Walks Part 3 – Tigers Nest & Cheli La

Posted on October 13, 2012 by Margot

tiger's Lair 1

Most of the walks I have written about have ended at a temple or Dzong and the next one is no exception. What is exceptional about it is that the destination this time was Taktsang – commonly known as the Tiger’s Lair or Tiger’s Nest – the iconic image of Bhutan which generally appears in a prominent position in anything you see or read about the country. It is one of the most venerated religious sites in the Himalayas, and is so called because Guru Rinpoche who brought Bhuddism to Bhutan, is believed to have flown there on the back of a tigress.

This shot was taken as we climbed up, up, and up some more to the temple complex which is perched 900 metres above our starting point; the Paro valley floor. I should add that we didn’t climb the whole 900 metres. We started from a car park at about 2600 metres, stopped for a spin of the prayer wheels on a ridge. And then lunch at 2940 metres at a strategically sited, rather attractive wooden tea house where I had the best dahl I have ever eaten, before continuing on to a point where we eye-balled the monastery across a gorge at 3140 metres.

So then it was down 400 steps to a crossing point of the ravine and then up 200 steps to the monastery itself. Could have done with a flying tiger right here!

Taktsang-400 steps down Taktsang-200 steps to go

We passed hordes of other tourists galumphing down the hill as we made our way up, including what seemed like a whole Sikh regiment of the Indian army. There were also hordes of ponies galumphing down, asserting their right of way. They were available for hire if you didn’t want to walk the whole way up, but it was only a one way hire – you had to walk down. I couldn’t really see why the ponies were in such a hurry to get back as all they did when they got there was turn around and come back up again, and some of their passengers were pretty damn hefty looking – somewhat more than the 65kg load that they normally carried when transporting goods!

sikh pony sikh pony 1

Not surprisingly our group sort of dispersed itself during this climb, as varying degrees of fitness and what I like to call altitude aptitude manifested themselves. Whilst I was not the total tail end Charlie, I certainly wasn’t up the front, and on this occasion I found myself alone when I entered the actual temple complex. So I proceeded upwards, reasoning that I would soon come across a pile of foreigners shoes outside one of the temples – always a give away as to where the rest of the party is. No sign of big foots anywhere: just a couple of pint sized plastic sandals, and shortly after, a pint sized elderly couple – clearly pilgrims – being shown around by a monk.

Another monk took pity on me and started showing me around – but my lack of Dzonga and his lack of English didn’t make for effective communication. I was particularly put off when I climbed up to where he was pointing and gesturing – actually following a hand painted sign saying “tigers nest”. All I could see was a small tin door which, when I pushed it open, led to a great big hole in the ground with a broken wooden ladder leading away into the darkness. I looked back at him and said “do you mean go in there?” He nodded vigorously, and smiled and looked very positive – but it didn’t seem quite right, and as there were certainly no other shoes there I decided to beat a retreat and go search for the rest of the group.

Thankfully I eventually found them – along with our own guide, and then had a very productive tour of the complex, even ending up in the temple that this monk was clearly caretaker off. He greeted me like a long lost friend and clearly bore no rancour at the fact that I had chosen not to descend into the tigers lair or whatever it was. (I never really found out as it clearly wasn’t on the general itinerary!!). I stuck close to the rest of the party for the reminder of that day, and as it was all down hill from there (apart from re- tracing the 400 up steps on the other side of the gorge) it was relatively easy. 

The walk down was much more pleasant than the haul up – partly for the obvious reason of being downhill rather than uphill, but also because it was much cooler being in the afternoon, the path was in shade and we had the mountain pretty much to ourselves as most other tourists seem to have done the climb in the morning. So there was time to appreciate the views, to look back again at that incredible sight and to just enjoy the peace of the forest.

Our final walk the following day did not have a temple or dzong as the end point – although we did pass through a nunnery. It was part of another ancient trail walked by people and animals for centuries and linking the isolated, sparsely populated south western valley/province of Haass with the more populous Paro Valley. For us the trail started in Cheli La – remember La means pass – which is the highest motorable pass in the country at almost 4000 metres. (You will understand and forgive this obsession with heights if you have ever done any high altitude walking; if you haven’t, just move on!)

Mt Jhomilari death flags

We started with a good gawk at the stunning view of Mt Jhomilari, Bhutan’s highest and most sacred mountain which is located right on the Tibetan border (we kept hearing that it has its feet in Tibet and its head in Bhutan – not quite sure how that works!). We had caught glimpses of it from high passes on a couple of previous occasions, but nothing prepared us for this!

Having had our fill of the view we turned around to find that our tour company director Kama Dema, who is a friend of Pat and Dave and was accompanying us on this walk, had magically produced some butter tea and yummy biscuit things to fortify us for the walk. Not that we thought we would need fortifying, as this was supposed to be an easy downhill walk – just a short uphill stretch through the field of prayer flags and then downhill all the way.

The flags here were predominantly death flags, the tall white upright ones placed on a pole and renewed annually; the coloured ones are wind flags which bear the imprinted pattern of the wind horse as well as details of the person requiring the prayers. Both sorts are placed at a strategically high place like Cheli La from which a river can be seen, and where the wind can carry the prayers down to the river, and the river can then carry the prayers further as it winds its way wherever it is going. Many of the death flags were for children who had been placed further up the mountain for air burial (children under 5 are not cremated). It was strange that even before we knew this, we sensed a sort of aura about this place – not creepy, but somehow solemn and peaceful and accepting. Very Bhuddist.

alpine meadow path alpine meadow flower

So having traversed the field of prayer flags and learned some more about them, we commenced the downhill, passing through some beautiful open alpine meadows and taking the opportunity for some more flora fotografy!!

The path then descended into more beautiful woodland, with loads of fallen logs, tree branches covered with Spanish moss and strange animals lurking around every corner and glimpsed the nunnery through the trees

And sighted the valley floor of Paro way down below in the distance.

paro valley below tall paddy fields

Alas, however, by the time we tail end Charlie’s reached the nunnery we were so far behind the lead crew that there was no time to go visit, so we had to scramble up to it, then dash past with only a cursory glance at the place, which didn’t look all that different from a monastery actually.

But then we hit trouble! A road was being constructed up to the monastery which previously had only been accessible by foot. (Those nuns hauled all their own supplies up there and didn’t think twice about it!). It seems road construction is a pretty hit and miss affair in Bhutan and on this occasion there did not appear to have been any preliminary survey work – let alone an Environmental Impact Assessment! As a result, the roadworks had totally destroyed what had apparently previously been a beautiful walking path – and to add insult to injury, they had not managed to push the road right through due to unforeseen technical problems, and had to re-route it anyway!

road construction road construction mess

For the locals this was just a bit of an inconvenience but for most of us though with 60 something knees it meant OMG! How am I going to get down there? Thank God for Karma Dema. She skipped down in front of me like a frisky little mountain goat, then turned around and offered her hand. She then became like a moving hand rail, descending a few steps, stopping while I clambered clumsily after her, and then repeating the process till I finally reached terra firma. She went through the same process with Ross getting him down to solid ground as well. And doing all this as you can see clad in her traditional Bhutanese kira. (She was at least wearing runners!!)

By this time our two guides and the rest of the tail end of the group had all propped at the same point. The guides and Karma, not put out in the slightest, immediately fell into action and formed a human chain to pass us all down.

Paro valley Dzong chillies drying on roof

The remainder of the walk was quite uneventful after that and driving back into the valley with its vistas of paddy fields and Dzongs and chillies drying on roofs seemed quite tame by comparison!

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