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.

She wanted to do it, and The Sullen Celt assured her that it was an easy walk. The start of the climb, Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan 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, BhutanThe 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.

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. Forest on the trail to Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan 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.

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. Turnoff to the canteen near Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan 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.

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

Near the roof of the world

The landscape on the way to the 5072 meter high Bum La pass, on the border of India and China, is beautiful. If you reach Tawang, there is no reason not to press on to Bum La. There is a lot of material on the web about travelling north of Tawang which is garbled or plain wrong. Here are the facts: you can take your own car to any of the lakes or monasteries north of Tawang, there is no need to hire a local taxi. You need a “Restricted Area Permit” (RAP) only if you want to travel to the border pass of Bum La north of the Y-junction. Your hotel can arrange for this pass. There is a canteen at the Sangetser lake where one can have lunch. In case you are interested in planning your trip, I give distances and times in a table right at the end of this post.

We traveled to the border of Tibet in China on the day of Diwali. Since the army post on the border invites their counterparts in China for a lunch every year on that day (and five others) we were only permitted to travel north of the Y-junction after 2 PM. We decided to visit the Penga Teng Tso, the Sangetser Tso and the Taktsang Gompa before this. We also decided against taking our own car because Avatar Singh refused to travel on roads where he had not gone before. However, we saw many private cars on the way.

pttso

Penga Teng Tso is a beautiful lake which stands less than half an hour’s drive north of Tawang. The road up to this lake was very good. Although our driver was not keen to stop here, we had heard so much about it that we insisted that he turn off the main road here. There is a path down to the lake, and a good path right around it. I went down and touched the cold and clear water. On the far side of the lake I saw a herd of yak, and my intention was to walk around the lake to it. Behind me the driver pleaded lack of time with my companions, and they asked me to turn back. I took some photos of the lake and the herd, and came back.

tsotso

As we drove on the road did not remain good for long. We saw work gangs repairing the road at intervals. The whole landscape was full of lakes. We did not know the names of most of them. Although our driver was local, he did not know their names either. He claimed that since no one lived here, nothing was named. This is clearly false, since some of them were named. In any case, we could not possibly stop at all of them. I took some photos, like the one above. You can see the red bush which is ubiquitous as you climb towards 4000 meters and beyond. I haven’t found what it is called in English, Latin, Mon or Tibetan, but surely it is well known and must have been described years back.

tgompa

As we climbed, it became colder. There was hardly any snow on the ground. What little there was speckled only north-facing slopes. Eventually we passed Y-junction and took the fork towards the Sangetser lake, Taktsang Gompa, and the Zemithang valley beyond it. The road wound down towards Sangetser Tso, but climbed very rapidly from there towards Taktsang Gompa, about 6 kms further along the road. The guru Padmasambhava brought Buddhism to the Himalayas, and is credited with having founded three Gompas called Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest). We had done the two-hour climb to the one in Bhutan perched magnificently over a cliff. We could drive right up to this, although it is also placed as precariously overlooking a valley far below. The gompa is small, but very atmospheric, and full of travellers from Zemithang.

snowpigeons

We had given up on bird watching at this height. In the cold weather almost everything would have moved down. But The Family saw a flock of about forty pigeons come to land on a tree near the monastery. When we looked carefully at them we realized we’d never seen anything like them before. The fat birds were clearly cold, and tucked their heads into their shoulders as they sat on the tree. Later we managed to identify them: they are snow pigeons. Another lifer!

sangetser

We went back to Sangetser Tso. We were told that this lake formed when a recent earthquake dammed the outflow of a river. One can see that it is connected to a river. In fact this is the same river which flows through the valley above which the Taktsang gompa sits. Unfortunately I don’t have maps which name it. I wish I had asked for this information from one of the many friendly army guides we met. In any case, you can see that the lake bed was flooded fairly recently, because the disaster killed a lot of trees. The trunks of these dead trees still poke out of its blue waters, and makes it one of the most distinctive lakes in the vicinity. In fact, distinctive enough that Bollywood superstars Madhuri Dixit and Shah Rukh Khan were filmed dancing around here in a long-forgotten movie.

We ate at the canteen which the army has built near the lake. The building was warm, and there was quite a variety of food available. As we ate, the driver began to get agitated and wanted us to leave immeidately. It was barely noon, and if we left now, we would have to spend almost two hours waiting at the Y-junction for the army to let us through. The driver was agitated and would have nothing to do with this logic. We realized later that he had never been to Bum La and was scared of getting stuck on the road. He was much more reasonable on the way back. In any case, we delayed a little, and had to spend only about forty five minutes at the Y-junction.

badroads

The army had given the same start time to many cars. The road towards the border are bad, and the army likes to bunch up cars so that one car can help another in an emergency, or at least convey a message about a stuck car to them. The photo above gives some idea about how bad the roads are. In some places it can be told from the surrounding terrain only by the fact that the stones on the road bed are somewhat smaller than most of the stones around. The steep grades that would have to be negotiated now and then were made very difficult by this kind of surface. On the other hand, there were no dangerous sections overlooking cliffs. We had reached a high plateau, and the road was roughly flat. The land sloped up towards a height of 5000 meters, and the cold was becoming intense.

tibet

Suddenly we were at the end of the road. There was a muddy parking lot for the cars. We got off and some army men told us to walk ahead towards a reception hut. We sat down there, and were offered a tea. Apparently some people have trouble breathing at this height, so the attempt to make you sit down. No one around us seemed to have an altitude problem. It was bitterly cold, however. We walked the last few meters to the border. Our army escorts requested us not to take pictures of the Indian installations, but did not care if we took photographs of the Chinese side. Some mountain dogs played a game of tag, crossing borders at will.

We were shown a line which was apparently the border. There were many Indian tourists and some Indian army men at this line. Strangely there was no one from China. Their border post was apparently three Kms away. No Chinese tourists ever came to see the pass across which trade had historically joined Tibet and India. In the bitterly cold wind we photographed each other. One of my panoramas turned out to include two of our army guides. In retrospect I see that they look cold too, although they put up an act of bravado in front of us. I was so cold that as soon as I got back to our car I had to wolf down a small bar of chocolate.

heartlake

When we started back it was still bright daylight. Our driver was clearly under less pressure now. He was very willing to stop and look at the lakes which we passed. One of them was this beautiful heart shaped lake: a beautiful blue surrounded by slopes covered with white ice and red plants. It had turned cloudy in the previous couple of hours. Now the clouds began to lift and the sun began to shine through these breaks.

When we got back to Tawang it was 4 degrees below freezing. 1500 meters above that it must have been easily 5 degrees colder, and with a pretty big wind chill. This was one of the most exciting Diwalis that I have ever had.

Times and Distances

Distances and times are from the Tawang Circuit House. The full on-road timing for the circuit Tawang to Y junction to Sangetser Tso to Taktsang Gompa to Sangetser Tso to Y junction to Bum La to Y junction to Tawang is about 350 minutes.

Penga Teng Tso 15 Kms 30 minutes
Y junction 21 Kms 50 minutes
Sangetser Tso 35 Kms 90 minutes
Taktsang Gompa 42 Kms 99 minutes
Y junction (again)
Bum La 33 Kms 100 minutes