Tiger’s Nest

Silence except for heavy cold breaths. Lindsey and I sit meditating cross-legged in the upper sanctuary of Tiger’s Nest in front of the great Guru Rinpoche. I focus on focusing. Feeling my breath, hearing my breath, controlling my breath. Then my mind wanders, and I return back to breathing, back to focusing on focusing. No one disturbs us. We are the first up to Tiger’s Nest in the morning and we get to savor this moment. Here we are at one of Bhutan’s most sacred sites in a country where most if not all sites are sacred in some way. The air is cold enough to freeze parts of the 50 foot waterfall we pass along the trail. The sun is still hidden behind clouds and fog. Our shoes are outside the door. Our toes freezing. Focus on focusing. The land is quiet save the occasional wind through trees and prayer flags. And the temple in which we stand is secured in a mountain face close to 1000 meters above the valley floor. It’s our last day in Bhutan. It’s magical in almost every sense of the word.

We’ve been in Bhutan for over ten days, and every day it’s been clear blue skies as far as we can see. On this particular morning, we start the day unable to see ten feet in front of us. Google Bhutan and all you see is pictures of Tiger’s Nest. It is unique, beautiful, iconic, and the single activity that’s been met with the greatest expectations. Our guide quells our anxiety after breakfast, assuring us we’d just started the day at an early hour and that surely this will clear. We hike quickly, a pack of stray dogs trailing us, then leading us all the way to the mid-point, a cafe. We sip tea and ask again for assurance that it will clear. This time, Sonam isn’t so sure.

We know we’re in the land of contentment where hope is believed to be a cause of suffering, but for Tiger’s Nest, we’re willing to wait all day if it comes to it. As we continue on the hike up to Tiger’s Nest, still led by our pack of dogs, we see a small patch of blue sky. We see the fog starting to thin in the distance. And finally, we see the outline of Tiger’s Nest hidden behind the sheet of white. Our disappointment turns to optimism and we hike on. Being able to see the Tiger’s Nest revealed behind the fog as the morning continues is a memory we will never forget. But of course, the better pictures come with blue skies, so after a Coca-Cola at the cafe, we decide to scurry back up the mountain to capture the magical monastery in the sun, one last time. Our journey is complete.

Flight cancelled, rough road ahead

I think we’ll sum this road trip up as an adventure in a country that is still developing its infrastructure.  It was exciting, frustrating, comical, beautiful, and eye-opening all at once.

The excitement is like driving along the highway above the Amalfi Coast.  The views from the road are incredibly beautiful and distracting as it winds it’s way hugging the mountain on one side and a cliff on the other.  Since it’s the main road, all forms of transportation are present – large construction vehicles, trucks, buses, motorbikes, walkers, and us.  All these transportation modes go at different speeds and take up different amounts of space on the road, which many times isn’t wide enough to pass let alone accommodate two-way traffic.  We try not to look down, but sometimes the temptation to know how far down really is gets the better of us.

The frustration is like driving through the Colorado Rockies only to find out that the one airplane that flies to and from Denver is out of service for the next week and the one road that took us there can at times barely be called a road.  We drive through numerous switchbacks punctuated by mountain passes.  We pass and get passed seemingly based on some system depending on size of car and comfort with the road.  The scenery continues to change, the mountains in the distance continue to tower, and the road continues to wind.  We are hoping this is going to be a one-way journey as the plan is to fly back, but alas, the flight is cancelled in the middle of Bhutan where the only way back is the way we came.

And the comedy is like riding an amusement park ride.  One of those rides where you get into a vehicle that doesn’t move but only jostles around, and there’s a screen in front of the car to simulate forward and backward movement (see: Back to the Future, the ride).  There are so many degrees of freedom as we drive along this newly expanded road, which is unpaved and has so many potholes that I think calling them potholes would be generous.  We sway left to right, front to back.  We bounce up and down.  We accelerate and break.  And often, we seem to bounce up, break and sway left all at the same time.  Great for a 60 second ride, but a little less friendly on the lower-back for a many hour car drive.

In truth though, this is part of traveling in a country with few tourists.  Bumthang maybe had a dozen tourists there.  The monasteries, temples, restaurants, and streets were full of locals but no tourists.  And we treasure this even if it means a slightly more painful journey back.