For Act 1, go here
Act II: Three Days to Two Days, P.T. ("Pre-Trek")
Act II: Three Days to Two Days, P.T. ("Pre-Trek")
Scene 1: Three Days P.T.
Steep trail to Taktsang (Tiger's Nest) Monastery
Trekking poles attached to my wrist, Camelbak water bladder full, and fanny pack loaded with camera, batteries, and lip balm (never go anywhere without it!), I joined the rest of my group on the trail to Taktsang (literally, "Tiger's Nest") Monastery, one of the highlights of any trip to Bhutan and probably the most sacred of all temples and other holy sites in the Kingdom.
But first, we had to learn: what tiger, what nest, and why on the side of a near-vertical cliff?
It's a bit complicated for this American non-Buddhist to explain, but here goes. It is believed that, in the 8th century, the now-revered man who brought Buddhism to this area, Guru Rinpoche, flew to this location from Tibet on the back of a tiger. A cave behind this temple (the temple was built centuries later) served as the "lair" holding the tiger and acting as a sanctuary for the meditative Guru. An alternative tale is the former wife of an emperor in Tibet willingly became a disciple of Guru Rinpoche, and transformed herself into a tigress to carry the Guru on her back to this site. Regardless, in one of the caves here, the Guru meditated for 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days, and 3 hours, emerging to bring Buddhism to the people of Bhutan, keeping the tiger (or tigress) bound in his (or her) lair, or nest.
Nine centuries later, in 1692, Tenzin Rabgye built the temple on this consecrated spot. Some believe that Tenzin was the reincarnated form of Guru Rinpoche. In any case, the temple has undergone some restoration, but largely is, and feels, ancient, holy, and sublime.
|Starting out. Seems flat, but not for long.|
|Prayer wheel in constant motion from|
a stream flowing through it.
|Tsa-tsas left by loved ones.|
|Taktsang hugging the cliff to the right of this large prayer wheel.|
Hmmm...what is that little structure on the top of that ridge above the prayer wheel?
|What to do with all those water bottles? Make prayer wheels!|
|A bunch of up, then this trail down...|
|And then back up!|
As with all temples in Bhutan, no shoes or cameras are allowed in, so bags are checked, shoes are removed, and we enter inside to see multiple sacred alters and smaller prayer areas or temples, connected by a crazy labyrinth of staircases. One small alcove leads you down a dark hole in the rock (a long wooden pole with knobs for your tentative feet to balance upon is the only support) to a candlelit nook that is the true Tiger's Nest cave.
It was an incredible first step into understanding Buddhism, and we were only beginning to see the complexities associated with this faith. Returning to our shoes and bags, Norris and Ugyen pointed out that smaller temple built waaaayyy up above us on a nearby ridge. That was our next stop. What?
|Yeah, that small structure we saw before? Forge onwards and upwards.|
|Here we are.|
We learned that this monastery is home to a number of orphaned boys--boys in training to become Buddhist monks. Studying and learning scripture and the Buddhist faith, these boys are also educated in general studies that most of us had--math, writing, reading, and so on. Chores and playtime are included in their daily routine. However, memorizing a new scripture every day is of utmost importance. These boys congregate at least twice a day for an hour or two at a time, each memorizing their individual scripts. At the end of each studying day, they must recite their script word for word to their senior monks. A mistake means they're back on the same script until no mistake is made.
Witnessing these boys intent on learning their scripts was one of the most memorable scenes of this trip in my mind. The sight is more powerful with the sound:
Stomachs full, we were in no mood to hike back to the van; alas, it had to be done. Down, down, down, and down some more (wait, don't forget going back UP the one steep descent we had on our way to Taktsang!), we finally arrived at our van. We barely had enough time to get back to our hotel and have dinner before our heads crashed on our pillows. The dogs and their nighttime barking, which kept many of us awake the night before, seemed to be much less disturbing to us tonight!
Scene II: Two Days P.T.
Somewhere Seemingly on Top of the World
Flying above and through the Himalayan mountains: check. Tiger's Nest: check. Butter tea: check. It wasn't really real, though, until Dachu La.
Dachu La Pass is where the Himalaya in your mind meets the Himalaya that you see. A line of snow-capped peaks, only visible on a cloudless day, takes your breath away. The pass, at 10,300 feet elevation, is a popular spot, especially on days without clouds. Which happens quite a bit in November, since the rainy season has ended, and winter hasn't set in quite yet.
It was glorious. A perfect day to see a simply stunning view. Norris claimed this was the best view of the mountains he'd seen in his visits here. Word must've gotten out to every tourist in Bhutan, because I think they were all here to enjoy it.
|Geez, here I am, one of the dozens of tourists taking selfies...|
|Sent to my mom: See, I'm in the Himalayas!!!|
|Even dogs hang out at Dachu La|
|A few of the 108 stupas, or chortens, adorning Dachu La Pass|
We stopped in the city of Punakha, which has a Dzong (temple, monastery, and fortress) that was far and above one of the most breathtaking feats of human construction I have ever seen. This Dzong, befitting a former capital, impressed us from across the river, before we even reached it:
After crossing the river and entering through the gates, our mouths were agape at the courtyards (more than one) and intricate details of the hand-painted pillars, walls, and eaves.
The temple was beyond belief. I think of Al Pacino's line in Scent of a Woman: "I been around, y'know?" For the small amount of traveling I've done, I've seen the Hermitage, the Louvre, and the Manaus Opera House...and this temple was up there. Due to the no-camera rules, I have no photos of the temple's interior. Inside, among 36 gold pillars, three large Buddhas, and ornate alters, statues, holy water vessels, and more, the walls had hand-painted, detailed murals depicting the life of Buddha. Ugyen walked us through all the scenes, giving us a brief history of Buddha and his stages of life, his understanding of life, and his philosophy that seems to simple (love is eternal).
We walked out of the temple to see some of the outer murals (photo-friendly), and meandered down the temple's many entrance steps, only to look back in awe.
|The signs of the zodiac|
|The "Four Friends," a core Buddhist story of|
the elephant, monkey, rabbit, and pheasant working together
so they all benefit from the fruits of a tree
|Black-necked cranes, birds of beauty and meaning to the Bhutanese|
The day was not done yet! A short side trip to the country's largest suspension bridge was a kick:
|Note the dog...|
|and monks...it's a busy place!|
|Sue and Ugyen!|
Next up, Act III: One Day P.T.
For more information on our tour company, please visit Druk Leisure Tours.