Rediff.com's Rajesh Karkera takes in the best of Bhutan, a beautiful little kingdom that has bundles and bundles of goodness to offer.
- Part 1: Lucknow to Lumbini, Lumbini to Pokhra and Pokhra to Kathmandu
- Part 2: Kathmandu to Siliguri, Siliguri to Paro
Paro and Thimpu
On our first morning in Paro, Bhutan, an optional trek was planned to Paro Taktsang. That's a prominent Himalayan Buddhist sacred site, located in mountain caves, that also goes by the name of Tiger's Nest and is 10 km from Paro town.
The trek was one of the hot topics on the CB radios (that each convoy car was fitted with) the previous night. Everyone was talking about how tough and tiring the climb could be. And that it would be wise to start the trek at 7 am when the ticket counter opens. And that one had to climb hundreds of steps -- and these were no ordinary steps, but each 12 to 13 inches high, knee breakers.
This chatter on the radio was enough to dissuade someone like me who has never done a trek after a major back injury in 2014.
But come morning it seemed to me that I should try to at least trek half the distance, since I had come all the way to Paro, and Tiger's Nest was said to be a site of one's dreams.
In any case, I was told, the first hour of the trek, till a cafe called Taktsang Cafeteria, was a smooth hike, which could even be done on ponies, if need be.
I took along whatever medicines my doctor said I would need, in case of an emergency, and headed to the base from where the trek would start.
There were five of us participants, including Sarang Bhatia (from Mahindra's Xtreme Sports Organisation team), who is so fit he could go up and down mountains like a Himalayan goat!
Labouring under a lot of mixed feelings -- on whether this was advisable and if I could make it halfway, in spite of getting plenty of assurances from my fellow participants who promised to carry me back if I couldn't make it -- we started the trek.
The first hour to 90 minutes, which took you to the café, was a smooth, dusty climb with intermittent steps. You can't really see anything above you from there. Just clouds and a faint white structure was visible on top of the mountain.
The trek, through a pine forest, is a pleasant one, punctuated by little places festooned with prayer flags, that are much-needed stops after all the huffing and puffing. They are great spots for photographs!
All along the trail you will see waste bins constructed from discarded tin cans. Not surprising because this is Bhutan, one of the most environmentally-conscious countries in the world known for practicing strict sustainable development and its negative carbon status (a nation that is removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere!)
And you will meet wild ponies...
These creatures too, like all of Bhutan, are so calm and peaceful in this happy place!
But you have to be cautious of the ponies coming down after dropping tourists to the top (the cafe). Always make way for them. They come skipping down, after dropping folks till Taktsang cafeteria (see video).
As you walk up to the Taktsang cafeteria, you get teasing glimpses of the breath-taking monastery above your head, at every twist and turn.
At the cafe that you can enjoy a hot cuppa and gaze at what lies ahead.
The Tiger's Nest!
Many choose to end their treks here and head home after a break. I too had thoughts of doing that.
But at this midway point all my apprehensions, about staying back, while the others proceeded, vanished. And I threw caution to the winds gently blowing around this mountainside.
Enchanting Tiger's Nest, perched on the side of a cliff, was a sight that could not be passed up.
There were no doubts any more. Taktsang cafeteria was not going to be the end of the trek for me!
I survived the rest of the trek upwards on a journey that was mostly a combination of steep inclines and rough terrain. A gruelling hike up the side of a Himalayan mountain of 10,240 feet, most of which was straight up!
The ordeal was completely forgotten when Tiger's Nest came into view in before us!
You can't help but feel anything but total happiness at this moment.
You are in conflict: Should you just sit tight and enjoy the view, quietly. Or take the most stunning photographs of your life!
At this spot, which was so tough to reach, we met Shashikant, 70, and Moreshwar, 77, from Mumbai. These two gentlemen were an inspiration for every tired person there!
But the trek was not over.
The viewpoint we had reached, after two-and-a-half hours, was actually on another mountain. After that we needed travel downhill a bit, by steps, and then uphill to Tiger's Nest. A total of approximately 700 more steps remained.
The steps downhill looked easy, but it is advisable to do them slowly at your own pace.
And the uphill ones! Well! :)
My fellow trekker told me not to look up at the unending spiral stairs we were ascending. But to look down at the steps and take one at a time, without stopping too much for a rest. The stops only make the going more difficult.
And that advice was exactly what took me all the way, without a mishap, to Tiger's Nest!
What do you feel when you reach this new landmark in your life?
Maybe a feeling of pride. Actually it was a feeling that cannot be described. Your heart was so full at that moment that it just wanted to explode.
But the tranquility of the 17th century monastery kept you calm and controlled.
It is named Taktsang or Tiger's Nest as per a legend that said that a tigress brought Padmasambhava, the 8th century Buddhist master, to this cave from Tibet.
No cameras, bags or phones are permitted inside the monastery.
But once inside, you felt there really was no need for all those things/modern trappings.
Each wall of the monastery, in an ethereal, other-worldly-manner, had a story to show you. You didn't miss having a device to capture the moments with.
After spending a fair amount of time inside the monastery we were hungry for momos! Again.
The determination to get to a divine plate of Bhutan momos took us all the way down much faster.
The path downwards too was just as scenic. Maybe a little more scenic, making you want to pause at intervals.
But darkness arrives early in those parts. It was better to head back as soon as possible.
We met our friends, the wild ponies, on our way down. And the fluffy stray dogs of Bhutan -- that should have an Instagram account all of their own -- accompanied us part of the way. One of the dogs seemed to be guiding us along the path, walking with us :)
When we reached the bottom and were close to the parking lot, we gazed up to see where we had come from.
Gazed up into the clouds!
These were moments when no words would come from within to describe an experience.
Would I have ever imagined making such a journey earlier? No.
But the Happy Place you are in changed things in you.
And the motivation -- that your friends provided to make this trek -- was the most important push that allowed you to complete it!
At the end of it words were not coming out of my mouth smoothly. I was stuttering. I was blabbering. Blabbering in Joy!
But now our focus changed to momos.
Even though we had just gone through a gruelling five hour hike, we did not think of going back to the hotel to rest.
I guess that's kind of effect Tiger’s Nest had on you. Seems like the adrenaline was still pumping.
We headed to the market for the momos!
We walked about for 30 minutes or so in Paro market looking for the most ideal place for momos.
And the place we found was treasure!
Momo Corner was a hole-in-the-wall place, which one would easily have passed by without noticing.
They served some of the best beef/vegetable-cheese momos and thukpa (noodle soup) we had ever eaten!
What an amazing meal after an amazing hike!
Time to head back to the hotel and freshen up for the evening.
The next morning an early morning drive was scheduled to the Buddha Dordenma, Thimphu, also known as the Buddha Point for its giant gilded Buddha (169 feet) completed over nine years in 2015.
The temple, which contains 100,000 statues within, was a treat to both see and experience. Again no photographs are allowed inside.
Our guide Rinchen Dorji offered a wonderful explanation of the Buddha and Buddhism and took us all into another world.
Next up was more driving through scenic Bhutan for a surprise lunch laid out by the Mahindra Adventure people at a Thimphu Chu river!
A fantastic local lunch prepared by the Bhutanese people just for us -- steamed rice, chappatis, local vegetables, chicken and an amazing cheese chilly vegetable dish, called ema datshi, which I tasted for the first time. It was a mix of red and green peppers, with generous helpings of cheese in it. Delicious.
A meal served up beside the river -- it was something everyone wanted.
After a relaxing two-hour break everyone had the option to either stay back to shop in Thimpu, Bhutan's capital city, or return to the Metta Resort, Paro. Or else go wherever s/he wanted to go!
Some of us opted to head towards Paro and spend time in the local markets there taking in all the local flavour and colour. It was our last night to explore Bhutan!
Exploring for us began, naturally, with food :)) and we started heading to our serendipitously-discovered momo joint only to find it closed. :( Alas. It was a Sunday! We had all lost track of the days we had spent there.
We embarked on another scouting trip looking for places to eat. Most eating places in Bhutan close early. It was already 8 pm.
We finally located a place to fill our tummies up on a whole selection of momos -- some steamed, some fried, chicken, cheese, vegetable. The giant fried ones that come stuffed with beef or are vegetarian, priced between Rs 70 and Rs 100, called bathup, were delightful. One of them makes a meal.
Bhutanese food seemed to be largely a mix of momos, thukpa, rice, cheese, with not too many elements similar to Indian cuisine. A Bhutanese gentleman I met said his breakfast was usually chutney, bread and boiled rice.
Saying goodbye to Bhutan and its wonderful people was wrenching.
We would leave this beautiful land the next day with heavy hearts.
Ahead was the drive back to Siliguri.
Paro-Siliguri, 297 km, 12 hours
It was almost 10.30 am when we rolled out of the Metta resort.
No one drove fast that day. Slow and steady was the formula as the convoy left for the Phuentsholing at the Bhutan-India border.
On the return I got an opportunity to talk to Naresh Goyle, 71, and Meera Goyle, 65, the senior most couple in the convoy, originally from Punjab but settled in Mumbai since 1965.
Mrs Goyle, from Mumbai, is an inspiration. She tirelessly drove alone throughout the expedition and not once broke a sweat.
As we spoke the convoy passed through thick fog. Visibility was almost zero.
All we could do was follow the white markers on the road through this pea soup fog. At times even the car in front could not be seen.
We had taken this same road on our way into Paro a few nights earlier.
What would it have been like to navigate through this kind of fog at night?
The thought made us thank the weather for letting us get to Paro safely that evening.
The rest of the drive continued, with little chatter on the radio. Rest stops came and went.
The realisation that the end of this trip coming soon had dawned on each of us.
We reached the end of the drive at 10.30 pm at Marriott, Siliguri, where we signed off and handed back the car keys. Thereafter, the excellent service team of the Mahindra Adventure worked half the night to get the cars ready to be shipped back.
And at the end of a great day -- I read this somewhere -- your feet should be dirty, your hair messy but your eyes should be sparkling.
That's how we all were.