Wednesday, May 5, 2010

May 4 – The Trip to Tiger’s Nest

One of the “must do” events on any trip to Bhutan is the visit to Tiger’s Nest, a monastery perched high in the mountains above Paro. There are two ways to travel there, either to walk all the way or to rent horses part way and walk the rest of the way. To the traveler, there are three important stages on the journey. First is the cafeteria, about half-way up, where most of the horse trips end. The second stage is the view point across a valley from Tiger’s Nest, where you can go by horse if you pay extra for the ride. This is as far as anyone can go by horseback. The third stage is a walk down about 300 steps to the valley floor and then back up another 300 steps to the monastery itself.

I have never ridden a live horse that I can remember. My horse history stops at the Merry-Go-Round at the Jersey shore. Robin didn’t help any when he described the saddle as two crossed sticks that one had to hang on to all the way up. I was considering just walking and going as slow as I could and stopping as necessary to catch my breath. The day before I had hiked up to the Tango Monastery (a story for a later blog) to test my capability for Tiger’s Nest. I made it up there, but probably just barely and Tiger’s Nest was two to four times as far. Namgay who had been watching me huff and puff up some museum steps, decided I would be a real problem if I walked, so he convinced me to try a horse and that I could get off and walk if I wanted.

We left the Gangtey Palace at 7:00 Tuesday morning, a good executive decision on Namgay’s part. We stopped on the way to take a picture of the destination mountain, but Tiger’s Nest was not in view on the valley floor. After some drive we reached the end of the road and the beginning of the trail to Tiger’s Nest. James and Monica, who were both younger and fitter than the rest of us had already started the hike up. Eleanore, John, and I mounted the horses and started up the trail. As we found later Namgay and Robin had negotiated to pay the horse contractor double to get the three of us up to the View Point so that we would get pictures directly across from Tiger’s Nest.

We set out with a hose led by one of the horse handlers in front. I was second with Wangdi leading my horse. I think John was behind. Namgay had arranged an English saddle for him. The rest had the pack saddles, boards covered with blankets. There were two stirrups and two wooden pieces, like large Popscicle sticks sticking out in front to hold on to. Early on, I fell into the real lesson of horsemanship: keep your center of mass over the horse’s. If he goes up, you lean forward; if he goes known, you lean back. Sometimes it was necessary to compensate rather rapidly to the horse’s change in position, especially when he came to some log steps that had been placed on the trail. I was always happy when my hose stepped to the flat trail next to the steps.

The hoses ware really surefooted, as if they had been doing this all their lives (which I’m sure they had), and we continued to progress at a moderate pace. As I grew accustomed to the horse, I realized that there probably was no way I could have kept up that pace for the whole trip.

We reached the cafeteria level and stopped to rest the horses, our guides, and the riders. There was a lady waiting there with her blanket spread on the ground with interesting trinkets to buy. She had some interesting brass locks in the shape of turtles and fish. They looked so unique that Eleanore bought two and Robin bought one. They put them on layaway until we returned down hill. Only after we started up and saw several more entrepreneurs with the same merchandise did they realize that this was not a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Back up on the hoses and up the hill to the view point. Finally, about two hours after mounting the horses, we reached the end of the line. We walked around and all took pictures. I started down the stairs to get some different angles and take some other pictures. I reached a landing, took some pictures, looked across and decided that since I couldn’t take a camera inside any how that I had as good pictures as I was every going to get. I told Robin, who had come with me and he agreed with my suggestion. It was only after I was mounting the approximately 50 stairs to the view point did I realize that had been a sound decision.

Up until this time, we had not seen any other tourists on the trail. We had been so early that Marcia, who was ahead of Ata, her guide had reached the monastery before the guard was ready to admit visitors. Those of us at the view point had the opportunity to take pictures without tourists and other distractions in the way. On the way down, we started meeting tourists with the “Are we there yet” look in their eyes on the way up. Also, the sun was moving higher and it was getting warmer. As I was on the stairs, I saw another tourist in late middle age with a rather large investment in his stomach starting down the stairs. I was a little concerned for him, but luckily I saw him later at the cafeteria on the way down.

From the view point we walked to the cafeteria, where we had lunch and I took a picture in the kitchen. We then descended to the cars and returned to the Gangtey Palace. By three pm it had already been a long day. Some went to take a hot stone bath (See April 20th), others went into town. James had stayed up at Tiger’s Nest taking pictures in his incredible detail.

I have written this segment out of sequence to make sure that I remember all the details. I’m now in Bangkok waiting to board my plane home. I hope to fill in a few gaps and add some detail that I left out in previous posts.

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