Saturday, December 10, 2016

From Laya to Leech Socks: The Highs and Lows of an Asia Adventure, Act II

For Act 1, go here

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.

To get there, both the Guru and Tenzin didn't want to make it easy. The trail to Taktsang goes up. Uppity up up 3,000 feet above the Paro valley from whence we came.

Starting out. Seems flat, but not for long.
Our hike took us by a few religious structures and prayer wheels that have been built along the way; some have commemorative "tsa-tsas" containing ashes of the dead left by loved ones.

Prayer wheel in constant motion from
a stream flowing through it.

Tsa-tsas left by loved ones.
It was also our introduction to prayer flags. Prayer flags are placed where sky, water, and trees intersect by anyone who wants to send wishes, prayers, or requests to the Buddhist gods. Sky, water, and trees--by coming together, the wind from the sky blows these prayers down from the forest through the water, downstream and out to reach the gods. Norris and Ugyen purchased a line of prayer flags for each of us, and everyone but Sherrie and I placed prayer flags along this trail. I admit, we missed out. However, we were promised that we could put our flags up at a place that would have meaning for each of us, so we held onto our flags for a future unknown, but no doubt perfect, time and place.

The trail has a couple primary resting viewpoints; one has a large prayer wheel and a series of smaller ones (and modified water bottles forming others); another spot overlooks a trail to a small restaurant.

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!
To reach the Tiger's Nest, after going about as far up as we thought we could handle, we had to descend what feels like a thousand steps, and then ascend a similar height back up to, finally, the monastery. Well done! We passed the first hiking test, or so we thought.

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.
It was a serene change from the popular and peopled Tiger's Nest trail. Lunch was waiting for us, graciously prepared and served by the monks living there--the Zandropelay temple and monastery. We were brought into a comfortable room filled with benches, blankets, and tables, and served rice, butter tea, rice noodles with cheese and chiles, and more. It was a feast--and thinking that these humble, devout men probably never ate that much food in a day gave us pause to reflect how generous and kind they were towards these strangers from a different world. And we also realized how special this trip would be, thanks to Ugyen and Norris, knowing there were more unique opportunities awaiting us.

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
Dachu La Pass was historically a primary route between Thimphu (the current capital of Bhutan) and Punakha (a previous capital). Ancient trails can still be seen; a temple is located here, as well as 108 (a significant number in the Buddhist religion) stupas, small religious memorials also known as chortens. At Dachu La, these are known as "Druk Wangyal Chortens," built by the eldest Queen Mother. Also on site is a monastery built in honor of the 4th head of the state of Bhutan, Druk Gyalpo. These structures are adjacent to Bhutan's first Royal Botanical Park, which we later drove through on our way to Punakha.

A few of the 108 stupas, or chortens, adorning Dachu La Pass
Pictures (one of our best group shots, thanks to Eric) were taken, and off we continued on our way.

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's a busy place!

Sue and Ugyen!
Staying in Punakha that night, we re-packed everything to prepare us for what was next (cue the dun-dun-DUN music)...The Trek. Everything we think we needed for the next five days went into one bag (five nights camping; four days trekking). The rest, which we wouldn't see for possibly eternity, went into another. With a bit of trepidation, we slept, thinking "this is the last bed/shower/pillow we're going to see for a looonnngggg time!"

Next up, Act III: One Day P.T.

For more information on our tour company, please visit Druk Leisure Tours.

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