Bhutan: Climbing the Tiger’s Nest

It is 4 am and we are already in our car headed back to Paro from Punakha where we famously met the King and Queen the day before. 4 am because the road is closed between 8 and 10 am or later for construction and an early departure will guarantee we will easily make it through without the delays we faced coming this way.

This plan worked well for the first ten kilometers and then we stopped. There is a Buddhist concept of time and place. When the conditions are ripe then things happen.

Time and place are always there and sometimes we notice it. Yesterday, we drove past a bright red rhododendron bush. Bhutan is known for the blooming of the rhododendrons in the spring. It is probably the time when most people travel here. But here it was January 5, 2015 and in one spot, there were just the right amount of recent rains and warm sun, protection from the wind in this one turn of the road to produce a blooming rhododendron, weeks and months before the season starts. And in proof of the Buddhist concept of attachment, I was bothered for hours that we didn’t stop the car and take a picture so I could capture that moment. That one never can capture a moment is the lesson of impermanence; that one wanted to capture it is attachment. By attaching, I create my own suffering.  The original delight in seeing the bush unexpectedl through attachment was replaced by suffering as I tried to keep that moment and place frozen.

At 4:25 am, a truck carrying oranges ( we later found out) was stopped dead in the road exactly in the spot where the road narrowed and no one could get by. If the truck had broken down ten feet earlier, we all would have never noticed the truck and driven around it. If the truck brook down two hours later, we would have not known about it. So there we were up early and waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

The track driver was apparently trying to fix a broken nut in the gear box without another nut and without the right tools.  That never seems to phase truck drivers in early or middle development countries. It took other drivers with tools and stuff, lots of solicited and unsolicited advice to get it fixed. Meanwhile, traffic was backing up with people also trying to avoid getting stuck by the construction being stuck here. Oddly enough, tempers never flared. Or maybe not oddly because this is Bhutan and people are patient.

Over an hour after we arrived there, the men under the truck emerged and minutes later it was backing up the ten feet so traffic could move again. Yes,  we were all late but not too late to make it through and since the truck was filled with oranges, many a driver filled their pockets with the ‘found gift.’

In our case, we moved forward quickly to encounter fog, snow and rain on a road under construction for 30 kilometers that was muddy, pot-holed and seemed just to be series of never ending switchbacks. We made it through, had breakfast at the pass where days before we saw endless mountains. Today we saw only fog.

Down that pass through another construction zone, now zooming on a paved road through the capital Thimphu, we arrived at the base camp for the Tigers Nest

Looking up this is what you saw:

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a three thousand foot cliff, topping out at about 11,000 feet with a series of temples. This is Bhutan’s most sacred Buddhist site. In 1692 a temple was constructed here in honor of Gru Rimpoche, who flew a flying tiger to this spot  about a thousand years earlier. You might be able to make out the face of GRU just above the monastery: his two big eyes and nose areaboive the building and the trees his wild hair..

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Having been in the country for a week now, we were generally acclimated to the altitude. For years I have even given up going to the Sierras over 6000 feet due to altitude sickness. But thanks to the right medication which I took for three days, the altitude was never a problem.  However, I have been congested with a runny nose, so my breathing was a bit labored.

The trail basically went up.  It didn’t try to take its time with long switchbacks. It was 1.3 kilometers in height gain. I went slowly but surely, keeping my heartbeat in control at a slow aerobic level.

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Slowly the monastery came in sight.  How it was built in 1692 is more than magical. All we know is that they did not have a flying tiger to help carry things up. Probably some horses, who still ply the trails with tourists and goods for the monks.

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Soon we were even with the Tiger’s Nest although across a canyon from it.

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Then came the 800 stairs down then up, passing a waterfall and a bridge to get to the front gate.

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At this point we had to give up our cameras and hats and climb the last staircases into the monastery. I put on my rakusu and taking off our shoes, we walked through various temples devoted to Gru Rimpoche, his 8 manifestations and Buddha. We offer prostrations, sat in incense filled rooms and meditated and was offered holy water by a monk that is put to the lips and run through the hair and munched on a small snack given by the same monk. Later he and I talked about my rakusu and its meaning.

Walking back, reversed the process of getting there. For a while I walked silently chanting the Heart Sutra–form itself is emptiness, emptiness is form with my arms held in the walking mudra.

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Tsering thought I had a stomach ache by the way I was holding myself. I guess form is really emptiness in the eye if the beholder.

Time and place, time and place. What a time, what a place. Each step  up and back was its own time and place, until time and place itself disappeared.

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