Between vertigo and ecstasy: Bhutan

Bsassoli Bhutan is a unique country. It made headlines so, years ago when it decided that instead of measuring GDP it would measure “Gross National Happiness” – and has since become for many westerners a symbol of A very different way of life, rooted in tradition and Buddhist spirituality. Isolated until recently, it is like Tibet in pristine conditions, before China invaded it, or a Nepal before it became a tourist favorite.

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While one may undergo a feeling of disappointment upon getting there (Bhutan lacks – at first sight – the dramatic landscapes one might expect from the Himalayas) it is only a short matter of time before you realize you are in a land of enchantment – especially if you are a hiker or a backpacker. For me, it was a gradual realization of something I could not initially put my finger on, something that made all my hikes there different than any other: it was the sheer silence. No sound of cars, of people, or anything: only nature. Clearly, that silence is a little bit less available if you decide to walk to Tiger’s Nest, which is probably Bhutan’s most popular destination.Takstang, as it is known in Bhutanese, is a Buddhist monastery built sometime in 1600 AC: it is the holiest sites in Bhutan, and it is perched – at 3000 feet – on one of the steepest cliffs one might imagine. It probably constitutes one of the most spectacular views a hiker may encounter anywhere. Its origins rest in legend: it is said that the temple was built where, some 1300 years ago, Guru Rimpoche, one of the holy figures in Himalayan Buddishm, flew on a tiger’s back (whence the name) and dwelled in meditation for years before spreading Buddishm across Bhutan. The trek itself takes about two to three hours, largely depending on your pace: air is quite thin, so you may expect to take frequent breaks to catch your breath. The path is made of steps carved in stone, and it can also get pretty steep. If you suffer from vertigo (as this wrote does) you also may find yourself in needs of a few breaks: sometimes the steps seem to hover on the verge of a precipice. You will meet a cafeteria along the way, but it is advisable to bring your own water and a snack. It is only towards the end of your journey that you will begin to see Tiger’s Nest. Shortly before arriving you will reach the viewpoint: take your time there, especially if you want to take pictures, as cameras (or most other personal belongings) are not allowed inside the temple. Finally, a stone bridge across a waterfall will lead you to the entrance: prayer flags, everywhere, in a colorful and joyous procession – a hallmark of Himalayan trekking – will be your silent but colorful companions for the last portion of the hike. As for the temple itself, it is unsurprising that many have reported the visit to be a near ecstatic, and very mystical experience. But this, as it happens when the spiritual, or the mystical, if you will, are involved, is something that is best left to direct, first-hand witnessing. Words are a poor tool in these cases.

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