Up and Up and Up – The Tigers Nest & Kila Nunnery

Our first full day in Bhutan and our first sight on our list was Takshang Goemba (better known as the Tiger’s Nest Monastery), the most famous monastery in Bhutan and probably the most iconic image of the country. It perches on the side of a sheer 900m cliff and is said to be held in place by the hair of angels.

We awoke to drizzle and fog which basically didn’t clear all day, hardly ideal conditions for being in the mountains. Thankfully the drizzle was very light by the time Sangay dropped us at the start of the trail up to Tigers Nest, however it was wet and muddy underfoot. A short way into the hike we passed 3 large prayer wheels, the first we have seen that are water powered. From there the trail went steeply up and up and up, the view was probably great but the fog was thick and we couldn’t see diddly squat. We were thinking we’d climb all the way up this steep mountain, puffing and panting because we were at altitude, and then not see it. Sure enough we got to the first viewpoint and couldn’t see anything except white fog.

IMG_7371We carried on and only a short way further (higher) we plateaued and a large prayer wheel followed by a row of smaller sized prayer wheels appeared in the mist. Only 2 minutes past that was the viewpoint cafe, we headed there for tea as the drizzle turned into rain. The cafe was freezing cold, the tea lukewarm and the rain continued, we really didn’t think that we were going to see it, but then out of nowhere the cloud lifted enough to give us a hazy view, with low cloud above it and valley mist below it we took some photos quick before it was obscured again. The mist ebbed and flowed, the cloud dropped and rose but we did get some good clear views.

With the weather being so poop almost everyone was calling it quits at the cafe and heading back, the hard slog up to the second viewpoint which looks down onto the monastery just wasn’t worth it with the likelihood of getting there and having no view. We opted for the same and when the rain eased we made a break for it and headed back down. We moved quickly but carefully as it was very slippy in places, and paused only to play with the big prayer wheel until we got back to the water prayer wheels where we took some photos. We got back to the car covered in mud. Back in town we had lunch. Every meal is the same set up whether you eat at a hotel or a restaurant. If lots of people are booked in then you get a buffet, if only a few people are booked in you get served several dishes.

IMG_7405After lunch Sangay drove us up a mountain. One of the main routes out of town it was a narrow winding mountain road. Not too far from a famous pass at the top he dropped us off. Us and Pensoc were hiking up to Kila Nunnery where we were going to stay the night. It was still misty but as it lifted up the valley we could see the nunnery on it’s steep rocky perch high above us. The day before we’d bought a big bag and we had taken everything out of our rucksacks that we did not need. We felt good as we set off with our light bags and it was actually really nice and quite atmospheric to be walking through the forest in the mist.

Happily for us they’ve recently put in a ‘road’ (track) up to the nunnery. It’s been cut in but we named it the most pointless road in Bhutan as it is already blocked by numerous landslides and in other places the edge of the track is completely cracked and will soon be sliding down the hill. However, for us it was an even walking surface and a nice gradient for walking up and up and up. Only the last section did we have to take a steep badly formed footpath.

It was hard going, we both felt like we have no reserves to dig into anymore. The tank is empty and we have no idea how we ever managed the Semban (Village in the Clouds) hike in Malaysia. Even the path through the nunnery buildings is upwards and we of course were sleeping in one of the furthest and highest buildings next to the main temple.

IMG_7433They have a small building there with 2 rooms in it – 1 with benchtops, a stove, sink and table and chairs and the other an empty room with mats on the floor and big windows facing the courtyard and the valley. Down by the side of the building was the toilet and a bathroom (a concrete room with a tap and a drainage hole). Once we got our breath back we had tea in what would be our room (the empty one with mats on the floor). Then we explored our new surroundings.

There are 30 nuns living there and most are quite young, everyone we asked seemed to be 19. The lama that heads the nunnery was away overnight so they were somewhat free range. A slightly older nun was responsible for taking care of the guests although we didn’t see much of her. However, she did produce two thin mattresses from somewhere.

The mist from the valley was continuously moving up and down the valley. As soon as it had cleared we were shrouded in mist again. It was cold. We got our thick coats and thermals out. Strangely the nuns don’t feed the guests so the tour company sent a trekking chef up to the nunnery, which we though was completely ridiculous to feed three of us dinner and breakfast. He had left Thimpu late so was behind us. About 5:30pm Pensoc got a call from him asking him to go down and meet him half way as he was struggling with the provisions. Turns out he’s just come back off the Snowman Trek the day before and he was buggered. Pensoc grumbled and slightly reluctantly headed down leaving us to watch evening prayers in the main temple.

IMG_7507After prayers we got ourselves set up for the night before the light went. There is no electricity at the nunnery except for a couple of small solar panels here and there that power lightbulbs. The guys still hadn’t arrived and we considered what on earth he was carrying up for provisions. We couldn’t understand why they didn’t just send us off with some bread and eggs just for 2 meals. We spotted them when one of the nuns took us out to a ridge with 3 stupas. They were both struggling and were sat on the bags in the middle of the track having a rest.

As it started to get dark the nuns got braver and talked to us when they were supposed to be studying. They learnt English at school but don’t learn it in the nunnery so they’re a bit shy about using it. As the guys finally arrived 2 of the nuns had turned up with pillows. We accepted them only after checking we weren’t taking anyone’s as we were carrying a small pillow each. But no they were ‘free’, although we did suspect they might be the lama’s. Next we were offered extra blankets, with thermals and our sleeping bags we figured we’d be ok, but it was bloody cold and we promptly changed our minds as while sure we wouldn’t need to use them but better to have them just in case and be warm than be cold in the night. We made ourselves a cosy nest for the night while the guys were busy chopping veggies for dinner.

IMG_7513We were freezing and dinner took forever to make. The chef had done a boy shop so we weren’t surprised he’d struggled e.g. he had bought a whole bottle of oil up instead of just what he needed and we like tea but did not need a 100 tea bag box. We also saw a whole bag of potatoes and a whole bag of apples. Bhutanese are renouned for their love of chillies, they don’t add them as a condiment, they use them as the main ingredient. They are raised on them even being given them as weaning food. They dry them for winter and this being the end of the rainy season it was peak drying time. Usually they were strung and hung from windows or laid out on house roofs making big blocks of red. For 2 of them for dinner and breakfast he’d literally got an entire carrier bag full of them.

It was almost 9pm when we ate and we were served several dishes. Utterly ridiculous we thought. As we waited for dinner every time we got really cold we sat in the kitchen or went for a walk through the nunnery. On the walk up Pensoc had decided to tell us that we were in bear country. He didn’t seem concerned by the bears and was more worried about tigers. We were more concerned about bears, particularly after he told us that some had entered a nearby village recently. On one of our warm up walks in the dark Emma remembered about the bears and we shot back to the kitchen. Only then did Pensoc tell us that they are vegetarian and enter the villages to eat potatoes.

We slept well, even in thermals, merino hats, in sleeping bags with 2 blankets over us we didn’t get too hot.

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