One old 8 th century temple wedged on a cliff . A narrow, serpentine , rough trail up the mountain. A moody middle aged lady fast approaching her birthday that is threateneing to push her closer to the forties. And a story around it ….
It was a day in early may. Spring had given way to harsh summer and to beat the heat we had escaped to a land, miles away from all the misery of urban life. To a land that promised to be the happiest place on earth- fresh, green and mountainously happy- Bhutan .
This small country lining the northern border of India is known for its positive ecological balance and high happiness quotient . We had indeed been happy visiting the place, bowing to every Buddha at the shrines, clicking every mountain that was green and buying every painting that was artistic . Till we ventured on the trek to tiger nest monastery on the last day of our trip when every iota of happiness was drained out of us . Literally .
On the night before the trek,at our hotel in Paro, we 14, eager-to-be-happy people in our group, sat in the lobby expectantly. Our, already-happy Bhutanese guide, Sherint had promised to brief us about the trek. I hadn’t researched the place much and so I sat there all ears. Given that I am already hard of hearing, that little extra effort was indeed needed.
The name Tiger-nest had always made me visualise a cave whose entrance was the shape of a tiger’s mouth. The one with fangs growing down its roof . And I had imagined the trek to be a walk up a stony hill, with a near straight path. It was after all hyped up walking, I had presumed.
But when Sherint seriously explained the trek I was left panting. Here was the plan. The entire trek up and down the mountain was of 11 kms . The path, he mentioned in absolutely clear terms , was rugged and ruthless . Midway up the mountain was a cafeteria which was to be our resting place, after which the trek would get easier but for the 750 odd steps that would lead to the final shrine . And then we would have to walk down, the same way as we climbed .
After the briefing, Sherint paused for a while and scanned all our faces to see how well we were taking in. And when he saw most faces bright with enthusiasm, he slowly continued. The trek up to the cafeteria he mentioned,was very steep and rough and hence was often done on a horse back. He did continue to tell other details of the trek after that but the word ‘horse’ kind of muted everything for me. The only bell it rang in my head was of fear. The idea of the wobbly feeling of waddling on a horse’s back, 7 ft above the rough ground, treading along the edge of a cliff…. made me nauseous. My past experiences with these domesticated means of transports , the horse and the camel had not been so pleasant.I had resolved the last time I sat on their skin that I would never climb onto them ever . Heights and more so, moving heights were totally not my cup of tea .
That night I tried to sleep on it. But the fear lingered on. I dreamt myself falling several ft down the cliff from the horse’s back and dangling on one of the trees. And then people narrating my ordeal to other tourists for weeks. I woke up next morning, sure of one thing. I was not going to be a fodder for any future gossip about mishaps on the trek.
I declared to my family that I would be walking up the hill instead of riding on horse back. And also did a little emotional blackmail jig and made sure that my husband and kid would walk along with me . Watching them fall off the horse would have been more disastrous.
When we reached the base of the tiger-hill , as I put it, there were a dozen horses waiting for us. Some shiny black, some brown and some dirty white in colour . Their thick silky tails dangled beautifully from their behind. But it was their saddle that scared me.
Our guide was waiting for us, dressed in the traditional Bhutanese attire Gho- a frock like dress stitched using pant material with long black socks to cover the bare legs till the knee. Sherint stood perplexed on learning about our decision to walk.
While the rest of our group members began to climb onto the equines, we set off on the trek on foot, holding the thick sticks provided to us. My little girl was all enthusiastic seeing the sturdy sticks which were painted artistically . She little knew that the trek was going to be one hell of a walk .
The path initially, till we reached the ascent was quite flat though a bit rugged . Equipped with tough sports shoes we marched along comfortably . A large group of people were walking ahead of us. They looked peculiarly similar to us in colour,stature and features. And a little while later , when they opened their mouths, we realised they were similar in their language too. A huge Kannada speaking family was trekking ahead of us. There wouldn’t have been a better start.
Just before the accent began , the path became more undulated. As we struggled over the muddy lumps and crevices, a troop of horses marched up to us majestically . Perched on them were our group mates . We looked like cautious fools in front of them. The horses were walking slowly and carefully and they had covered the same distance that we had done in 10 minutes in a little over two minutes.
My husband and daughter gave me look loaded with self pity.
“Look what you are putting us through ! For no reason!” Their eyes seemed to scream . But they did not dare utter it.
Strangely though, I suddenly felt all energetic about the trek. I moved aside to let the horses walk ahead and began the ascent with renewed vigour. My daughter who was till then accompanying me, let go of my hand and ran to join my husband who was trailing behind reluctantly. She had changed teams. Leaving them behind together,I began walking up all by myself.
The path twisted and turned up the mountain. The ascent was steep and the Sun was blazing. Sweat started trickling down my forehead effortlessly.Every few steps later, I slowed down breathlessly. Resting on some boulder along the edge of the path for a while, I resumed the walk. The stick was very handy. It helped me bear a bit of my weight, helping out as a third leg.
The horses had left behind the impressions of their hooves. They appeared to have walked exactly on the edge of the cliff. I peeped a little to look how deep the ravine actually was. It was deep enough to not find even the bones if someone fell. I patted myself for the decision to walk and laboured on.
I had worn black jeans and white cotton top. The one with tiny humans printed on it , the kind seen in Worli art. I had stuck my mobile and money into the pant pocket and had intentionally done away with any bag. The back pack with water and snacks was dumped on my husband’s shoulder, while I walked on comfortably.
Step after step I began to feel more drained out. I had no idea how far up the destination was. I couldn’t see my husband and kid anywhere along till the last curve. There was no one around. It was just me, my panting lungs and the cliff. For the first time I looked up from the ground that I was scaling. A grand landscape unfurled in front of my eyes. Green and spectacularly grand. Huge mountains stood wedged against eachother. Where one ended and the other began couldn’t be deciphered. Trees crowded every inch of land on those mountains. Deep blue sky lingered in the background and white cottony clouds lazily swam around in it. The houses in the valleys appeared like small Lilliputian colonies. I realised how far and far above the ground I was. All those days while driving on the serpentine roads of Bhutan, I had admired the huge mountains and to think that I was actually walking up on one of them was overwhelming. I clicked a few awful selfies in that background and slowly drudged along. Walking instead of riding on the horse had been totally worth it.
A little ahead, I saw two well built young boys struggling to walk. With them, coaxing them to climb on were two personal Bhutanese guides, evident from their Gho. The guides were pushing and pumping them but the boys were pathetically tired. While I had indigenous wooden stick with me, the boys had black, sleek sticks that appeared more like skeing sticks. The pampering they were receiving kind of made me jealous. While my group had rode ahead of me, my family was way behind unseen. Our guide had long abondoned, allowing me to walk up all by myself while these two kids were being showered with all the attention. Longing for some visibility , I asked one of the guides as to how far the cafetaria was. The local guide who till then was sweeter than cotton candy , suddenly turned indifferent. Not caring to even drop a glance towards me , he said, it was close by. Disgruntled I hastily walked ahead crossing the two aristocratic kids to only end up panting badly at the next turn. I sat on a nearby stone to catch my breath when a beautiful lady appeared before me. She was clad in tight black pants and trendy red tops. She was no doubt pretty but looked all the more so by her goggles which covered nearly half her face. Her figure was perfect and her skin glew brighter than sunshine. She had tied her hair into a bun high up on her head and had the exact same kind of walking sticks as the boys did. Even as I was wondering who could possibly be so pretty, the two kids struggled up to her whining a big “mommy.” It was a rexona moment.
The pretty lady and her prosperous family, walked nearly side by side with me all along. The Gho clad personal guides treaded with them offering water and biscuits to the kids every now and then. She sure was a daughter in law of some Ambani, I thought. At some rock when I rested , she happened to walk right towards me, hoping for a conversation. Her dark shades didn’t allow me to assess her gaze and thinking that she was eyeing my rock to sit, I vacated it just in time and moved on. I had steeper path ahead to scale; conversation with pretty, pimple-free woman was nowhere on my list of priorities.
Perspiring , I stumbled up one more curve and two more sharp ascents to finally emerge up a flat land where all horses were parked. Hurray , I had done it. I had reached the cafeteria, the half way mark up the trek.
I rushed to the cafeteria longing for some rest and refreshment. But none felt endearing without my family. I walked back till the horse parking area to look for them. After a good 10 minutes my daughter and husband emerged up the path smiling. Our guide Sherint had been with them all along and he had even carried the back pack himself. But none of them were in a mood to acknowledge my welcome. I hugged them dearly and apologised for having made them walk.
“What were the odds that the horse would trip ? Or we could break our bones? None. Look, all our group members survived.” Their eyes were screaming. But they did not dare utter a word.
We settled in the cafeteria to loosen our hamstrings and drank the 250 ml coffee that they gave for 300 rupees. After visiting the loo as a precaution to make space for the coffee that was to get filtered down the kidney shortly, we began our next half of the trek- the trek to the tiger nest monastery.
Before we could begin, we paused to admire the beautiful view of the monastery from near the cafeteria. Resting on the narrow edge of a huge cliff was a small structure built in the classic Buddhist architecture, the one with curved and layered wooden roof, ending with a sharp dome on top. The thought of ever being able to trek till the monastery was exhilarating. I had never dreamt that I would indulge in any such adventure in my life. This was no less than scaling the mount everest for me.Often when I had heard of such expeditions, I had wondered how crazy those people should have been to walk up a dangerous hill for no avail. Here I was, being exactly as crazy as they were, only that here it wasn’t exactly by choice. I was being driven crazy by the package trip that I had chosen.
The next half was said to be relatively less steep and hence easier. And we were to now have our group mates with us till the monastery as the horses did not go farther than that point. This time resolving to stay with my family, I began the next half.
Walking with family and friends appeared to be more enjoyable. We talked, laughed, joked and fought, all along. And now I had more hands to click pictures for me than settling for horrifying selfies. Though I missed listening to my own heart beats or feeling my breath all the way down the airways ; though I no longer observed the vegetation around or the foot prints on the ground ; though I was no longer aware of myself or the nature around, I was immensely happy that I had lost myself in the company of loving people. Becoming a saintly Buddha or rather a Buddhi was not a priority now or anytime in the near future. I realised that living through the joys and challenges of a mortal life was more rewarding than knowing the supreme truth. For now, I was just eager to visit the monastery where a old monk was said have meditated and done miracles. Legend had it that the said monk called, Guru Rinpoche had come to this cave hidden on top of a treacherous mountain by riding on a tiger which was actually a disguised goddess.
We had covered the entire path of the trek effortlessly. We were now just a stones throw away from the monastery. The only little hurdle being the steps that led to it. there were 750 odd steps in all. Half of them led down the cliff and the other half led up the adjacent cliff. There was to be a long waterfall at the intersection of the two stony edges.
At the summit just before the descent down the first set of stairs, there was a phenomenal view that was uncovered. We were literally on the absolute top of a mountain range. The scenery from up above the world so high, brought a twinkle in my eyes. It was out of this goddam world. large range of green mountains, valleys, vast sky and fresh air, the view made me wince with joy. It was truly breathtaking Bhutan.
We managed to walk down the stairs but when we reached the ascent, the steps appeared huge, steep and narrow. My little girl struggled to even lift her leg and she was way too heavy to be carried up the stairs. I started singing a silly jingle that I instantly created for her.
“Last ten steps to climb….last ten steps to climb…
last ten steps, last ten steps, last ten steps to climb.
Last nine steps to climb; last nice steps to climb….
last nine steps,last nine steps, last nine steps to climb.
I sang each of those lines, slowly in a dragging tune so as to pull each count through 4 to 5 steps. My poor girl got conned by the little counting trick and we managed to finally climb up to the Tiger Nest Monastery by late afternoon. we slammed onto the nearest stone slab that we found in front of the monastery. Our feet were sore and stomachs hollow. It had begun to drizzle and we didnt bother to cover ourselves as sweat had already drenched us. Sherint helped us through the security check, mobile lockers and the entry fees which was a whooping 500 rupees per head.
When inside the monastery, we experienced a vast calmness. As vast as the valleys below, as vast as the sky above and as vast as the mountain holding that monastery on it. We sat silently in front of the idol of the monk Guru Rinpoche. Sherint explained that the idol was a miraculous one. It had apparently spoken on three elaborate occasions earlier and also it was supposedly a wish granting idol. Blame it on the hypoglycemia or whatever, how much ever I tried to think, I couldnt come up with a decent wish to ask for. Asking Him to shower all his blessings on my little girl, I closed my eyes for a quick nap.
After spending half an hour at the summit, it was time to descend. We jumped down and then up the steps painfully and walked back till the cafeteria in one piece. There we hogged on the yuk tasting oily noodles and red rice with dirty looking dal. Given the pitiful state of energy stores in our body that day, we would have eaten even our walking sticks. Thankfully we just ate the supposedly edible things and relaxed.
The calves had already begun to throb. We were experiencing a powerful pull along the legs, a cry let out by the poor tendons and the bones holding them. Eager to reach the base as quickly as possible, we pulled ourselves onto our feet and began trekking down. It was literally a cake walk. The path was sloping down and we just sailed smoothly on our weary legs. Strangely though after running down 5 kms to the base, we realised that our knees were aching unbearably. If climbing had licked our thighs, the descent had clearly bitten our knees.
Standing at the base we looked back at the mountain that we had conquered. Sherint had told that the mountain actually resembles the face of the Guru. I couldnt appreciate that but it did resemble a nightmare. Thankfully all bones were intact unlike in my dream.
It was already dark when we reached the hotel. Our legs were numb and stomachs hypersensitive and remained so for next few days.
The trip had ended abruptly. The exhaustion from the trek had surpassed the happiness that we had gathered over the first few days of the trip. Yes I had successfully conquered Tiger’s Nest, the joy did stay hidden within but I always kept wondering if I should have gone on an horse back after all. Atleast my family would have been spared all the trouble. Thus thinking, I bid adieu to the beautiful mountains and the fresh air, to the spotless clear skies and the smiling faces.
On our way to the airport, Sherint informed that on the very same day that we had been for the trek, a famous telugu heroine had come with the her two sons and had walked all along up the mountain. It immediately rang a bell in my otherwise clouded mind. Was it that pretty aristrocatic lady with the plump kids?
” Hey I had walked all the way with her…” I wanted to announce. But neither did I have the energy to shout nor did I have any selfie with her to prove my point. she had herself walked towards me to talk but I had run away from her. what a missed opportunity to stardom? I winced. The Bhutanese guide didnt know her name and all along through security check and immigration I kept recalling her face behind the shades and kept exclaiming to my husband, “Was it Jyothika?’ ” or tamanna?” ” or Bhoomika..” and for all, he only gave a look,
“U walked with a pretty heroine. What did I get by going on foot all the way? Nobody fell from the horse after all. My legs are aching worse than after a fracture now…” his eyes were screaming but before he could dare to utter a word, a wheel chair strode next to us while boarding. And perched on it was a familiar lady with freshly plastered leg and brand new crutches next to her. Our eyes met and she gave a faint smile. She wasn’t the heroine but yes she was one of the tourists at the trek who had gone on horse back. I immediately turned to my husband and daughter.
“Now you know why I took you walking? It could have been us! ” my eyes howled this time.
And they dared to say , ” Thanks !”
( Now I must shower you with special thanks if you have managed to read all the way till here. You must be a huge trekking fan or you must be my mom. Either ways thanks for reading. And if you want to read more of such dumb- boring-everyday anecdotes of my life,….. wait for my soon to be released book ….
Please leave a feedback in the comments section if you would like to read the book? )