I woke up with a start. The cold bit my ankles. Did the heater stop working? My left foot had lost the sock. My hands mechanically reached out to my phone. It was 7 am already. 7 degree Celsius. It felt minus something though. A little light protruded from the window. Clouds moved through the white transparent curtains. It was foggy. If I were at home, it would easily be a ‘chai-in-bed-work-in-bed’ day. Not that day though. My feet were cold but my heart was warm with the prospect.
While still lying in bed, I opened the Bible App on my phone.
“O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; because His mercy endureth forever.”
The verse set me up for the day. I promptly updated my Instagram – Hike Day! The day was finally now when my brother Abhishek and I were scheduled to hike what has been an enduring name on our bucket list – The Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Paro, Bhutan.
By the time we set off on our bike from the homestay, it was 8.45 am. Despite getting utterly misled by Google Maps in Thimphu, I mechanically filled in Tiger’s Nest Trail, only to be further misled by it. Chandler would have quipped: Couldn’t you BE any more foolish?
The locals got us back on track. When we reached the foot of the trail, it had begun to drizzle a little. Yet that didn’t dampen the spirit of neither the hikers nor the street shop keepers selling memorabilia. We parked the bike, bought the tickets (Rs 600 per head, What? Yeap), paid Rs 50 each for rented wooden sticks (lifesavers them) and we were so damn ready to roll. I made a So-everyone-we-are-starting-the-hike-if-we-surivive-we-will-meet-again Instagram video. It was 9.30 am, we wore five layers of clothing. I looked utterly gross!
Funnily enough, the very first sight we beheld was lots and lots of horses. Just grazin. Good change. When I hike, I like to NOT have a lot of people. I just want to feel the breeze, smell the soil and basically be one with nature. The soil stunk as hell. Delicious. As we moved forward, I couldn’t help but reference the thick forest cover with the greenery we witnessed while hiking Nagarkot in Nepal or the Double-Decker Living Root Tree Bridge in Meghalaya. Experience does that to you.
The Cranky-zilla meets happier hikers
Only 20 minutes into the hike and I was sweating. Two layers of clothing went inside the backpack. I was now waiting for some stunning sort of views. None in sight. Now 45 minutes into the hike and I was like – okay I have done more interesting hikes than this. On one side of the trail was a thick forest cover, it had rained some so the trail was still a little damp. On the other side was this muddy land that in a way annoyed me. The whole damn bucket list for THIS! I grumbled exactly like the Old Testament people of Israel who were provoked by a little discomfort in the wilderness only a few days after they had crossed the Red Sea.
Just when a 60-something gentleman approached Abhishek. He was descending. They shook hands while Abhishek asked him how the hike was. The man replied: You are panting already. If I can do it, so can you.
My spirit started to lift up a little. We began to spot more hikers in two’s and three’s. I was in awe of the monks, who wore some basic chappals and their maroon robe, totally pro at it. Then there were the Bhutanese guides, dressed in their traditional attire, guiding their customers sitting on horses. And boy were they fun!
All hail the Chinese, all love the Canadians
I heard singing. Is this Chinese or Japanese? Like I would know. There was a herd of horses carrying hikers who kept the atmosphere alive by their surprisingly beautiful singing. I had an urge to confirm the language and I did. It amused a Canadian couple who were descending at the moment.
One amazing thing about Canadians: they have a habit of encouraging you. Every single one of them had only words of kindness: You made it, it’s just an hour away or you will love the view or oh it’s all worth your sweat, it’s so beautiful. How easily and smoothly they struck up those small talks!
By now I was back to my happy-for-no-reason self. People on a hiking trail aren’t bad afterall, I caught myself musing. Here’s when we spotted the proverbial structure – the dot-size Tiger’s Nest. I took a picture of my wooden staff pointed at the dot.
Now I couldn’t wait to get there. I am a cranky –zilla when I am hungry. But the monster was surprisingly quiet that morning. I didn’t even take to heart the coldness of several Indians who didn’t return my Hello.
Also the group of Chinese hikers were no less entertaining (no disrespect intended). They displayed a child-like pride for their own technology and camera gear. Their Chinese imitations of noted phone brands looked sleeker. They were dressed in bold prints and colours – fluorescent oranges and cheetah leggings. If they were not singing on horsebacks, they were playing Chinese songs on their Bluetooth speakers all along the way. Love in China. And every time they needed to discuss something, they would all make a circle, huddle up, and whisper.
I couldn’t help but laugh at this last gesture: there was no way any of us Indians, Canadians, Americans or Bangladeshis could ever translate a single Chinese word. Why so secretive, people?
The Turkish weren’t impressed
FYI. On your way to Tiger’s Nest, when you reach the cafe, you have come half way. A lot of young and old hikers returned from here since the cafe also offered a stunning view of the hill. Now the Tiger’s Nest was the size of my palm. The cafe served an over-priced and terrible chai but the saving grace was a complimentary pack of six crackers. Amid the sound of crackers crunching in my mouth, I tried to count the number of foreign languages I was hearing as my eyes followed the sound. I heard the sounds of 12 different languages in that 300-square feet cafe. But wait, I know this one specific sound. I heard – Shahaane (that means smart in Turkish). There were Turkish people here! Hurrah!
I stood up and followed that sound. My reader, before I share any further – just picture this. I am this person who finds it embarrassing to take selfies in a public place. I suddenly check myself if I am too loud in the middle of a deep conversation. And I am certainly someone who prefers tucked in bed with a book and chai instead of stepping out of the house to attend a party.
That’s another “zilla”, isnt’ it? But that day, as you know by now, just made me forget everything, even my own personality.
So there I was standing enthusiastically before a group of impeccably dressed Turkish tourists who didn’t look too amused to see me.
“Are you guys Turkish? Where in Turkey are you from?”
“How do you know?”’
“I heard Shahaane, and erkenci, and masela and…….” totally showing off my Turkish word list.
“Wow, you know the language?”
“No, no, I am a fan of a Turkish TV series. And it’s my dream to work in Istanbul.”
On the hindsight, this looks like a total overly-zealous-tourist-disaster-case. I still find it hard to believe that I actually said those things.
Thank God for the elderly ladies, who asked –
“Which Turkish Series do you watch?”
“Erkenci Kus starring Demet Ozdemir and Can Yaman.”
At this point, the whole group burst out laughing. They couldn’t bear the stupidity anymore. Apparently my favourite Turkish series wasn’t taken too well by the ‘elite viewers’, they promptly informed me.
I broke into a genuine laughter. I was happy for being so candid after so long. The women folk then told me about their favourite Bollywood movie and actor: Bodyguard and Salman Khan.
What? Oh whoops! You get the drift?
The man who called me Priyanka Chopra
While hiking, Abhishek was busy shooting his video blog. From here, we parted ways and decided to meet at a junction. I bumped into a group of American boys from California State. I had just said Hello to one of them and he replied: Are you Priyanka Chopra?
Now if you are a fan, you would have loved the compliment. I am mostly Meh about Priyanka Chopra. “Really dude? I look better.”
He burst into a hearty laugher and so did the rest of his group. In completely gross-looking hiking clothes, that was some confidence. I would give myself that.
We chatted about where each of them was from, about India, about Bhutanese food. I was delighted to hear they all had seen The Taj Mahal and had done rapid river rafting on the Ganges in Rishikesh. The boys told me that I was only 1000 steps away from the Taktsang.
You record the best view in your mind, not on camera
The hike so far was sweaty because of the humidity. But the moment we beheld The Taktsang from 1000 steps away, the air got cold. Like really cold. I was back to the five layers. Yet, the weather was gorgeous, the dark cover of clouds looked haunting, the greenery beneath was a dream. After a couple of bumps, one major slip that almost broke my leg, we finally reached the mightily beautiful Taktsang Goempa. The sky had begun to get clear by now but the breeze was still biting cold. We were asked to keep our phones and cameras inside the locker room. We weren’t even allowed our walking sticks inside. I was hungry again. All we had for snack were two bananas and two oranges. Bravo!
I was now impatient to see the architecture of this Monastery built in the 1600s. Almost all the monasteries in Bhutan have a history of either fire or arson. The Paro Taktsang was no exception. I marvelled at the huge rocks that were carried all the way to 10,000 feet above sea level to build this stunning monastery. A monk pointed at Abhishek and asked him to take off his warm hat, it was disrespectful to wear it inside the premises. None of the monks was wearing any sweater or mufflers, they were all barefoot, bare-head. A shiver ran down my spine.
We passed by the huge bell tower area and beheld one of the most gorgeous set of hills I have ever seen. The weather made it dramatic. Dark clouds moving in four different directions above the hills – sometimes descending on them, other times just passing by. The entire landscape changed colours with the movement of the clouds.
In those 15 minutes that we stood there, we also saw sunrays falling on this mountain range, making them orange. I got goose bumps. I realized the hike wasn’t really for the monastery but it was for this – a wondrous landscape quite literally painted by God himself. I now knew what the Canadians meant.
My first snowfall
For someone who has never experienced a snowfall (the frozen snow in Manali doesn’t count ofcourse), it’s hard to even believe when it does start to snow. Abhishek was still on top of the Taktsang. I had descended those 1000 steps with a heavy camera gear so I could shoot the last scene of his video blog. Since we didn’t have a great zoom lens, I barely managed to shoot him as he waved from the top. Just when I noticed these white flakes on my hands and on the camera. When I looked through camera lens, the white flakes looked blur. I recorded the last shot and quickly packed the camera inside thinking it was raining or hailing.
It was only when Abhishek joined me again that we both shouted together: it’s snowing!
Thanks to the amazing instructions of our friends, we both were wearing rain-sheeters too. Our feet ached, our bodies almost gave up but the snow made it all delightful. It lasted for just 10 minutes but we were thrilled beyond words. We were back to the foot of the trail.
It was 4.30 pm, we got to our bike. This was still less than six degrees and we shivered all along the winding paths in search of a restaurant. The Bhutanese Chicken Curry that day tasted divine but I was now longing to tuck myself inside a warm bed. We both spent a good amount of time soaking our feet inside a huge warm water tub.
It was March 2019. When I look back to this experience, it seems so unreal, unthinkable. I still have difficulty recalling the trail in my mind. But I somehow remember every word that I heard from fellow travellers that day. Did I really meet all those people? Were they really that kind? Or is it just a figment of my imagination?
I awake with a start some mornings. And it hurts that I am not in Paro.
Other times I flip through the pages of my travel diary, and read all the notes about the Paro Taktsang Goempa. I like to re-live that day.