“Not much further now." Sonam was always encouraging. "Just keep going.”
We were slowly climbing through the trees towards the Taktshang Goemba, the Tiger’s Nest. Every few minutes we got a tantalising glimpse of the glistening white temple clinging to a sheer cliff-face high above.
The Taktshang monastery is over 10,000 feet above sea level at the eastern end of the Himalayas in the isolated Kingdom of Bhutan. While Nepal was becoming a standard fixture on the 1960s hippy trail around the Indian sub-continent, Bhutan remain aloof. For many years it was impossible to get permission to visit Bhutan, and even now tourism is tightly controlled. Bhutan still isn’t open to independent travellers, but does now welcome small groups of tourists provided they are looked after by a local guide.
Our escort was Sonam. A quiet softly-spoken young man from the Trashigang District at the eastern end of Bhutan, always keen that we understood both the history of Bhutan and what it means to live in a Buddhist country. His patience in retelling stories about each temple was endless, and when he spotted the bird guidebook we were carrying his eyes lit up and after that he came to life whenever there was an unusual bird to point out to us.
Like almost every tourist visiting Bhutan we arrived on Druk Air – the only airline regularly flying into the country. Other airlines keep away from a final approach that weaves through steep wooded slopes to the short high-altitude runway at Paro, perhaps not quite believing the assurance in the in-flight magazine that the ‘mountains aren’t as close as they appear’.
Bhutan’s self-enforced isolation has allowed it to retain customs and traditions found in few other countries. It is the last of the Asian Buddhist kingdoms, but even here there is some change. Ten years ago the country was still ruled by an absolute, if benign, monarch. It is now a constitutional monarchy, albeit one still adhering to Buddhist principles. Every new government policy is examined in terms of how it will improve the Gross National Happiness of the people.
The isolation has also ensured the development of characteristic architecture, the retention of archery as the national sport, and perhaps most surprisingly the presence of chili as a key element of the Bhutanese diet. The signature dish on most menus is the innocuous-looking ema datse, a cheese sauce hiding a very generous helping of chili peppers.
Any trip to Bhutan is going to include numerous visits to monasteries and at least a little bit of trekking. For many visitors the high point of their stay is combining the two by climbing to the Tiger’s Nest, Bhutan's ‘must-do’ attraction. In most countries this would guarantee hoards of people and souvenir sellers. Not in Bhutan. The trek up to Bhutan’s ‘must-do’ site is carefully protected – requiring locals to wear national dress when they visit.
In legend, privileged visitors get to soar to the monastery on the back of a flying tiger. We, like most others, needed to struggle up the path from the valley.
Just ten minutes from the start, a gap in the trees gives us our first encouragement in a glimpse of the brightly sun-lit temple nearly 2000 feet above. And back along the valley below a checker-board of farms, houses, temples and of course dzongs.
Along the pathway I was thankful to find rest-stops offering soft drinks and Bhutanese tea, and yet more grateful to meet an old man immaculately dressed in an orange gho proffering a walking stick to help me carry on up through the increasingly thin air.
Further along the path, prayer wheels appear festooned with strings of red, yellow, green, white and blue prayer flags. These provide prayer stops to let the faithful to ask for help in completing the climb, and give the gasping tourist another perfect excuse to rest and take photographs.
Finally, after a little more encouragement from Sonam, we reached a rocky outcrop providing an eye-level view across to the monastery clinging improbably onto the rock, in legend attached to the cliff-face by the hairs of angels. A rainbow of prayer flags shaded the steps down into a deep chasm, holding a sparkling waterfall and the peaceful Snow Lion Cave – still used as a meditation retreat – before we climbed to the gates into the welcome shade of the monastery.
The red-clad monks welcomed us into the complex, each ready to tell us the story of the monastery and the people who’ve lived here over its 400-years. The buildings guard the entry to a cluster of sacred caves and grottos in the cliff face each dedicated to a famous figure or story in Bhutanese mythology. Away from the caves, we spend a peaceful few minutes listening to the winds whistling through the balconies of the monastery with the soft chants of the monks in the background, before retracing our steps back past the still-spinning prayer wheels towards the valley floor.
Our visit to the Taktshang Goemba, like most other experiences in Bhutan, has improved our Gross Happiness and we’ve earned a dish of ema datse, and maybe a bottle or two of Red Panda, Bhutan’s local beer.
Is Bhutan really Shangri-La? There are lots of hidden valleys tucked away in the Himalayas claiming the Shangri-La tag. For me the grandeur of the Bhutanese landscape and the welcoming generosity of the Bhutanese people make it a very strong contender.