Perched above the forests of Bhutan, the Tiger’s Nest Monastery offers determined tourists the chance to ascend to a higher spiritual plane. By Glenn A. Baker.

Climbing with tigers at Bhutan’s Taktshang Goemba

Bhutan’s most famous monastery, Taktshang Goemba.

In the end they put as all to shame – a group, near to double figures, of elderly Japanese hikers, including one demure lady said to be 76. Barely a word came from them, beyond the odd admiring exclamation as they gazed out and across the Paro Valley, a view that grew more spectacular as they ascended towards Tiger’s Nest.

The climb, now famous far beyond the borders of the mystical landlocked nation of Bhutan, holds an element of the samurai spirit of bushido for the Japanese taking it on. For everyone else? Well, there’s a decent boast to be had back home in saying that you made it high into the Himalayas, to the precincts of the country’s most famous monastery.

The venerated religious site Taktshang Goemba, literally translated as Tiger’s Nest Monastery, should be the sole domain of serene monks, sited as it is, some say miraculously, on a precipice 900 metres above the floor of the valley, appearing to be more a product of Hollywood computer-generated imagery than architecture. But the donkey and mule trains laboriously ferrying supplies to the holy orders in the clouds are forced to share the steep mountain path with a steady flow of determined climbers. Measured breaths, one foot slowly in front of the other, they ascend to the divine realm in a ceaseless stream. 

Tourists arrive at the gathering place cum car park at the base, some eight kilometres out of the Paro township. There, brass and woven ornaments are sold and horses are available for inexpensive hire (one way only; they come down with empty saddles, lest they tumble tail over snout and propel passengers into a tree). 

But the fact we are heading for a ney – a holy place – becomes plainly apparent with the spinning of prayer wheels and tying of prayer flags, the gentle murmurings of Bhutanese pilgrims heard in the wind wending its way through the pine trees, the side paths to meditation caves or a sign exhorting you to “Walk to Guru’s Glory” and, always, the looming magnificence of an incredible monastery built more than 300 years ago. This is no mere hike. 

A couple of hours each way is generally allowed by the walkers, with the more athletic smugly awaiting the stragglers in their party while taking tea and pastries at the cafeteria at 2940 metres or posing for photographs at the lookout opposite the monastery at 3140 metres. Of course the geriatric Japanese, not inclined to miss either refreshment or happy snaps, manage to do it all with time to spare.

Legend has it that, with the right spiritual plane or connections, one can bypass feet and steed and make it into the clouds on the back of a magic tiger, though they seemed to be in short supply the day of my climb. Legend also insists that the complex of ornate religious buildings is anchored in place by the hairs of dakinis (celestial females), which is as good an explanation as any for how everything hangs together, I suppose. The monastery clings, as one phrase goes, to the side of the mountain like a gecko.

The holy site has not been without mishaps and misadventure, however. In 1998 a fire, which some suspect may have been deliberately lit to disguise a theft, wiped out the main building of Taktshang Goemba and all that was within. The king was on hand in 2005 to oversee the reopening after years of painstaking construction using materials carted up the mountain on the backs of workers or in a cable lift. Seems the magic tigers were on holiday then as well. 

By the time you’ve dragged your weary carcass to the lookout, preparing to tread the final paths and suspensions to the holy grail of the monastery, you have made friends for life – Argentinian accountants, German footballers, Kiwi podiatrists, and those retired Japanese salarymen. The sense of camaraderie is palpable, everyone spending but half a day of their time in Bhutan achieving something of no small significance. In a country replete with imposing structures in often breathtaking locations, Taktshang Goemba is a national motif, the most recognisable landmark.

The elegant Temple of the Guru with Eight Names, the centrepiece of the monastery, was built in 1692 at the cave where Bhutan’s patron saint, Guru Padmasambhava, the man credited with bringing Buddhism to the country, is said to have meditated for three months in the 8th century. With gurus supposedly flying in and out of the lair on the back of tigers of varying disposition, the place was eventually consecrated to tame the tiger demon. 

There are so many conflicting and overlapping tales and legends, rich in reincarnation, that you could take a degree course before visiting Taktshang Goemba. But suffice to say that over the centuries many of the region’s great and holy have made their way up from the Paro Valley to meditate, seek enlightenment and most certainly harden their bodies on near vertical cliff sides.

There are four main temples and eight caves in the Tiger’s Nest – comprising images of bodhisattvas, flickering butter lamps and paintings on pedestals – and all are interconnected by wooden bridges and steps carved into rock. 

On a good day – and they are plentiful – there are clouds shrouding the monastery and moss hanging from the pine forest’s fluttering prayer flags. You can hear the wind whistling over the rocky plateau known as the Hundred Thousand Fairies, the faint squeaking of prayer wheels, and water tumbling over rocks and splashing into a sacred pool. Though you know exactly where you are (and will be after lunch), for the fatigued climber there is an overwhelming sense of remoteness. And privilege.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 26, 2014 as "Climbing with tigers".

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Glenn A. Baker is a writer and broadcaster, and the author of 17 books.