Discovering Tiger’s Nest

A 1,500-foot hike to this sacred Buddhist site provided an unforgettable finish to our 10-day trip to Bhutan.

Taktshang Palphug Monastery, better known as Tiger’s Nest, high above Bhuta’s Paro Valley.

Paro, Bhutan, September 18, 2018
We headed to the dining room for breakfast a little early this morning, around 6:30 a.m., and it was abuzz with more guests than we were used to seeing. Most were dressed in hiking apparel; clearly, we weren’t the only ones heading to the famous Taktshang Palphug Monastery today.

Better known as Tiger’s Nest, it is one of Bhutan’s most sacred places — and one of its most iconic. Precariously built on the side of a steep cliff in the upper Paro Valley, it adorns the cover of the popular Lonely Planet Guide to Bhutan, among countless other books and postcards.

When I wondered aloud to Julia whether I was geared up properly for our morning hike to the monastery, she quickly reminded me that it was built by monks in simple shoes more than 300 years ago. “We’ll be fine,” she said. The mild trepidation some of us felt at dinner the night before seemed to soften a bit with the encouraging, crystal-clear skies. Still, chatter in the bus during the 30-minute drive from the hotel to the trailhead was subdued. No one quite knew what awaited us.

As always, our driver, Jamba, greeted us with a smile and a van ready to go. We never once interrupted our drives for gas, water or other supplies; he was always prepared. We left the hotel right on time, driving northwest, past the airport’s single runway and through the city. We passed mothers and kids walking to school in small groups, and spotted the ubiquitous bright red peppers drying on corrugated rooftops (including a gas station). As we drove by a new hotel on the far edge of the city, Sonam reflected on Bhutan’s growing tourism industry. In the eight years he’s led tours, he noted, he’s seen visitors more than double. I think many of us wondered how Bhutan will maintain its tranquility, safety, clean air, and untouched beauty as more and more people discover the charm and mystery of this special place.

Out very experienced Bhutanese national guide, Sonam Peljore.

As we bumped along, Sonam provided additional history and commentary. Despite our having read that the nation’s spiritual hero, Guru Rinpoche, meditated in a cave at the Tiger’s Nest site for three months, Sonam insisted he spent four months there. I’ve also read that he meditated for three years, and have seen the site’s name spelled several different ways. It occurred to me that Bhutanese and Himalayan Buddhist history and mythology, so complex and mysterious, are still being clarified today. One wonders if it’s ever truly knowable for a Westerner. (It’s named Tiger’s Nest for the legend that Rinpoche flew to the site from Tibet on the back of a tiger demon.)

As we got closer to our destination, Jamba patiently steered around several small, slow-moving horses that seemed to be unattended. Later, we would learn just how independent they are. After parking in a large, dusty lot, our group geared up with hats, backpacks, water and hiking poles and headed to the trailhead. We soon learned that our poles — while necessary and helpful — were somewhat redundant with the simple bamboo sticks available for rent. I realized later that the bamboo, with its soft, flat base, might have provided a better grip on the rocks than our pointed, collapsable metal versions.

The journey to Tiger’s Nest is divided into two parts, with a resting point known as “the cafeteria” about two-thirds the way up. All told, those who made it to the top would hike more than 1,500 vertical feet — an accomplishment anywhere, but especially challenging with the thin air of nearly 11,000 feet at the highest point.

The journey begins, over thick roots and rocks.

The lower portion of the hike was more challenging than what most of us expected. In truth, no one knew quite what to expect, given the varying depictions we read in books and articles, many of which described it as a fairly easy hour-long walk. It was, in fact, a steep, challenging hike over thick tree roots, eighteen-inch channels worn down by horse hooves, and steep natural steps carved out of earth and rock. Julia, of course, moved up the mountain with ease — her two decades living at Aspen’s high altitude gave her an enviable advantage. Indeed, she and I noticed that parts of this hike were similar to a popular hike near her home. More than once, the Bhutanese valleys we explored throughout the trip reminded us of the Colorado Rockies. With the occasional rest to catch our breath and sip some water, the first section of the hike took about 45 minutes.

Those who rode the horses to the cafeteria (Gene, Larry, Bill and Jane) arrived 10 minutes or so before the hikers. From what we could see (and heard from them later), the horses provided a different challenge: staying on.

Horseback made the trip a little faster, but not much easier.

The sharp switchbacks and rocky terrain made it difficult for some to sit evenly in the saddle. The horses added to the fun by preferring to walk on the outside of the trail to avoid brushing against tree limbs and other obstructions on the inside. Easier for them, somewhat more harrowing for the riders — the horses walked perilously close to steep drop offs. In time, we learned those horses were true pros; while they were led up the mountain by handlers, they made their return walk to the bottom entirely on their own. Creatures of habit, no doubt.

The “cafeteria” resting stop, with the Tiger’s Nest above and beyond it.

About 50 yards before we reached the cafeteria, the trail leveled off and we got our first clear view of Tiger’s Nest. Several of us gasped — not just at the surreal beauty of the building high above, but at how far we still had to go. (In fairness, we also marveled at how far we’d come.) This spot provided a panoramic view back down the valley to where we started — it seemed so tiny and far away. We were winded, sweaty, and proud of our progress.

The monastery was still somewhat shaded from the morning sun, and seemed (at least to me) virtually out of reach — it was easy to see a massive vertical seam in the mountain that divided us from our destination. We saw no path between our location and Tiger’s Nest; indeed, we couldn’t even see people up there without binoculars. But the guides assured us the trail would indeed snake up through the dense pines and reach our destination.

My sister, Julia, spins the prayer wheel. The stray dogs, seemingly everywhere in Bhutan, don’t budge.

This open area also included a large, gold prayer wheel (easily seven feet high) and a long row of smaller ones. Julia and I spun them all for good luck. Colorful prayer flags stretched in every direction, contrasting with the deep green trees below. The cafeteria itself, a small building with restrooms, a modest dining area, and closet-size shop with carvings and sunscreen, provided about 30 minutes of respite.

A quick tea break before the final hike to the monastery.

We sipped tea, enjoyed the views, and received well wishes from group members who decided they’d hiked far enough for one day. Of our full group, Julia, Jude, Laurie, Paul, Richard and I continued the journey to the top. We resumed our hike when Sonam and the other guides were ready.

We briefly headed back the way we hiked in, past the large prayer wheel, to a fork in the path we hadn’t noticed earlier. The rest of the hike was a bit easier than the first portion — smoother in most places, yet also steeper. With every step, our excitement outpaced the thinning air and shortness of breath. Drinking lots of water along the way certainly helped, as did glimpses of the orange and white monastery through gaps in the trees, each a little closer and more spectacular than the last. Its location seemed almost impossible; legend says the building is anchored to the cliff by the hairs of celestial beings.

Getting closer: Glimpses of Tiger’s Nest through the trees.

As we hiked, we thought about the challenges workers must have faced when building it in 1692 — and rebuilding it after a fire destroyed it in 1998. We learned that workers lived up here during reconstruction, and carried building materials to the site on their backs. The journey was risky; prior to rebuilding, only a handful of outsiders visited each year. Stairs added during reconstruction made it much more accessible.

The higher path was smoother, but quite steep — still a challenge at nearly 11,000 feet.

The final 20 minutes or so of the hike were on tidy stone steps, quite steep, with sturdy metal handrails protecting from steep drop offs. I could hardly walk 10 steps without taking pictures from another unique angle. Sonam pointed out that, as spectacular as the views were now, they would be better on the way back down because the sun would hit the building and cliffs more directly. He was right, of course, but on this clear, crisp day even he couldn’t resist taking a few photos on the way up.

The path first took us higher than the building, then back down as it wound around to cross the waterfall.

At one point, we were surprised when the path took us higher than the monastery, which gave us a chance to look down on it and the sweeping view of the valley below. As the path wrapped around closer to our destination, we were surprised again, this time by the sound of a 200-foot waterfall we could neither see nor hear minutes earlier. Water rushed down the seemingly impassible vertical crack in the mountain we’d seen from the cafeteria. The answer to this puzzle, of course, was a stone bridge that connected the two sides, with the water falling just behind it.

The waterfall and bridge to cross it.

Though we couldn’t feel the spray of the water, the sight and sound of it provided cool relief. After crossing the bridge, we encountered a family taking a short break, wrapping themselves in long skirts and other proper attire. While some temples we’d visited had been somewhat casual in terms of acceptable dress, we would soon learn the dress code here was strictly enforced.

A family prepares for the final steps up.

The final ascent to Tiger’s Nest was roughly 200 very steep stone steps. The challenge at this point, having come so far and being so near our goal, was to not get sloppy. A slip would almost certainly result in a dangerous fall. So we climbed them slowly, one step at a time, passing through a small stone gate and finally reaching an entrance landing area.

The final steps up and stone entrance gate.

After the serenity of the hike, the scene here was a bit chaotic (at least, by Bhutan standards). About 20 people were crowded together, a combination of weary and wide-eyed new arrivals, guides keeping them organized, and several young women in traditional garments handing out a delicious, milky tea in plastic cups (and asking for donations). After catching our breath, enjoying the tea, and sampling a dried grain snack offered in large bowls, we were instructed to pack any electronics (phones, cameras, etc.) into our backpacks, which were then placed in lockers. Absolutely no photography here. We were then patted down by a security guard — the first and only time this happened in all the sacred sites we visited.

Freed of our possessions, we climbed yet another set of stairs and removed our shoes before entering the first temple. We kept our shoes off for most of the visit, putting them back on only for the trickier steps inside this labyrinth of rooms and short corridors. Most of the rooms were quite dim (with very small windows) and it was easy to forget where we were. So it caught me a bit off guard when, as we moved into a higher chamber, we were briefly exposed to open air and the raw, dark gray cliff wall. At that point, we were vividly reminded just how unique this place truly is.

Members of our group who made it to the top. (Taken on the hike back down, from the high point of the trail.)

All photos by Gregor Gilliom