Bhutan Day 9 – Paro Tiger’s Nest

[Here is the photostream of Bhutan 2013 Day 9, for those who prefer pictures to tell a story. 🙂]

We were super excited this morning as we would be spending the day in our attempt to reach Tiger’s Nest at an altitude of 3120m! The minute we stepped out of our room, we saw snow!!! First snow in the valley of Paro for the year! We wondered if this was an omen? Today, we used up 6 heat packs in total – 2 each for the 3 of us 😛

According to the legend related to this Taktsang (which in Tibetan language literally means “Tiger’s lair”), it is believed that Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) flew to this location from Tibet on the back of a tigress from Khenpajong. This place was consecrated to tame the Tiger demon. An alternative legend holds that a former wife of an emperor, known as Yeshe Tsogyal, willingly became a disciple of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambahva) in Tibet. She transformed herself into a tigress and carried the Guru on her back from Tibet to the present location of the Taktsang in Bhutan. In one of the caves here, the Guru then performed meditation and emerged in eight incarnated forms (manifestations) and the place became holy. Subsequently, the place came to be known as the “Tiger’s Nest”.

Still energetic!

Still energetic!

We left the hotel around 08:00 and started the hike close to 08:45. Since the only hike up a hill that we had ever done prior to this was to hike up Bukit Timah Hill, which is the tallest hill in Singapore at the height of 163.63m, we took it really slow.

So slow we lost sight of Dorji quite a few times and got lost once, as we were all alone with 2 paths ahead of us. Thankfully, I heard voices at one direction and we continued on to the correct path. I was fearful of losing my breath as I recalled almost feeling like dying at the very short 10-minute walk up the slope to the mini zoo on the first day, but after the first 30 minutes into the hike, I seemed to feel fine. Maybe it was the excitement at seeing snow fall, and it was really beautiful seeing the snow on the green leaves, or maybe I did not aspire to complete the hike; it was more of a let’s-just-see-how-far-we-can-go mentality, so I was really enjoying the hike up, and it felt less cold as I continue to hike up slowly.

Pressing on

Pressing on

However, hubby was definitely more than unwell during the first part of our hike. He was going green in the face and sweating profusely but feeling very cold and slightly giddy. Maybe he was very stressed out, and probably he was affected by the altitude, but he was definitely not enjoying it. I forced him take a sweet and also drink sips of water along the way, as he really looked like he might collapse anytime 😮

Still a long way to go

Still a long way to go

Dorji did not offer the option of riding the horse, because he felt that it was quite risky. One of his guide-friends had taken a group on horses before and somehow, one of the ladies fell off the horse halfway and broke her arm. Also, he said that the horses may not be cooperative and may stop moving at any point. The horses also loved to walk at the edge of the trail, which was dangerous. He also said that riding the horse would make one underestimate the energy required to complete the hike, as one of the groups he led had taken the horse and overestimated themselves. They had managed to go all the way up since the horse took them 2/3 of the way up, but they found that coming down was extremely tough, since no horses were allowed (far too dangerous). We did not have any intention of taking the horses anyway, since we did not have riding experience and felt that we would die of fear… haha! But we had to admit that Dorji was a rather cautious man; he also would not take any shortcuts as they were usually much steeper, and he also shared stories of people dying because of taking shortcuts. We took his advice seriously.

Snow on leaves

Snow on leaves

We managed to crawl our way to the cafeteria after 2 hours, and spent around 40 min here, trying to decide if we should continue or not. Here, we had a chat with a lady from the US, who was currently residing in Beijing, and it was her who encouraged us to continue on. She shared stories of her trekking experience in Tibet, and also how badly affected the altitude affected her husband, but yet he was still able to continue on. In fact, she arrived at the cafeteria way ahead of her husband and son, and was waiting for them. She told us to just continue on slowly and never, ever stop to rest. Afterall, if we really couldn’t take it, we can always turn back. That was how she did it; one step at a time, and never stopping for pictures or rest, and she always ended up faster than her family. She also mentioned that she was a little bit crazy and that Beijing had made her crazier… haha!

Cave where the 69th Chief Abbot of Bhutan was born in 1926

Cave where the 69th Chief Abbot of Bhutan was born in 1926

In the end, hubby decided to continue on and see how far he can managed. I was a bit worried actually since he still looked a bit green in the face.

Dorji assured us that the second part of the hike would not be worse than the first part, so we pushed on. He was right; the second part wasn’t as bad; there was actually flat ground after a while *phew*

At around 12:00noon, we reached the beginning of the steps! What an achievement!

Hubby was quite happy to stop here, but I felt that we should continue on because we were so, so near and it would be such a waste if we returned at this point, since we had one hour for the steps! So we rested for 10 minutes or so, taking pictures of the enchanting Tiger’s Nest and continued on 🙂

All that's left from here to the monastery are the steps!

All that’s left from here to the monastery are the steps!

Waterfall along the way

Waterfall along the way

Midway, we stopped for more photos of the nearby waterfall before starting our climbing of the steps, with our slightly wobbly legs, but just looking up at the Tiger’s Nest filled us up with great motivation to continue on!

Finally, at around 12:40, we reached the entrance!!!! We were panting with happiness! The joy and sense of accomplishment was well-worth the effort!

Magnificent Paro Taktsang

Magnificent Paro Taktsang

We spent around 30 min at 3 of the temples and trying to make wishes at the scared stone, where you close your eyes to make a wish and then walk towards the stone and try to touch the “thumb” area of the stone with your own thumb. We both missed, but I was really close! The temples were awesome! Very beautiful and tranquil 🙂 Dorji spent some time explaining the legends, as well as showing us the cave where the Guru Rinpoche meditated for 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days and 3 hours in, and this temple with the triangular shape of the dagger in the ground.

We left around 13:10 and somehow, the steps seemed tougher and longer now… haha! We also shared one muesli bar to get some energy to continue on. Just after the steps, we met the US family and the lady was trying to console her 10 year-old son, who apparently was really hungry and tired, and was crying very hard. We offered him one of the muesli bars and she thanked us profusely for it. Later, she told us that he had actually banged his head against the walls of mountain and refused to continue.  They were actually told that it was a 2-hour excursion and so she had only prepared a muffin for him… Well, it was at least 4 hours for them by now (we met the lady in our first hour when she overtook us and showed concern when she saw hubby stopping and gasping for air), and the boy must be starving!

By now, I was very tired and thirsty, and we had finished the one small bottle of water which Dorji had given us earlier. When we asked him for more water, to our surprise, he had no more, as he had only brought 2 bottles of water along. Which was really odd, since there were 3 of us, and he had told us that he would take care of the water! We felt that he was really not his usual self today. Anyway, we passed him the last muesli bar as we didn’t want him to starve due to our slowness. We continued on slowly and luckily, one of the other guides we met had lots of water and gave us a huge bottle for free.

Reward after a hike

Reward after a hike

We took an hour to reach the cafeteria for a very late lunch at 14:20. The ema datshi (chilli cheese) and kewa datshi (potatoes cheese) were excellent! Hubby enjoyed the fried noodles too. The dal was too liquid for our liking, and the other vegetable dishes were not memorable. I also tried the pickles, which I found them to be extremely salty!

After lunch, we continued our descent and by then, it had stopped snowing and the sun had melted away all the snow. I was kinda stoning as I was hiking down, which proved to be a mistake, because halfway, I stepped on something and slipped! Landed right on my butt! Painful!!! The 3 guides and driver about 5 steps in front of me and hubby at the back immediately rushed to helped me up. But I was so in pain that it took me a couple of minutes before I could stand up. Now, I was completely awake! Thankfully, the only parts injured were my butt, my tail bone and my pride…

It was not just the inexperienced hiker who might fall; a few minutes later, one of the guides slipped and almost fell too! Luckily, the other guide caught hold of him just before he went down.

We finally reached the starting point at 15:45… So we had spent a grand total of 7 hours for the hike! Dorji said that on average, people took 5 to 6 hours. The fastest person (very young and ultra fit) he had led took 4 hours to go up and down, while the slowest took 11.5 hours and did not even do the steps at the last part (super overweight at around 118 kg and the horses stopped moving after a few steps and they ended up having to walk, but we really salute him for his attempt)… 11.5 hours! It was already dark by the time they returned to the cafeteria and Dorji had to call the driver to hike up for assistance. They almost couldn’t find the car because it was simply too dark!

Room 101

Room 101

It was too late to visit Paro Dzong, and we were too tired anyway. Besides, we had a very good view of the Dzong from the windows of our hotel room. So we returned back to the hotel for a quick shower and rest before meeting again at 17:30 to visit the farm house for dinner. There was insufficient hot water for 2 persons to shower and wash hair consecutively, so I ended up showering in cold water, which was super freezing in winter!!! Gosh, was I even clean??? Miserable butt, miserable nose… and the cold froze all the misery…

The farm house was a 20-min drive away in the dark, and I could really feel all the bumps on the road this time, as pain shot up my butt 😦 This was a very popular farm house for tourists to visit, because of the hot stone bath that it provided, but one have to call up about 4 hours in advance to reserve, as a lot of time was needed to heat up the stones. First, the stones need to get heated up to a very high temperature, then they get dumped into the cold water. While in the bath, the guest had to get the staff to add the hot stones or cold water according to his or her preference. In the modern way, the hot stones and staff were behind a wall, hidden from the guest’s view, for privacy sake.

Delicious home-cooked dinner

Delicious home-cooked dinner

Dinner was at the kitchen, where the traditional fireplace was. We finally got to try butter tea! It looked purplish, had a buttery fragrance and tasted only slightly salty. Dorji said that the colour depended on how old the butter was; usually they would use either the very fresh or very old butter. We also tried the yummy fried rice crackers while waiting for dinner. We had white rice, fried egg, ema datshi (chilli cheese – this time, it was the spicier red dried chillies), kewa datshi (potato cheese) and beef with chilli. Dorji and Milan had dinner with us, and that was when we learnt that traditional Bhutanese eat with their right hands, without cutlery. They said that their parents would scold them for being lazy if they used fork and spoon! Now, we realized just how refined Dorji was. He could mold the rice till it looked like sushi with one hand before eating… Dorji also said that Bhutanese are not shy when it comes to eating, and this was evident from the mountain of rice that they each took, and they had 3 servings each 😮 They both appeared so small in size, we didn’t realize that they could eat so much! Where did all the food go? While we were eating, the family hang around near the fireplace, having small chat in Dzongkha, their official language.

After a very hearty dinner, Dorji showed us how to grind betel nuts using a hand grinder. They liked to eat betel nuts with betel leaves and slaked lime (calcium hydroxide, not the citrus fruit lime). Apparently, they had 2 types of “lime”, one for eating betel nuts, and one for white wash for painting houses 😮 We also presented some small gifts from Singapore – key chains that functioned as a nail clipper and bottle opener in a wrapper that showed the various fines we had in Singapore, and brooches of orchids.

Very strong wine

Very strong wine

Dorji also showed us around. At the living room/entertainment room, we met another bigger group of Thai tourists. Dorji explained that small groups would gather in the kitchen for dinner during winter, as it was warmer, but big groups would have to eat at the living room, which had a small electric heater and had a bigger tables with sofa seats. Here, we tried the home-made wine, which tasted like sake and had an alcoholic content of more than 15%. It was strong!

We also visited the prayer room, where we saw pictures of the four friends and longevity. The prayer room was also where the monks would rest when they were invited for house rituals (e.g. when changing the house flag). In Bhutan, the females were in charge of cooking, while the males were in charge of praying twice a day and cleaning up of the prayer room.

We spent less than 2 hours in the farm house before returning to our hotel for an early rest as we had to wake up very early to catch the flight home tomorrow. In the car, Dorji was sharing on what the family were discussing while we were having dinner. They were discussing on where to go to gather dry wood for fire the next day, and what would be the best way to carry the wood home. One of the sisters wanted to chop up the wood into the usual firewood size before transporting, while the other thought that it would be easier to drag them back in their original size. Dorji had jokingly suggested to the little sister that the best way would be to tie a rope around the wood and herself, and roll the wood down the slope. And the little sister had said that she need not go gather wood the next day, because since everyone else was going, she would stay in the house to look after it :p Such a simple conversation!

Also, traditionally, the men would marry and stay with the females and helped out with the farming, and that females would get a share of the land… So it was better to be female in Bhutan! The exception was the King 😛 But nowadays, in Thimphu, it was also fine for females to stay with the families of the males, or the married couple could stay elsewhere on their own. Bhutanese females got married at an early age; nowadays, the norm was around 20 years old, and previously, it was as young as 15 years old! Bhutanese males got married later, and it could be anything from 20 to 35 years old. We then shared about getting married and applying for HDB flats in Singapore, and Dorji seemed quite amused at our situation back home.

When we got off the car and looked up into the skies, we saw so many stars! So beautiful! Dorji pointed out the cluster of 7 stars to us, and he said that they liked to look for shooting stars to make wishes. Nowadays, they also jokingly point at the moving cars and call them the “shooting stars” 😛 The night view at Paro was quite beautiful actually, with almost no street lights, the only lights came from the scattered houses, and they looked like little lanterns!

Dorji sent us back to the reception, where he helped us confirm our packed breakfast for the next day, and also ensured that we had hot water bags in our room already. He explained to us that the hot water for shower was stored in a huge container (about 50 gallons), and after the first person showered, the second person would have to wait a long time for the container to be filled up again, which we suspected that it might have been so, as this was the same as the first hotel which we had stayed in Thimphu. We also agreed to meet at 05:20 the next morning.

So it was rather weird that 30 minutes later, a hotel staff knocked on our door to check if we knew what time we were supposed to meet our guide the next morning (rooms do not have phones)? He said that our guide had just called him to get him to remind us about the meeting time the next day, and he was glad that the timing that I said coincided with the timing that our guide had told him… But I thought we had agreed on the timing not too long ago?? Dorji was really not quite his usual self today? But never mind, we still like him very much 😀

We both managed to have super quick hot showers this time, and snugged ourselves in bed with hot water bags and heat packs, which were surprisingly still hot after an entire day.

Some thoughts:

  • Actually, the hike up Tiger’s Nest was not really steep, just imagine something similar to Bukit Timah Hill, just that the trail was much, much longer (900m up), and the trail wasn’t as well defined. If you follow your guide, not take shortcuts and watch where you step, you should be fine.
  • The worst parts was probably the final 600+ steps down and up before finally reaching the entrance. But the steps are not as huge as the ones up the summit of Bukit Timah hill, and there are now railings for one to hold on to. However, the altitude and the cold may be an issue.
  • It is important to have proper shoes with a good grip and very useful to have a walking stick. If you did not bring one, or that your guide did not prepare one for you, one is available for rent/sale (we saw them, but didn’t ask about the price) at the beginning of the hike.
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