready and hurried downstairs for our breakfast. Soon others joined. The hotel staff had prepared for us a typical Indian meal.Though we enjoyed it we made it a point to ask them to make us a Bhutanese meal so that we could enjoy the local cuisine.

After the breakfast we got into our ride, the cute looking Coaster and started off for the monastery. The bus wound its way through the spotlessly clean and ordered streets of Paro as it coasted (what else?) along at a gentle pace. The surroundings were beautiful all around.The day was sunny and the weather pleasant. After a drive of around 50 mins we reached the site from where our hike to the famed monastery was to start.

The Climb. (Alt. 2480 MSL)
Having got off from the bus I looked around at the surroundings.We were standing at the foot of the series of hills,on one of which stood that spectacular monastery but we couldn't see it yet as we were surrounded by trees all around. Immediately before us lay the path as it started out from the middle of a row of souvenir shops. There were a lot of tourists already present and still more were arriving in vehicles most of them being coasters and imported cars.Looking at this rate of incoming tourists and keeping in mind the climb of 3 hours before us, our Bhutanese guide,Sangayji nudged us to start walking on the trail. We did so and soon fell into the rhythmic walk that comes with treks.The area was covered with trees and bushes.Here and there some rocky terrain popped up but overall the trail wasn't that exciting.Soon we passed by a prayer wheel.This was the second time we were seeing a prayer wheel.It was placed inside a beautiful structure and was driven by the flowing of a stream running through it.The usual prayer wheels have chants written on papers stored inside them and it is said that  rotating them has the same effect as orally reciting them.The prayer wheels which we were seeing here were turned by water and it is believed that the water which touches the prayer wheels becomes blessed and carries its purifying power into all life forms. There were three of these structures, one after the other on the same stream and it was very beautiful to look at.Reminded me of the poem 'The brook' but this particular brook was made more beautiful with the prayer wheels and the structures which housed them.We took a few pics here and then moved on. As we were walking a horse passed us by with a tourist sitting on it.Suddenly the horse gave a jerk and she shrieked something to her friends who were a little behind us. I could make out that the language was Chinese. There were a lot of tourists from China and Japan I later observed.Coming back to the lady on the horse, a guide ran to her and comforted the horse who then resumed its casual stroll and the lady relaxed.

After sometime we reached a plain area from where we could spot the monastery lying far away on another hill.We stopped here for sometime to take some rest.I sat on a rock in front of a magnificent prayer wheel carved with colorful figures.I looked around. Ishita didi was fiddling with her DSLR setting it up and tuning it.She had this bulky cam pack strapped on which looked a bit funny but served her purpose excellently.She could take out her camera very swiftly and I know,for a photography enthusiast, how important that swiftness is.I shifted my gaze to Abhishek. He was sweating profusely and looking at the still faraway monastery. It was the same with Ravi. He too was sweating heavily.In fact it looked as though I was the only one not sweating much. Satya and Amitji were deeply engrossed in a conversation while looking at the prayer wheel behind me.A bit ahead there was a row of small prayer wheels. This was exactly of the kind I saw in the central plains of India in chhattisgarh. After this quick and welcome break we started off again. After another round of walking uphill for quite some time we reached a small cafe set up by the Bhutanese govt.This was a welcome stop. As soon as we reached the cafe (2800 MSL) an elderly man came up to us and offered us coffee.We gladly took a cup and settled on one of the benches there.The view from here was breathtaking.There were lots of tourists here.I looked around to see if I could strike up a conversation with anyone but everyone was either in groups or in pairs.So I let it go and concentrated on my coffee instead. When it was time to go we found out that the coffee was Rs 120 each.We were surprised by this exorbitant price but had no option but to pay and move on.We,then resumed our trek over the trail.
the cafe

The Monastery ( 2950MSL)
As I rounded off over the next bend over the well maintained stone stairs I saw the monastery emerge in front of me. For the first time the structure looked very near and huge. It lay just ahead on the next hill . From this point I could make out the entrance and the different levels. I could spot a large number of tourists near the entrance.The stairs from this point first descended to a bridge that ran over a small waterfall.After crossing this bridge I could see a few small structures to my left in the caves in the hill side. One of them was the place where a disciple and later companion of Guru Padmasambahava did her meditation.And the crevices in the rock were crammed with 'tsa-tsas', small reliquaries containing ashes of the dead.

From here the stairs ascended again and soon we reached the entrance of the Monastery. Here there were a couple of Bhutanese soldiers and a number of monks in their bright red robes. I smiled at a few as I walked by towards a small room where we were required to keep all our belongings including mobiles and cameras.After being frisked by the guards there we walked inside. There lay ahead of us another set of stairs.I heard a few groans behind me from tired tourists frustrated at seeing another set of stairs to climb.I muffled a laugh and looked around to see how our group was doing. Everyone was excited and I saw no signs of frustration.

We moved past a slow walking couple and entered a small corridor at the end of which lay the main chamber. Here we were asked to remove our shoes which we did and entered.The entrance was small and quite nondescript but the in the center of the room lay a huge statue of Padmasambhava. There were all kinds of scrolls,candles,butter lamps, small figurines and books all around.The thick smell of incense hung over the room as some tourists stood respectfully near the door while others bowed down before the statue. Our guide told us a few bits of history of the place. I already knew most of it from the book I read about Bhutan before coming.We stood there for ten minutes and then moved on to the next area.This other room looked like a study. There was a raised seat near a window surrounded by books,scrolls and other stuff. This window offered spectacular views of the surrounding valley.We then moved on to the third room which was the candle room. There were hundreds of butter lamps here and the strong smell of butter hung in the room. There was an attendant helping out those who wished to light a lamp.There were fixed prices for different sized lamps. The minimum was Rs25 or 25 Ngultrum. We then spent some time near a vantage point which offered some magnificent views of the surrounding valley. Then it was time to go.More tourists kept coming by the minute and Sangayji made us move out. It takes around 45 minutes to an hour for the tour of the Monastery. I am not much of a spiritual person and I was only interested in the location, architecture and history of the place.On all three accounts I was thrilled by Taktsang. The only person who was a bit spiritually inclined in our group was Amitji. He even spent a few minutes meditating, sitting on the floor in one of the rooms.

The descent
We retraced our way over the same path to reach the Cafe in the afternoon.Here we had our lunch. The food is expensive there and whatever spirituality we had experienced in the Taktsang vanished at the sight of the bill. So be advised to bring a lot of cash with you while hiking up to Taktsang.The food for lunch there included the local Bhutanese dish 'Ema Datshi' which is nothing but Chili and cheese.If you have a weak stomach I strongly suggest you don't have it. If you have a trek ahead then it is not worth taking the risk. After that lunch we went back the same way we came from and reached the row of souvenir shops at the base. We bought a few souvenirs there.
After our small shopping we went back to our hotel. It was late afternoon by then and we spent a few hours huddled inside our rooms.In the evening we went outside for a stroll. The weather was cool and there was a very thin drizzle falling. Our day ended with a delicious dinner.

Things to note
1. Take enough cash with you if you plan to eat at the Cafeteria on the way to Taktsang. All the items there are very expensive.
2. Do not buy stuff from the shop near the cafeteria. They sell souvenirs at thrice the normal cost. You can buy stuff from the shops near the starting point.
3. The hike up to the monastery is tiring.Make no mistake about it.So be prepared.
4. When you pass by a prayer wheel always do so from the left side.You always have to rotate a prayer wheel in the clockwise direction. So always pass from the left while rotating it.
5. All the altitudes mentioned above were noted from my Suunto Vector Altimeter watch.Please note that it is based on the barometric pressure method of determining altitude and may vary slightly with the actual altitude.

that's me!

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