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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Road Trip Adventures: The World's Most Beautiful Monastery

730 am, Oct 29 ‘13: I scramble out of bed and get ready. I should have woken up earlier. Wearing my boots, I step out of the room. Outside, a few feet below the property, the Paro river glistens blue in the morning sunlight. I look up at the mountains and somewhere in their midst is my destination.
Tiger’s Nest Monastery.

I walk to the hotel restaurant. Gautam and Shaheeda, the friendly, young Mumbai couple are there already. Soon, Chetan and Pradeep join us. I like these two boys. Twenty three years old each, they are the youngest members in this Tri Nation Car Rally Road Trip.

We finish breakfast and get into Gautam’s Scorpio - Adventure 19 – and drive to the base of the mountain from where the trek will start. The route is beautiful. Through our position on the hills, we can see the entire town of Paro, those little houses down below looking like Lego pieces.

It is day 9 of our trip. After finishing our Nepal leg in Kathmandu, the Mahindra Tri Nation team drove east and stayed one night at Biratnagar, a Nepalese border town. On day 7, the convoy crossed Bihar and drove into the hilly tea estates of West Bengal. That night we stayed at the sprawling Dooars Sinclairs property in Chalsa, on top of a hill. It is such a green estate. If you are in the region ever, and have the money, stay at the Dooars.

Yesterday, we left Chalsa and crossed over to Bhutan. The border formalities in Phuentsholing took quite some time and we only reached Paro in the night.

I am back in the land of Tiger’s Nest.

It will be my second time, trekking to the monastery. Last time, it took me three hours to get to the top. Today I will not stop even once, till I reach the top. It is purely a mental game.

We cross the main town, and now there are fields on both sides of the road.  A few houses show up infrequently. There are chillies drying on their roofs. Some of the houses also have phallic symbols (penises) painted on them.

We reach the base of the mountain and park our car. Some of the other Mahindra Scorpios are already here. The others must already be on their way up. To check if they are finding the climb alright, I must walk up faster.

The previous night, when we were having dinner, almost twenty people from the group said that they would try going up to Tiger’s Nest. Many are in their forties and fifties. I wondered if everybody could.

Fitness doesn’t really get high priority in India. Once college ends and we start working, we stop playing. We go to office, return late and watch television. Unlike in the west, we do not go camping on weekends. On weekdays, we are not like Denmark, where people are increasingly bicycling to work.

From our spot at the base, the monastery looks like a colourful dot on a big, brown mountain. To reach the top, we must make our way through a hilly forest, rocks and uneven terrain.

We start walking. I know Gautam will take care of Shaheeda, so I go ahead. Pradeep keeps pace with them. Chetan joins me. The two of us make a pact to not stop at all.

The forest is full of blue pine trees. There are no signboards, no stalls or wrappers or plastic lying anywhere. When Jigme Wangchuck, Bhutan’s fourth and most loved king, made Gross National Happiness a law, its definition specified that economic development and environmental preservation should go hand in hand. He has also made it a law that Bhutan should remain under 60% forest cover for all times to come. Such foresight.

Chetan and I move ahead and soon two small Buddhist temples come in sight. A stream of water flows out from one of them and passes through a brown, cylindrical wooden tube before falling onto the earth. The tube has been fashioned to look like a penis, foreskin et al.

The walk is directly uphill from here. A narrow strip cut from the hills is our path.

For someone who does not climb often, the first one hour is usually the toughest. You feel out of breath, and want to stop often. The more you stop, the more tired you feel a few minutes after resumption. If Chetan is tired, he does not express it verbally. Only a slight grimace gives him away. A lean, tall boy, he keeps steady pace and walks a step or two ahead of me constantly. We keep moving ahead at decent pace.

A steady breeze hits our chests. Forty five minutes later, we spot some of the group members directly above us. We leave the path, and scramble up the hill, through the trees, like two goats. In a minute, we are by their side, huffing and puffing with the extra exertion. They greet us with cheers and smiles.

We reach the café at the halfway point. Chetan and I want to keep walking, but everyone is laughing, talking and ordering tea and biscuits, so we decide to spend a few minutes with them.

I chat with Vivek Naidu, a 46year old man from Hyderabad. In the convoy’s radio conversations, he always stands out as the most polished speaker. Here, he keeps teasing me that he would thrash me in a race to the top. It is all playful banter.

He and Pankaj leave immediately after finishing their teas. Ten minutes later, Chetan and I set out too. We cover ground quickly. We pass an old woman, probably seventy years old. I smile at her but she does not reciprocate. She looks tired, and is holding onto the arm of her local guide. Together they walk at a painfully slow pace.

Soon we catch up with Vivek. He looks out of breath and is sitting on a rock. His face is covered with sweat. One look at him, and I know he won’t make it to the top. I stop next to him, and urge him to keep walking. Pankaj and Chetan look on. We walk fifty metres more and Vivek stops again. He is getting very tired.

I have no idea why I decide to change my script. Till now, I have wanted to reach the top first, reach it under two hours and prove a point to myself. Now, I feel like walking with him. I don’t know why.
Chetan wants to stop too. But at least one of us should do it non-stop, so I persuade him to go ahead. Vivek and I resume again, and walk slowly. Whenever he feels like stopping, I ask him to take five more steps. And after those five, five more.

Pankaj walks ahead, slowly and steadily, stopping every ten minutes to see if we are following his trail.

I don’t want to give up on the race yet. I keep telling Vivek we shall still be the first to get to the top.
He is panting a lot. His breathing is hard. The man’s exhausted. To egg him on, I resort to locker room tactics. I chide him, tell him to take it like a man, urge him to fight it out, roar at him that it is all about mental strength.

The man’s got spirit. He does not give up. He knows that my shouting is a farce, that it is all a bid to make him keep walking, and he pulls out enormous reserves of will to push himself.

As we go up, foreigners keep passing us, on their way back from the monastery. Every time they do, Vivek greets them pleasantly, cracking a joke or two, being the perfect gentleman. It surprises me.
Not that he can’t, just that he is up on a mountain, spent and exhausted more than he has ever been. Most people would be irritable when they are tired. This man is breathing so hard that I can almost hear his heartbeat, and yet he never stops being pleasant to strangers and keeps gushing about the views and the vegetation. I love his attitude. It speaks of the man’s character.

I now know why I want to walk with him to the top. We keep walking.  We stop only when he is ready to fall. I still taunt him, he still smiles.

Finally Takstsang is at the same height as we are. At the last turn of the hill, Chetan is waiting for us. From here, there is a 500 metre decline, at the end of which is a waterfall. After that begins the last hundred metre ascent to the monastery.

The four of us reach the waterfall. Clambering over the rocks, I rush to the water. I love waterfalls. Chetan keeps yelling that his shoes are slippery but finally he is up on the rocks too. Soon, there are others from the group who catch up with us – Rajat and his wife Neha, Akash and Vishesh. They all come up, gingerly holding on to the rocks and moving on the wet moss slowly till they reach under the fall. The water is icy cold and drenches us within seconds. 

Once we get back, we climb up to the monastery. When we reach, I look at Vivek. His eyes reflect all the emotions that he feels at the moment. There is an overwhelming sense of triumph. He is almost shaking with joy. In his victory, I find my own.

Just like last time, a sense of peace and calmness engulfs me as soon as I enter. No other religious place does that to me. We flit silently through the rooms, and a guide explains the monastery’s history, and the stories of the paintings to us. Later, I wander by myself. I need my own little space here.

We leave an hour later. On our way back, I walk alone. I still don’t know what is it that overwhelms me about the monastery – is it the exertion of the walk and the triumphant feeling at the end of it all? Or is it the magnificence of its location – on a cliff edge at the very top of the mountain, only trees and hills all around, nothing but the roar of water breaking the silence?

At the waterfall, I meet the old lady we crossed earlier. She is still on her way to the monastery, still holding on to her guide’s hand. I am pleasantly surprised to see her come this far. She is 72 and from New Zealand. I ask her how she finds the view now that she is at the top. She smiles quietly. I look at her guide, and he tells me something in a low voice. The old lady is blind.

I am stunned. I look at her and what she has just done and I hug her out of love, out of shock. She laughs and asks me to describe the view to her and I say what I can. Then, the two resume their journey. When I see her last, she’s still walking slowly, holding to her guide’s arm, talking to him.
I walk down the hill, but I don’t know what to think. I just feel so happy that she went up. Taktsang’s aura lies in its awe inspiring location. Yet, she went up, with no eyes, no strength, only faith by her side.

What is it about Taktsang. When I reach to the bottom, my mind’s still a maze of thoughts.
The next day, the convoy leave for Thimpu.

In retrospect, I have a lot of fond memories from that day. We stayed in a beautiful resort, Tashi Namgay, by the river, had a bonfire dinner party, and even had time for shopping.

It was a day that a lot of people bonded with each other in the 5-6 hours it took them to go up and down the mountain. We had spent most of our earlier days either driving, or visiting tourist attractions. In Paro, we learnt to be travellers. To just keep walking.

Chetan and I became close that day, I guess. 

Still, I shall remember our ninth day of our trip, above all, for only two things. The joy on Vivek’s face when we reached the monastery, and the faith of the little lady who held on to her guide’s arm and talked to him, the entire time it took her to climb up the most beautiful monastery in the world.

 Now Read:

1) The Road Trip Adventures: A Prologue 
2) About Neeraj Narayanan 
3) One Night with a Croatian Backpacker



1 comment:

Empty Rucksack said...

Yours is one of the better blogs out there. So good t find you. I have never been a fanof rroad trips but your post makes me look forward to our K2K trip. Keep posting and stay in touch.