Day 21: Taktsang

Well today was my last day in Bhutan, but also the trip as a whole really, and it encapsulated everything I wanted out of my trip to Bhutan.

At this point it’s been pretty much a week without my passport since it was taken away at passport control at the airport for a visa change. The first day or two I was like “ok, it’s just bureaucracy.” And then there was a government holiday thrown in the middle. But now I fly out tomorrow and nervousness goes into full effect. I know also there is no embassy in Bhutan, and if I need to get a temporary passport I would need to travel to Nepal or India without one which is a pain in itself, and then find the embassy and go through all that, definitely missing my flights home and delaying my trip past my vacation days. I put it out of my mind, things tend to work out when people aren’t working under malice. I don’t think my guide or immigration is actively trying to mess things up so it will work out.

After breakfast we headed back to Paro, 4 hours away. Today I finally get to see Taktsang Goemba (Tiger’s Nest Monestary). The ride was uneventful and we arrived near the foot of the Tiger’s Nest for lunch. This monastery was one of the major draws for me to Bhutan. It really sparks the imagination. The Tiger’s Nest is perched on the side of a cliff 900m above the valley floor. The pictures always strike me as something out of a fantasy movie, or maybe a temple on Vulcan, not here on present day earth.

The day started off with rain, this was new for the trip as most days it doesn’t rain until around lunch when it does, then quickly clears up. This wasn’t quickly clearing up either. I was worried, I didn’t want to be in a bank of fog when looking at the Tiger’s Nest and I was hoping for some great pictures as well. But you can’t change the weather, and you never know when something bad is the start of something good, maybe it would give me a more dramatic shot?

Now for the climb. I’m told Gembpo is going to drive into town and sign off for my passport. Thank god. I’m still a tad nervous though, what if he can’t get it? Lhendup and I set off. The altitude is immediately a concern, we’re already over 7300 ft above sea level and climbing. I’m told it will take about an hour. I look up and it seems forever far away. It was. This has to be the hardest hike I’ve ever done, probably about the equivalent of the south ridge trail in Idyllwild. Around 3000 ft of elevation gain at altitude. The path was quite steep. I also had to avoid the donkey dung along the path left by pack animals used by the monks and tourists to more easily get to the top. I think though even if I didn’t have a camera and tripod this would be a tough hike, they just made it that bit harder. It was hard to enjoy the scenery much too, except when stopping for a break. I was mostly concerned with my footing right in front of me. When I did take a break though the scenery was something to behold. Bright blue butterflies floating about, birds of various shapes and sizes, and ethereal green moss hanging from the trees reminding me of the fake spider webs from Halloween. There’s intermittent rain and sunshine which keeps it cool, I guess I can’t completely complain about the weather.. Things could be much much hotter if it weren’t for this weather, too bad it’s not that great for photography.

Once at the top of the climb an hour or so later, you still have 780 stairs to decent and climb as the path dips down and then climbs back up to the monastery. It was worth it though. I had high expectations after seeing pictures and fantasizing about coming here for a couple years now. It definitely lived up to my expectations. It’s a sight to behold, the thing seems precariously perched on a ledge seemingly carved into the side of a mountain. Looking over the side you see nothing but air. A waterfall plummets first 30 ft to the monastery, and then all the way down to the bottom of the mountain. The sound from the waterfall, and the nice cool breeze tells me why this is a favorite place for Lamas to meditate.

Along the way my guide Lhendup gets a phone call, it’s not good news. His grandfather has died at the age of 92. His brother wants him to come home to Bumthang as soon as possible. The mood becomes somber and introspective. At this point I don’t feel like asking any more questions. He’s now stuck halfway up a mountain with a tourist instead of where I’m sure he’d like to be.

Entering the monastery everything needs to be left behind with the police up there, no cameras so I can’t show you anything from the inside. If I were a better artist I would paint it for you. Maybe I’ll even give it a try when I get home, I did a sketch in my notepad to remember it better.

Inside a series of narrow passages and stairs link the buildings. There is a wishing rock inside with a sort of game where if you close your eyes and are able to press your thumb into this indentation without looking your wish will come true. I don’t believe of course, but I give it a try and miss by just a couple cm!

We go to a room where offerings have been made, it holds images of the Guru Rimpoche whose meditation spot this temple is constructed around. We also visit the main prayer hall. It’s smaller than any I’ve been in yet for obvious reasons. Lhendup immediately does a number of prostrations first towards an image of Rimpoche and then to Buddha. I think because of the bad news perhaps this has more meaning than most days. He makes an offering as well (money to help pay for the monk’s room and board), I do the same, I think larger than anyone else had that day because I’m so impressed by this place. I consider it my entrance fee though it’s still not much more than $1.

Eventually we have to leave this enchanting place, and that means some 200 stairs down, and 400 up. My legs are so worn out by now. On the way down Lhendup tells me that he’s going to check me into the hotel and make sure everything is paid for, brief Gembpo on when I need to go to breakfast, checkout, and what not. He’s going to then try to get a taxi or several and make it all the way to Bumthang while the road closures are open for the night. That’s like 8 hours of taxis…

I check in and take a nice bath. I wish I could get it hotter, but the water heater just doesn’t get the water quite hot enough. As far as I’m concerned this is the best way to relax away tense used up muscles.

Dinner was different than normal, I got the option to go to a Bhutanese farm house and have a traditional meal. It was nice to actually eat with people for once, though my hosts didn’t speak much English. Some Spaniards show up right as we’re leaving and I had a brief conversation, they’re apparently going to a 6 day “Blue Economy” conference. I have no idea what they mean but have to leave right before I can ask them what that was. The food wasn’t much different from what I’ve been having. Curried peppers, cheese potatoes, red rice, some asparagus and spinach (yuk!), and a meat dish. I swear the meat was the toughest thing I’ve ever had, it was like I had to chew until my jaw got tired and just swallow it. I didn’t want to leave anything on my plate. I was also served local rice wine that tasted sorta like Sake, and butter tea which was horrible. I feel bad not finishing either.

We had to leave in a bit of a hurry though, apparently there was a cultural show going on at the hotel for a big group coming in, and I didn’t want to miss it. There would be traditional song and dance much like I would see at the festivals I missed due to it being the low season. We arrived just in time, but the big group were all still getting settled so I had some time to grab some water and relax a little.

The group was apparently here on the invite of some Lama. I didn’t catch the name, but he’s apparently a spiritual adviser to the king and prime minister, so he must be important. The group were from all around the world: Taiwan, Singapore, China, Japan, even an American woman. I talked to a Taiwanese man named Jack (his western name) to get the low down. The Lama was there and received what seemed like a birthday cake, though more of a thank you gesture. A weird mixing of eastern and western culture right there. Speeches were made and he blessed anyone wanting a blessing. I felt like the interloper. A curious interloper.

The festivities were interesting, and I tried my best to capture some images, but the light was low and the best I could do was use my 50mm/1.8f wide open which was far too long of a lens, and boost the iso to 1600 which on my super cheap camera body is very very very noisy. Also it was so dark autofocus didn’t work, and wide open the depth of field on the lens is very narrow so I eventually gave up because getting moving things in focus with a narrow depth of field is like pushing a rock up a hill. I managed a couple photos is full manual mode with manual focus though. I really need a new camera body, I’m mostly just waiting until Canon’s next iteration on the 5d so I can switch to something with excellent low light behavior which will let me skip the tripod really and use teleconverters to get longer focal lengths without carrying big telephotos, using the iso to compensate for the smaller aperture.

The dances were unusual, and the costumes colorful. The way they danced in the night club the day before you could tell originated here. Jack asked me if this were one of the places I would say Bhutan is a must see before you die. I didn’t know how to answer that question, there was something foreign about it to me. I’m convinced I’m not going to be reincarnated, that when I die I’m dead, that’s that. So to me I don’t get a second shot at seeing the world, and there is so much of it I want to see. To me every place I go is a place that’s a must see before I die, and that’s why I’m here halfway around the world. I think if I thought otherwise it would be easy to just stay home living my life like everyone else in a set routine always thinking I could go there later, putting it off because I wanted the money or time for something else. I have a sense of urgency to my life I think, even at 26. I’m also keenly aware there are only so many years I can do this sort of traveling, after a point it’s too tiring and people start looking at you weird. I tell him instead it’s one of the places I would say you have to go to in the next 15 years. With a flood of outside influences it’s only so long before Bhutan can no longer resist the tide and is changed forever culturally.

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