Tuesday, 30 October 2012

There and back again - Part 2

The Tiger's Nest, Paro
Our travels in Bhutan took us from Paro to Thimpu, from Thimpu to Chimmu Lhakhang and on to Punakha, from Punakha across Pele La to Trongsa, from Trongsa to Jakar in Bumthang and from there to Phobjikha and then back to Paro. It was an incredible journey for me in most senses of the word, but if I were to write it all here I'd be writing all day, so you'll just have to trust me on that one. Of course I'm not blind to the fact that I was a tourist and being given the tourist 'treatment', so was it really Bhutan or the Tourist Version of Bhutan? Probably a bit of both in my view. There were moments, such as when Kinley went out of his way to buy me a bottle of Ara (the local rice wine), so that I'd have something to take back with me. This was one of those genuine Bhutanese moments that I hold very dearly. I found this particularly touching because 1) he doesn't drink; 2) I could well afford to buy myself a bottle and I'm not sure he could; and 3) he sourced it specially for me. I didn't ask for this, he just did it because he's a kind person and wanted me to experience something of his country.

So on to the final full day of our visit and the requisite trek to Paro Taktsang, better known as The Tiger's Nest. This amazing structure is built onto the edge of a cliff, 3,000 ft above Paro, over 10,000 ft above sea level and is about 3.5 miles from the car park to the top and takes approximately 2-3 hours to reach, depending on how fast you are.

As you know I have a knee problem and we'd decided to hire a pony to help both up and down, but the day before we were due to go, there was a day of rain and the track was slippy and muddy so we were unsure if a pony would be able to negotiate the track at all. However, on the day itself we awoke to a beautiful, cold, sunny Paro day and got to the car park at the base of the track by 7.30 am. We were supposed to be met by our pony, but nothing was there (in fact we were the first people in the car park at that point). By 8 the car park was filling up and still no sign of a pony, so after Thandin phoned the pony person, we decided to head on up the path, with the hope that the pony would catch us up.
Me at the very start
After about 30 minutes of walking pony man and 3 ponies arrived and an Australian woman (who, along with her husband and their guide had joined our merry band by then) and I were allotted our mounts and off we went, with her on a grey, being led by the pony man and me on a brown, being led by Thandin, while the 3rd pony just walked along behind us.

And off we go
After about 15 minutes we stopped and I was changed onto the 3rd pony, but the pony man was so impressed with my ability to get on and off (I've been riding since I was 5 so this wasn't all that impressive) that after another 15 minutes he changed us over and I was put on the grey with him and in the lead and the Aussie woman was relegated.

And another change
And off we go again
Thandin kept telling me how great a rider the pony man thought I was - which, given we're talking trekking ponies here, who were plodding along the slippy path to the very best of their ability, but I would hardly call it riding in the true sense, made me wonder at what these poor ponies had to put up with usually!

15 minutes later, as we glimpsed The Tiger's Nest through the clouds and gazed down over Paro, it was time to dismount and the ponies, released from duty as it was far too slippery to be able to carry a human down the track, went back to base camp with their man and we headed on up the path. I was trying hard at this point not to think of the journey back, as going down is far harder for me than going up, but I have to admit it was playing on my mind some.

And there it is!
A rather nice pic of pony, Pony Man and Thandin just before we started the last slog

The view of Paro valley from part way up
'Old Man's Beard' on the trees

Unbelievably beautiful ferns, which actually grow on the tree trunks
About 45 minutes later, after slogging up track and 700 steps (yes, 700!) and past a waterfall, we finally arrived at the monastery and what an incredible sight it was, literally hanging there on the edge of the cliff! Cameras aren't allowed inside so I have no photos from the top, but the views were just amazing.

Thandin and I on the steps

Looking up at The Tiger's Nest

More steps!

Looking back over all those steps!

And then it was time to turn around and go down. I was just beginning to feel daunted at the prospect when I looked down and to my astonishment there, in the ground at my feet, was an Indian 1 Rupee coin and the only thing showing on it's face was a thumb's up sign. I didn't need any further encouragement and off we went.

We had a few funny moments when several groups of Indian Army guys, who were running the whole path (!) asked us if they could take photos with us. Apparently they like to look like they've got European friends.... I wish I could have been there when they got back and told each other about their new holiday chums from Scotland and then find out that each group took the same photos. The worst bit is that, as it was hot on the way down and I was wearing a pink vest, was very red in the face, and what with my hair colour to add to the ghastly image, I can't think they'll have been too pleased with the actual photos - and no, I'm not including any for you to laugh at, I'll leave that to your imaginations.

Looking back up at The Tiger's Nest from way down the path
It took us just a couple of hours to get down and, although sore, my knee had held out rather well. A hot bath and some Ibuprofen gel and a couple of painkillers and I was right as anything to get on with our day, which included a visit to another monastery in Paro, a walk around town and a delicious meal out with Tenzin, our Tour Operator and MM's friend, who very sweetly bought us a piece of hand woven cloth to grace our table at home as a gift.

A perfect end to a perfect trip.

More Bhutanese facts
  • Dzongkha is the official Bhutanese language and English is the second language.
  • You're always given a guide who speaks your language pretty fluently.
  • The guides are incredibly knowledgeable, so be prepared to be flooded with facts about all the places you visit.
  • From all the trinkets you can buy, you'd think the Bhutanese are obsessed with penises (penii?). This is because the Divine Madman, who apparently went around naked, subdued many local demons with his magic penis. I'm saying nothing!
  • There are several local beers, but I was advised to drink Drukh 1100 over Red Panda. It was pretty good.
  • Ara is the local wine. It's rice wine with a bit of wheat added, so a bit like Japanese Sake, but a bit stronger in flavour.
  • The currency is the Ngultrum and, at the time of our travel, there were 86.84 Ngultrum to the £1.
  • The national game is archery. Not exactly a spectator sport as the arrows are shot over quite a distance (430 ft) and it's not that easy to see the target, but they do a dance and sing whenever someone hits the target, so is very colourful and upbeat.
  • The national dress is the Gho for men and the Kira for women - though many women wear a half Kira. The Bhutanese have to wear the national costume if they're visiting Dzong or monastery and, although they do wear western clothes too, most wear national costume most of the time.

Oh yes, and before I finish the Bhutanese part of our trip... our favourite place? Phobjikha, a valley out beyond. We stayed at a farmhouse, where it was freezing so we were given a room with a wood burning stove, which was wonderfully warm and toasty. We had no shower, but were given hot buckets of water to wash ourselves with. Somehow this rustic simplicity completely won us over and we just wished we'd been able to stay there longer.

Tomorrow - Part 3 - back to Nepal and the delights of Chitwan, Lumbini and a stay with the Mother Bush.


  1. Welcome Home Vee!
    It sounds and looks like a wonderful experience but for the sake of full disclosure I think the withheld Tiger's Nest descent photos should be shared:-)
    I'm looking forward to the next installment.
    Feels like you've been away ages.

  2. Thanks Denise, but if you think I'm going to embarrass myself any more than I usually do, you're utterly mistaken!