Winter is in the air dropping pine needles on my head. A velvet chill lines a good wind, fluttering prayer flags in its wake. Puffs of chimney smoke cloud the road where I take my afternoon walk. A new season has been announced, and I feel slightly wiser today.
Perhaps this is due to blessings received yesterday on the pilgrimage to Taktsang. It’s the one destination most everyone has heard of by the time they arrive in Bhutan: Tiger’s Nest, the cliff-side temple where Guru Rinpoche spent time in retreat.
Craning the neck from the drop-off point, it is difficult to imagine arriving there without ropes and equipment or a flying tigress, as was Guru Rinpoche’s preferred means of transportation. The hike itself is a challenge (especially the coming down bit), but under 2 hours each way. What is more of a challenge is to share the trail with the constant and thick flow of tourists. I’ve become accustomed to the space here in Bhutan, trees being more numerous than humans.
To avoid this flow, I decide to visit the lesser-known temple dedicated to Machig Labdron just behind Taktsang. A tiny sign on the main path indicates the side-trail. Passing under a colorful canopy of frayed prayer flags, lush grass underfoot, one sees a thin dirt trail that climbs to the secret dwelling place of one of Vajrayana Buddhism’s most celebrated yoginis.
After visiting the temple and the cave where she left her footprint, and paying respects, the caretaker invites me into his small house for tea, where 5 other pilgrims are already gathered around an electric kettle of milk tea. Taking a place in the corner, I quietly nibble on a biscuit.
Making our exit, one of the women taps me on the shoulder and, with a gesture, invites me to come with them. We continue up a steep path over gigantic boulders, so big they need notched-log-ladders to climb up and the men hold my hand until I get solid footing. Up, away from the trailhead, to who knows where..
We follow a crystal stream up a gently sloping grass field, past a prayer-mill, up the side of a forested mountain. Coming to the top, the land suddenly flattens out and in the midst of a large field high above the valley is an imposing temple, Zangto Pelri Lakhang. The dogs have announced our arrival, so the caretaker is ready with the keys to show us around. We pay our respects to Guru Rinpoche (3 prostrations) and the priest offers us amrita, blessed camphor water. Upstairs is a smaller shrine to 1000-armed Chenrezig, and on the top floor is still another shrine to Shakyamuni Buddha.
Afterwards we spread out on the grass with our picnic lunches and savor views of the expansive valley below. Quite soon after, one of the men looks at his watch and they gather up to go, down the other side of the mountain we have just climbed.
Did I mention that no one speaks English? I have no idea where we are going, if we are returning to the trailhead or perhaps spending the night in the wilderness, and as the sun is setting, it is too late for me to turn back. I figure if its my time to go, it could be a lot worse than perishing on Guru Rinpoche’s sacred mountain.
Eventually we end up at a small cliff-hanging temple on the other side of the main complex, so high up its dizzy. More prostrations and offerings. Hugging the rock walls as we make our way back, precariously and with absolute awareness, as the sheer drop leaves no room for error.
We spend the rest of the afternoon skating down steep pine needle dusted trails through thick woods. Ani is a bit older and frequently needs help navigating in her treadless shoes. My companions are infinitely patient with her, chanting mantra quietly the whole way down, and we all arrive at the trailhead just as the sun disappears behind the mountains.