Bhutan – the hard bit

Here I am about to start the long steep trek up to the Tigers Nest monastery. It was described in the itinerary as five hours return. Karma said we’d leave at 9 and be back in time for a late lunch, but the Indian family, whom I seem fated to keep meeting, and who were indeed at the same hotel as me in Paro, said it took them 7 hours. Plus the little girl fell over and hurt herself. Gulp. What does that bode for creaky-boned old Annie?

Hotel Naksel, Paro, from my room. Trekking up there from the dining room/reception below was a workout in itself!

It’s 4 km distance, up a 40 deg rough and rocky incline to a height of 600m above starting level, at which halfway point there’s a walkers’ hut – they call it a cafe – with toilets and hot water for coffee and tea. After that there’s more climbing, then down umpteen steps to a valley, losing all that height gained, then up a final umpteen zillion steps to the monastery.

I was full of doubts and grizzles: What if I need to ‘go’ on the way? You’ll have to squat by the track. What about lunch? What if I get hungry? You can have lunch at the halfway ‘cafe’ but it’s not very good. What if it’s raining? You’ve got a raincoat…? I had to admit to having packed the light blue spray jacket you see me in up top. Karma also said I could take a walking stick from the hotel to help with the steep descent, and that he would carry both our needs in his backpack. Damned fellow had an answer to all my objections!

Karma leads the way

In the event, it WAS raining quite heavily on the day of the trek, and my hopes rose that Karma would have to cancel. But no, by the time he arrived to pick me up at 8.30 the rain had eased a bit and he seemed determined that I undergo this ordeal. The horses you see were available for hire to carry you halfway up to the cafe (but not back down again), but given my record as a rider – two out of the four times I’ve mounted a horse I’ve fallen off and broken something – I wasn’t having a bar of going up a steep mountain path on one of those dangerous beasts.

Cheating sods…but they still had to slither back down in the mud like I did!

Just look at the state of the path. As we climbed upward, ever upward, the rain got heavier and Karma finally said he was worried about what state the path would be in when we went back down, as it would have been trampled to mud and slush by climbers and horses. Nevertheless we persevered and got to the cafe halfway up…

It was bucketing down and I was thoroughly wet
Karma and his brolly. Tea and bickies inside

…then a 20 minute break for hot tea and dry biscuits and a vain effort on Karma’s part to dry my sodden spray jacket in front of the wood-stove inside, which you had to fight to get near what with other pilgrims trying to dry out. Karma had the cheek to ask if I wanted to go on. I said ‘If you’re worried about the state of the track I’m terrified! Definitely not.’

The Tigers Nest is that faint white blur a steep valley and a zillion steps away on that dim and distant hillside.

So we turned back, and just as bloody well we did because it was torturous going. The track HAD been turned to mud and slush and was really quite dangerous. I slipped and slithered a lot, even with the walking stick and Karma’s hand to steady me much of the way. At one stage we both slipped and collided and almost went down onto the rocks and mud but we just held our footing. It was quite scary, especially when the returning riderless horses came past us at speed going back down. THEY were slipping and sliding too! But of course they’ve got four legs and were beastly careless, literally.

Almost back to base camp

When we got back to base camp I was pretty nearly wet through, and my jeans and shoes were sodden with wet mud. I honestly don’t know how people who went on to the top were going to get back hours later when the track would have been even worse. I got talking to a small group of Melbournians at the cafe who were soldiering on, but they did have better wet weather gear than I had.

Karma chews betel nut.

I’d say it was the hardest physical thing I’ve done, with the possible exception of ascending Uluru at the hottest time of day decades ago when I was younger and fitter. It took us about three hours, including the cafe stop. Karma being young and supremely fit does the full climb at least twice a month, accompanying tourists. But it wasn’t just his wholesomeness that allowed him to maintain a Zen-like calm throughout (although his brand of Buddhism is Mahayana); he does chew betel nut, which incidentally makes the gums and teeth all red. At first I thought it was poor dental hygiene!

My room top floor left

So after lunch, for which we WOULD have been unspeakably late had we done the full trek, I repaired to my eyrie to wash myself and every stitch of clothing I had on in a hot bath.

Everywhere you go – steps, steps and more steps.

I decided I should put the photo of the takin in after all. His prospects are good. Much of the country has been declared national park.


Final word on Bhutan. I think on balance the King deserves his reputation as a wise and benign ruler who’s tried to hand over as much power as possible to his people at the same time striving to avoid the worst consequences of rapid development and to instil in his loyal subjects good habits in health, traffic, environmental management and human rights. A friend did point out that there is still a law on the books banning even consensual gay sex. Hmm. Wish I’d known in time to ask Karma more about it.

Back streets of Paro. Note frenzied pace of building

I also wish I could have asked him about something I read in the inflight magazine of the national carrier, Drukair, on my way out. There’s a festival coming up to honour a young girl who volunteered to be BURIED ALIVE at some temple or other for some religious reason. Crikey! It didn’t say when this happened, whether it was last year or four centuries ago. I fervently hope the latter.