First view of the Indus

Sindhu! The name is magic. When Alexander of Macedonia crossed the river, it was the first time that a historian from outside the Aryavarta had recorded this land. His geographers called the river the Indus. And from that, by the usual mutations of language, the land itself became known to others as Indies, or India. So, as soon as I could walk again after my oxygen crisis, we got into a little city van and drove to the nearby village of Spituk to cross the storied river.

It was a twenty minutes’ drive to the village. We drove through it to the small bridge that crosses it and got off. I took a photo looking down-river, and then turned to take the view up-river. From its sources further west, in this part of Ladakh the river flows north. After crossing the Line of Control, it turn sharply south and once, before the dams diverted the water to the wheat fields of Pakistani Punjab, irrigated the land of Sindh, before emptying into the Arabian Sea. In Ladakh, this thin air has little oxygen and even less moisture. As a result, you see greenery only in a narrow band around the river. I looked ahead at the road and took the featured photo. I looked back and took a photo of the small bridge that we’d just crossed.

There was a twittering of birds all around me but I could see only sparrows. At a better time of the day you would be sure to see a lot of songbirds. Chiffchaff, rose finches, buntings, redstarts, and whitethroats have been spotted here, but I was not so lucky. Later, walking through the village, I saw a hoopoe (Upupa epops) fly across the road in front of me, and a white wagtail (Motacilla alba) exploring the side of the path.

I’d been in bed for two days and felt like walking a little. The Family was concerned about whether I was up to it, but I thought that if I walked slowly I could make my way through the village. She took the car ahead to park near the highway, leaving me to my walk. The first house that I came to was made of bricks of unfired clay. I rubbed a finger on the wall, and a thin powder came away on my fingers. Later I realized that the whole village is made of Multani Mitti (Fuller’s earth). No wonder the villagers have glowing skin! An open door in the house led into a little shop. The lady there agreed to be photographed. In response to her gracious gesture, I bought a handful of candy. It would turn out to be useful.

A few steps on was a cross road, the only one in the village. Houses ran along both roads. The crossing is clearly important, beause a large prayer wheel, a row of small prayer wheels, and several stupas stood there. I know enough to turn prayer wheels clockwise. I tried to move the large one. It was finely balanced and turned immediately.

There were some large houses here, with big gardens. I liked some of the large decorative gates. But my favourite gate was made with an old advertisement. It was a very old testament scene: they beat their advertisements into something useful like a gate. You could see the monastery (Spituk monastery, of course) standing on a hill behind the village. As I came to our car I saw a hotel under construction behind a group of memorial stupas. I could examine the unfired clay bricks more closely here; definitely Multani Mitti. But sadly, all this in aid of more commercialization.

The only thing left was a visit to the monastery. There was a road up to the start of the buildings, but the monastery was built along the slope above the parking. I wasn’t up to climbing all the way up. I walked up two flights of stairs, took an ambush photo, and gave up. On the way back down I came face to face with a snow lion rampant. Definitely worth a photo. That was a morning well spent, I told The Family. She said, “Don’t collapse again.” I was determined to follow her advise.

Snow Lions and lotus: a gallery of paintings from Bhutan

Yak in a mural in Thimphu, Bhutan

Bhutan’s traditional religious paintings appear in many places. Trucks bear the image of the lotus (padma or pema). The tiger, the snow lion, the dragon and the Yamantaka are seen in murals in temples as well as people’s homes. Dzongs, monasteries and temples contain magnificent murals. A sampling of these is in the gallery below (click to see a slideshow).

Climbing into the Tiger’s Nest

Taktsang monastery, near Paro, is situated at an elevation of 3120 meters. The first view of it is spectacular (see the featured photo). But when I reached the base of the climb and saw the monastery hanging on a cliff a kilometre above me, my heart sank. I had really old and bad shoes, and I was physically out of condition. I told The Family I would not be able to climb.

The start of the climb, Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

She wanted to do it, and The Sullen Celt assured her that it was an easy walk. I was not convinced, since The Sullen Celt is a trekker and is unable to compensate for other people’s lack of fitness. Someone else said that the group of buildings that we could see part of the way up included a cafeteria with a great view of the monastery. I allowed myself to be persuaded by The Family that I could sit and have a coffee there while the rest of the gang climbed. The first twenty paces were a little bit of steep rock, but then the path became a dirt track, as you can see in this photo. This would become of great consequence on our way down.

Passing time on the route up to the Takhtsang Monastery, Bhutan

The initial climb was less hard than I’d expected. Previous travellers had dawdled during the climb through the rhododendron forest. We saw several small stacks of carefully balanced stone. It is reassuring when you see that someone sat down at a point where the climb was beginning to get steep and caught her breath doing something slow. I recently read a diatribe against them, and found myself agreeing. However, Bhutan teaches you the art of balance: the whole landscape of the country is a lesson in how to live in nature without overwhelming it.

View of Takhtsang Monastery, Bhutan

We left behind the forest bright with red rhododendron flowers and climbed higher. This was the realm of blue pines (Pinus wallichiana). As the road steepened, I had a lovely view of the monastery through the pines. It did not seem to be any closer.

Forest on the trail to Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

Takstang monastery was built by the fourth king of Bhutan, Tenzin Rabgye, in a site that was already holy. The legend of this place, called Taktsang Phelug (Tiger’s nest), is that the Guru Padmasambhava converted a Tibetan princess to Buddhism. She took the form of a tigress and flew with the Guru to this place. There he meditated, and emerged in eight different forms to subdue demons. The tsechu here has been used many times to consolidate national feelings. The first king, Ngawang Namgyal (also known as Shabdrung Rinpoche), performed the tsechu here in 1644 at the beginning of the war against Tibet, and invoked the story of the Guru as a metaphor for the war. His wish to build a temple here was finally fulfilled when Tenzin Rabgye declared the start of the works in the tsechu of 1692.

Turnoff to the canteen near Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

Clouds were massing over the mountain, and flowing slowly down its sides as we climbed. The light was now worse, but it made the pine forest into a magical kingdom. Many of the trees were covered thick with orchids. We came to the point where the road to the cafeteria branched off. By now our group of climbers had stretched into a long thin line. If I went off to have coffee I would leave The Family to do the climb alone. Better prepared walkers would have no problem with this, but both of us were terribly out of shape that day, almost exactly a decade ago. So we decided to stick together. At this time I thought that the hard work was done, and it would not be much longer before we reached the monastery. So we went on.

Hand painted shed on the route to Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

There was a little temple, a Lhakhang, nearby. I paused to take photos of the four sacred animals painted by a local artist. From left to right you can see a tiger, a snow lion, a Yamantaka, and a dragon. This may have been the first time I saw these guardians all together, but I was to come across this combination many times over the next decade. The most beautiful representation I came to see was in the Dubdi Gompa in Sikkim. At this time I didn’t know that the Yamantaka was a representation of the Manjushri Buddha, and the snake he eats is death.

View of Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

I was completely wrong about the major part of the climb being over. The steepest part came after this. I have no record of this long climb because I had to put my camera into my backpack for a bit when I had to use my hands to steady myself. After that I was too tired to take it out again. I did not notice the soft sounds of wind through the pines and water dropping on rocks, things that The Family still remembers at times. I was completely out of breath when I reached the highest part of the route, all I noticed as I sat down on a rock parapet was that we were surrounded by prayer flags. The Family went over to the other side and realized that we were at a special place, where we could actually look down at the monastery. This was a pleasant view indeed.

Dog near Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan
Moth near Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

We stopped here for a long while. The road dips down steeply beyond this, and a waterfall cascades between this mountain and the next one. We would cross between the two over a bridge and then walk up the next one into the monastery. It is not a long walk, but I had to prepare myself. This stage has two packs of territorial mountain dogs. They stand on the two mountains and bark at each other. I haven’t seen dogs with such a curly tail before. I paused to look at the flags when I noticed a moth sitting on one. As I took the photo you see here, The Family pointed out that the flags were full of moths of many different kinds. I was just beginning to learn to identify butterflies, but moths remained out of reach: then, as well as now. There are just too many kinds.

We went on down. The sound of the waterfall soon drowned out the barking of the dogs. There were Redstarts flying about near the water, flitting from stone to stone. We saw these birds for the first time in Bhutan, but were to see them many times later. The climb after this took all my breath away. I reached the monastery panting from the climb and sat down on the steps. Climbing those last few steps seemed too hard.

View of Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

The last photo I have is the one above, taken just a little before the end of the last climb. I walked into the monastery, and must have seen some of it, but nothing remains in my memory. There was a major fire which destroyed Takstang monastery in 1998, ten years before our climb. The fire killed a monk and destroyed many old paintings and statues. What we saw was largely rebuilt with material brought up on the backs of men. What tremendous labour that is! Just a climb with a camera and water had tired me out so much.

It started to rain as we were up in the monastery. Someone suggested that we wait it out, but The Sullen Celt said it was not going to let up soon, and we should start off right now. She was right about the rain, but not about the walk. We made our way slowly back down to the waterfall and up again over rocks made slippery by the rain. Then, as we headed down through the forest the skies opened up and a really heavy rain started. The dirt track through the forest became a river of mud as we made our way down. We slid down parts of it and by the time we reached the bottom the rain had stopped and the sun was out. The warm sun baked hard the mud that we were now crusted in. It was a long time before we could get it off. We would do the climb again if we went there now.

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