Outside Para, Bhutan. February 21, 2015.
I had a tiger by the tail. Or it had me. In the last few years I’ve hiked far greater distances. I’ve hiked higher. I’ve covered more treacherous trails. I’ve changed elevation more rapidly. But the trail to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan was an entirely different experience and one which had me wondering if I was going to make it, both figuratively and literally.
Here was my goal: I would hike a trail popular with pilgrims, tourists and travelers to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery (rendered as Taktshang [or Taktsang] Goemba in Bhutanese). The monastery, according to Buddhist lore, is built at the place where, in the 800’s, Guru Rinpoche rested after riding on a flying tiger. He had come to the location to subdue a local demon which preyed on the people in the area. After defeating the demon, Guru Rinpoche meditated in a cave for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours. Other sources cite the meditation as three months. The monastery is regarded as one of Bhutan’s most sacred Buddhist religious sites.
The site was regularly visited for the next 800 years, and, in 1692 (some say 1698) a monastery was built on the location. The monastery clings to a small ledge of an otherwise sheer cliff some 2950 feet above the valley floor. The legend surrounding the construction tells that the structure is secured to the cliff by the long hairs of female spirits called khandroma—think spider-like webs anchoring great weight.
In 1998, a devastating fire destroyed the main building and its contents. The fire is said to have started by the curtains blowing across the numerous butter lamps used for illumination. This type of fire has been a common event in many Bhutanese monasteries and dzongs (fortresses which later became both monasteries and governmental administrative sites). By 2004 the King of Bhutan and the government had underwritten the reconstruction. Except for some black smudges of smoke on the rock, it is hard to tell where the ancient structure still stands and where the rebuilt section begins.
My guide and I started along the trail in the cool of the morning, working our way through stands of blue pine evergreens and rhododendrons which were beginning to bud their flowers and leaves after the winter chill. The gentle incline where we began soon turned to a steep climb, often with steps cut into the mountain’s side. On the trail we passed some walkers and were passed by others. The sturdy little mules which are hired to take people up to the midway restaurant (no further—the trail is too steep and narrow) came clomping down free of their loads as we jumped out of the way.
From our start at 8530 feet in elevation, we would hike to 10,820 feet looking down at the monastery and then descend on stairs past a rugged chasm to a point below the monastery before switching to another climb back up the monastery at 10,300 feet. On the way, we stopped at the small restaurant perched on an outcropping 9640 feet above sea level to sip tea and enjoy a spectacular view of the Tiger’s Nest.
We passed a spot where, recently, a Japanese tourist had leaned too far over a rickety wooden rail to take a photo and plunged 800 feet to her death. The trail itself isn’t necessarily risky, but altitude, steep inclines and steeper cliff faces do make portions challenging. The altitude was affecting me—something rare. A day later at the pass on the Dantek road I hiked at over 13,000 feet with less effect, but on this hike, this day, I felt it. As we made our descent around a face of stone to a gorge, I’d become more interested in getting one foot ahead of the other than in enjoying the folds of steep mountain draped in blue pine, the snow covered Himalayan range in the background, and the deep blue sky overhead. We paused by a small field of snow jammed into a chute of stone where the melting snow gushed into a waterfall. Then we started the final ascent, back up along the stone steps, through the heavy gates and into the monastery grounds.
Following the strict rules, my guide took her bag and my daypack along with anything we had which could take a photo (my single lens reflex, a mini pocket camera, my phone) and put them in a locker. She submitted our hiking passes, got them stamped, and we were frisked by Bhutanese Army soldiers. With that, we were free to wander the various rooms and buildings of the monastery.
There is no level ground between buildings, and most are simply grafted onto one another, connected by steps or an occasional ramp. The Tiger’s Nest structure is built over and around a series of 13 caves which have been used for meditation and worship for more than 1200 years. At the top of half a dozen steps is a small sign, easy to miss, which says Tiger’s Nest. We entered a small door, walked down some steps in near darkness, and found a long plank with wooden cleats nailed across it to prevent slipping. The plank led to the rock below. In fact, everything was rock, as this was a cave we were descending into. At the end of the plank was a narrow, almost level, ledge and beyond that a natural window open to the valley but crisscrossed with rough lumber to prevent anyone from going too far out. The drop from the window to the next fairly level place was well over 500 feet. That small, fissured opening was the single window to the bright, outer world. Inside, in the dark, a small, hand-built ladder led down again past an immense shaft of stone wedged in the crevasse we were in. Near that point, among stone wet with seeping snow melt burned a single butter lamp, flickering in the slight breeze we made with our approach. There was nothing else. No sound. Little light. Solitude. My guide prayed.
We worked our way back up the ladder and plank, the stairs, and out the door. With a shaft of sunlight on us, my guide returned to guide mode, telling me of various dates, the dangerous demons who were struck down and buried under stupas, the legends, the revered Buddhist leaders, the important monks, the damage from the fire. We came to one temple where twenty or more people were spread across the floor, each in a lotus position, either chanting softly or sitting quietly. It was much like the dozen or more places I’d been before, neither more exalted nor shabbier, not as large as some, nor as small as others. I whispered to my guide that a place like this sometimes brings me peace and I’d like to sit for a while. She nodded and left me.
I found a place against the wall, lowered myself to the floor, crossed my legs and sat not watching the others nor inventorying the statues, figures and decoration of the complex altar-like array. I simply sat. And exhaled. And felt complete. I’m not by nature a religious person although some who know me well say they believe I’m a spiritual one. I didn’t consider that at all. I simply sat. And was surprised to find my eyes filled with tears which worked their way down my face. I did nothing to wipe them away. I simply sat and cried. I don’t know if they were tears of sorrow or joy, repentance or blessing, or simple exhaustion. I only know that everything felt right.
Later, I rose, collected my guide who in turn collected our day packs and cameras and we walked down the stone path, through the gate, and onto the trail which would first go down, then up, and later down the steep slopes of our return. As we started up again, I could feel the darkness close in at the sides of my eyes and my concentration became too narrow and focused on the small shaft of light left for me. The symptoms were familiar. My heart sometimes slows to the point I can’t remain conscious. After some trial and error, my cardiologist and I have arrived at the medication I need to fully function. Usually. This wasn’t one of those days. I’m familiar enough with the symptoms that I can usually get down before I topple.
My guide was surprised to see me quickly swing off my day pack, lie down, put my feet up and use the pack as a pillow. I’d pushed unconsciousness back, but just barely. I gave her the briefest explanation of what was happening and told her not to worry, I wasn’t dying. With my heartrate hovering around 28 beats a minute, I hoped I was telling her the truth. I was alternating between darkness and light and it was far more dark than light. I turned my head to the right and looked across the canyon at the beautiful Tiger’s Nest; white, orange and gold, prayer flags fluttering, dark pine, clear sky in the background and took stock. I’ve had a full and lucky life and if I were to die right here, in this place, and at this moment, I was at peace with that.
I was then that I heard Robert Frost. No, not in person. He’s dead. I heard myself silently reciting part of his poem with the lines,
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep
I have many things left to do, so I outlined a plan with my guide, pointing out resting places we could see from where I was lying or which we remembered from our initial descent. I made it to the next spot, and the next one after that, lying down with feet up head down, wondering why, with the exertion of going up this steep slope, my heart was loafing along instead of racing. We hit the summit and I started to feel like myself. We made a quick stop half-way down at the restaurant for hot tea with sugar.
It was there I saw a large man, overweight, who looked worse than I had. He was talking a brave game to his son and wife when I approached him. I admitted it was none of my business but I had been in the same condition, and counseled him to sit back down and get his bearings. That done, I shouldered my pack, grabbed my walking sticks, and headed down becoming more clear headed with each step, more aware of what a wonderfully beautiful day it was, and so infinitely glad to have hiked up to the Tiger’s Nest and back down. An hour later I was on the terrace of the idiosyncratic old Gangtey Palace Hotel, cold Bhutan beer in hand, a smile on my face, and knowing that, for a while, I had a tiger by the tail.
July 9, 2015 – Epilogue by Chris Giunchigliani, Gary’s wife. It is with deep regret that I inform Gary’s followers that he died in a car crash, on April 9, 2015. This was his last blog ( or at least the last one I found.) When you read this blog you can feel his spirit and his lust for life. His quote from Robert Frost reminded me that we had so much more to look forward to in our life together. I must take comfort that he lives on through his stories, his good deeds, his photos, his friends and in my heart. To fellow travlers, keep on exploring and share his blogs. Take time to truly see the world, the people and all they have to offer. Be kind.
To Gary, even as I grieve there is no end to my love for you. Till we meet again, sweetie.