“Climbing to Tiger’s Nest is like Buddha’s path to enlightenment,” Kinley explains.
“Patience is the only way to get you there.”
He gives us a big smile and turns towards the dirt path. Kinley is one of our guides on a two-week hiking trip in Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan kingdom nestled between Tibet and India. We’ve just begun our two-thousand-foot climb up to Tiger’s Nest Monastery, one of the country’s most sacred temples. Two thousand feet is a decent ascent, but starting at eight thousand feet after being at sea level just days before makes this hike even more challenging.
The ten Americans and one feisty Australian in our group have all come to Bhutan for different reasons. Some are celebrating birthdays. Others are mere outdoor enthusiasts. I’m getting married exactly one year from this crisp November day, and have come to Bhutan to escape reality and to go on one last adventure alone, to challenge the Himalayan mountains, and to experience a culture different from my own.
When I told friends I was thinking about visiting Bhutan, most immediately asked, “Is that in Africa?” Bhutan — a country that introduced television in the 1990s and whose capital city has no traffic lights — seemed like the ideal place to escape from the rest of the world. I figured there would be no cell phones and certainly no Internet. It was the perfect place to get away from it all.
I arrived at Paro International Airport yesterday, after a grueling two-day trip from Washington, D.C., to Seoul, Bangkok, and then onward to Bhutan. The landlocked country seems like one of the most difficult places to get to — Druk Air, the government airline with just a few planes in its fleet, flies from Bangkok only a couple times each day, and from India and Nepal sporadically each week. In fact, only a handful of pilots in the entire world are allowed to fly in and out of Paro. The airport — located in a valley surrounded by 18,000-foot peaks — is considered one of the most dangerous in the world. All flights must take place during daylight hours and pilots must have clear visibility to land and take off. Here, there’s no autopilot. While preparing for my trip, I had extensively researched the country’s potential dangers — altitude sickness, yellow fever, food poisoning — but never thought that merely touching down on the tarmac could be a life-threatening experience. It was only after the captain turned on the seatbelt sign that I realized I might not even make it to the country in one piece. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are starting our descent to Paro International Airport,” said our captain. “For those of you who have not flown with us previously, don’t worry. We’ve done this before.”
The plane swerved around mountain peaks as if they were pesky traffic cones. Bank left. Bank right. Down, down, down. I pulled out the in-flight magazine to distract me, but its title is “Tashi Delek,” or “Good Luck,” in the Bhutanese language of Dzongkha. My heart pounded in my chest, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off the landscape: snow-capped mountains pierced through the layer of clouds like icebergs jutting out of the sea; brown hills covered in rice paddies looked like a fancy multi-layered wedding cake. I could see the detailed architecture of the traditional white adobe Bhutanese houses, which look like a cross between a Japanese pagoda and a Swiss ski chalet. Sometimes we came so close to the houses that I felt like I could reach out and yank laundry right off the clotheslines. As we descended, I wondered if the farmers ever ducked as we soared close enough for the wind from the plane to knock the straw hats right off their heads. But I could see the farmers in their fields — could almost count the buttons on their shirts —and they never so much as looked up from their harvest, except, in traditional Bhutanese kindness, to wave “hello.” Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Bhutan.
On the Tiger’s Nest trail, I struggle to breathe. I trained at the gym for two months before coming to Bhutan, but no Stairmaster is any match for thin Himalayan air. I breathe slowly and deeply but my lungs are never satisfied.
“See?” Kinley turns around again, a big smile on his face. “Always smiling!” As part of the government’s plan to preserve their country’s culture, visitors to Bhutan must be accompanied by a guide, and Kinley and Dawa are ours for the trip. Both in their late twenties (they think — birthdays are not important here), they remind me of an Asian version of Cheech and Chong. Always joking, always smiling, but very knowledgeable about their country. Dawa explains that all licensed Bhutanese guides undergo extensive training, and can even lose their license if they are caught lying about religious information to visitors.
Kinley is walking uphill backward now, as if he’s done this hike every day of his life. I’d be smiling, too, but smiling means less air can pass through my lips. He climbs steadily up the dirt path to Tiger’s Nest, head bowed slightly forward and hands clasped together behind his back, the way so many Bhutanese walk. He’s dressed in a traditional black gho, a kimono-like robe with large white cuffs. It’s the national clothing for Bhutanese men, and Kinley looks like he’s leaped backward in time one hundred years, save for his slicked-back hair and uncanny knowledge of Lady Gaga. Like many Bhutanese, he is always smiling.
Bhutan is known for measuring the wealth of its people not by the standard Gross National Product, but by what the fourth king called Gross National Happiness. It goes something like this: if a country’s people are taken care of — safe roads, good schools, free hospitals — then it doesn’t matter how much money they earn each year. If they have all these things, they will be happy. The fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, instituted a constitutional monarchy here at the turn of the 21st century, stating that, “One of the most important responsibilities of a king is to enable the people to govern and look after the country through an establishment of a dynamic political system.” He even abdicated the throne in 2006 so that he could teach his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, how to lead a country. The current king, now in his thirties and who loves basketball and Elvis, symbolizes the continuing modernization of Bhutan. He even married a twenty-one-year-old commoner — and the daughter of a Druk Air pilot — just two weeks before my visit, and “royal wedding” fever was still on the country’s mind.
The path to Tiger’s Nest winds its way through a dense forest of blue pine trees, and though I grew up hiking in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve never been on a hike quite as spiritual as this one. Spanish moss dangles from pine tree branches like tinsel, colorful strands of prayer flags are suspended from tree to tree like streamers at a birthday party, and women selling various handmade religious items (and buttons depicting the royal newlyweds) sit on silk blankets to the side of the path. One man is even selling wooden phalluses, and he waves them at me as I pass. Normally, I’d be offended if a man waved a penis in my face, but here it’s a symbol of good luck and fertility. I bow slightly —grateful for the good luck but hoping the fertility part doesn’t kick in for a while — and offer a muffled “kaadinchhey la” (thank you) before continuing on.
Kinley and Dawa teach us many Dzongkha words throughout our trip. We learn “hello” (kuzoozangpo la) and “thank you” (kaadinchhey la), but, as in many countries, English gets its way and they tell us that mostly people just say “hello la” and “thank you la.”
“Kinley?” asks Anita, our Australian traveler, as she catches up to our guide.
“Yes, please?” Kinley replies.
Anita takes a breath. “You keep saying this climb was supposed to be easy. Do we have much further to go?”
Kinley pauses and squints his eyes. Wrinkles form in his brow.
“No, not really,” he says. “Well, yes.”
Anita gives me a puzzled look while Kinley continues on. Despite his excellent English skills (both English and Dzongkha are taught in local schools), he always answers with both “Yes” and “No,” and sometimes “Maybe,” or all three. It’s a quirk I come to love, though I learn to wait for his full response to understand his answer.
“Yes, we have a ways to go,” Kinley stops to let us walk ahead of him. “But it’s not too far. Keep smiling. It will not feel so long!”
Like many mountain ascents, the dirt trail is full of switchbacks. The path is well trodden, as thousands of people make the pilgrimage to Tiger’s Nest each year. The trail winds in and out of the forest, and every time there’s a break in the trees we can see the monastery in the distance, nestled on the side of the cliff. To me, it looks a bit like a birthday cake. It’s tiered and white with sprinkles of red and gold on its top layers. Colorful strands of prayer flags surround the monastery like streamers. There’s no electricity at this altitude, and I can see the soft glow of candles in its many windows.
On one of my breaks, I gaze toward the monastery. According to legend, at the end of the 17th century Guru Rinpoche, known as the second Buddha in Bhutan, flew from India on a winged tigress and landed in this very spot to meditate for many months. Buddhist faith is felt everywhere in Bhutan, and though I am not a particularly religious person, I get goose bumps when Kinley and Dawa show us Guru Rinpoche’s impression where he sat on a rock, or point out an image of Buddha’s face imprinted on the side of a cliff.
Tiger’s Nest is a ney, or holy place, and some monks dressed in beautiful deep red robes even make this trek every day. But it’s not just the monks. Ordinary men and women rub prayer beads — 108 of them, a lucky number — between their fingers as they saunter up the trail. Some mumble prayers (whereas I quietly curse under my breath). Others twirl prayer wheels, which look like cylindrical maracas with prayers inscribed on the side, in their hands. Those twirling the prayer wheels (clockwise, never counter) seem to have no difficulty with the tough trek. It’s like they’re rubbing their stomach and patting their head — and breathing — all without effort. I make a mental note to purchase a prayer wheel before the next trek.
As we climb higher, our group disperses a bit. I count the switchbacks in my head, “One… two… three,” and allow myself to pause after every third one so my lungs can catch up with my legs. I lose count quickly. The two-hour trail is comprised of dozens of switchbacks that lead up, up, up the mountain. As we climb higher, I also begin to pray that my lungs will somehow forgive me when I eventually return to sea level.
I spy Dawa pacing meticulously up the hill ahead of me, though instead of walking with his hands clasped behind his back like Kinley, his hands are clasped in front of him around a cell phone. He stops for a moment to wait as I catch up.
“Are you drinking enough water?” he asks me. I nod that I have been. “Are you on Facebook?”
“Are you?” I ask, shocked that the mere notion of Facebook has even reached this tiny Himalayan kingdom.
“I’ll friend you when we get back to the hotel,” he says, smiling like Kinley.
I laugh. “You’ll have to wait until I get back to the States. I don’t think my iPhone will work here.”
“The hotel in Paro has Wi-Fi,” he smiles. “I’m going to post some pictures of our trek when we get back.”
He steps forward as I shake my head in disbelief. I can barely get a decent wireless signal in my apartment back home, and he’s telling me that I can “friend” him at eight thousand feet. So much for getting away from it all.
I let a few monks pass me as I wait for my lungs to fill with oxygen, which I decide to never take for granted again. Some ride mules, which step slowly and methodically up the hill. One mule has stopped in the middle of the path. He gazes straight ahead, and his black tail swishing back and forth. His rider — a Tibetan monk here on a pilgrimage — dismounts to tug at the mule’s reins and offer some words of encouragement. But mules are smart, and he doesn’t budge for some time.
Barb, another American in our group and outdoor enthusiast from Colorado, sets her pack on the ground by me and takes off her fleece vest. It can’t be more than fifty-five degrees, but by now, slightly more than halfway to our destination and sweating more than I thought possible, we’ve all stripped down to our first layer of clothing. I’ve already discarded my rain jacket, fleece pullover, and long-sleeved shirt to hike in a modest tank top. I briefly contemplate hiking in my sports bra, save for the fact that most Bhutanese are relatively reserved, and I don’t want to jinx any good karma.
“Have you ever heard of the lock step method?” she asks, stuffing her vest in her red backpack.
I respond that I have not.
“With each step, allow your back leg to come completely straight before you step forward again,” she explains and demonstrates with a few steps forward. “Your knees will thank you later.”
I nod and wonder what good this will do for my lungs, but I follow her lead and carry on.
Further along the path, Tiger’s Nest comes more clearly into view. I can now see its white walls and red and gold roof, the wooden painted frames that outline the windows. The monastery burned down in 1998, and though it’s been restored (to the tune of 135 million ngultrum, or about two million dollars), it still looks like it belongs in the 17th century. It looks small from here, and it fits so snug in the rock face that it’s as if an ancient god filled the gap in the rock with the monastery as one would fill a crack in the wall with caulk. Some say that the way the monastery clings to the side of the cliff makes it look like a gecko scaling a wall. I stop and inhale deeply, my intentions twofold: first, to try to imprint the smells of this peculiar land permanently in my brain, and second, to fill my lungs with much-needed fresh air.
I stop and gag. All I smell is donkey shit.
We eventually reach a teahouse — a rest area of sorts for weary hikers just a short distance from the monastery. Ladies dressed in beautiful kiras, or women’s national dress, serve us hot tea and biscuits while we take in views of Tiger’s Nest. It feels like we’re just a few hundred yards from the monastery now, although we’ve still got a windy stone staircase and questionable wooden bridge to go. Prayer flags hang from every branch in our path, and the bright colors of red, yellow, blue, and green make me feel like I’m hiking through a forest of square M&M’s.
I let my fellow group members walk ahead, and I feel like I’m alone with the monastery. I reach up and rub the dry burlap cloth of a white prayer flag between my fingers. It’s tinted slightly pink, and I wonder how many decades this prayer has been suspended here, waiting to be answered. The cloth is inscribed with a Buddhist prayer — for good health, for long life, I assume — but since I can’t read it, I whisper a silent prayer to myself — for a long and happy marriage, for a healthy family, for a safe departure out of Paro’s airport. “Kaadinchhey la,” I say, to no one in particular. I close my eyes and hear nothing but a few faint voices of hikers below, the breeze lifting the prayer flags, as if to remind the world that they’re still there. This is what I was after when I came to Bhutan — the challenge, the culture, the tranquility —and I think I’ve finally found it.
Suddenly, something stirs. My heart skips a beat, and I wonder what animal is lurking in the bushes. The unmistakable sound of Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way” echoes through the trees.
“Hello la?” A monk emerges from the bushes, adjusts his belt, tucks in the waist of his robe, and holds a cell phone to his ear.
Maybe Bhutan isn’t so foreign after all.