I'm halfway through my trek and completely out of breath when I see it for the first time—The Tiger's Nest. Clinging to a cliff side 800 metres above the valley floor, Taktsang Lhakhang looks like a dollhouse in the sky.
Built in the 17th century, this temple and monastery is the holiest in Bhutan and pays homage to Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava. Legend says he brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century, flying to this spot on the back of a tigress, taking up residence in a cave and meditating there for three years, three months, and three days to subdue local demons.
Over two weeks, our guide Mr. Gempo has shared every corner of his homeland—better known as Land of Druk or Thunder Dragon to the Bhutanese—with us, saving the best for last. As we prepare for our final day in the kingdom and our trek skyward to the Tiger’s Nest, he advises us to expect an early start. But I'm so excited I'm awake long before my alarm goes off. For me, this is the highlight of our tour.
For my loving husband, the steep hike is more of a concession—due to the steepness and roughness of the trail Noel has made what he thought would be prudent choice. He will take a slow horse to a cafeteria at the trail’s mid-point and wait while I ascend to the top alone.
As it turned out Noel's horse journey was more of a cliff-hanger than he intended. The horses are trained to walk along the cliff edge, while hikers keep to the safe, inner path.
The trail to The Tiger's Nest starts slowly, gently climbing upwards through pine forests for the first kilometre or so. Not too bad, I think. But the gradual climb doesn't last and the trail quickly becomes steep and arduous. The uneven trail is often littered with stray pebbles and rogue rocks, making my hiking pole indispensable. But at least I'm acclimatized to the altitude—three-thousand-metres above sea level.
Hitting a fork in the trail, Mr. Gempo asks if I'd prefer a shorter, but steeper path. I decline. The three and half kilometre trail is challenging enough for me as is. The monks of the The Tiger's Nest take the steeper trail, carrying heavy loads of supplies on their backs with the ease of mountain goats.
The Tiger's Nest appears different from every angle, sometimes looking as if I could reach out and touch it, and other times like a distant mirage.
The trail levels out as I hit the final approach, then—after hours of climbing—more than 700 stairs descend steeply past a cascading waterfall before jogging back up and into the ancient monastery.
Inside, there’s a small complex of four temples containing statues of Guru Rinpoche in various manifestations, along with effigies of other deities. Monks, cloaked in traditional maroon robes, pray and mediate as they have done for centuries. No photography is allowed inside.
Lighting a candle, I give an offering of money to the God of Good Luck. Combined with the good merit I've accumulated from what is considered a pilgrimage to Taktsang Lhakhang, my future looks bright—after all, it's all downhill from here.