It is our first full day in Bhutan and the mountain looms ominously in the clear blue sky. The air is cool, crisp and thin as my whitewashed challenger awaits my arrival 900 meters above. I haven’t come all this way just to stand in the shadow of the Tiger’s Nest, so I will get there. It’s just a matter of time.
The trail starts gently enough, winding through a wooded area of blue pines and past a water-powered prayer wheel slowly spinning in a clockwise direction as a stream trickles underneath. The sound of the water and the creaking prayer wheel lures me into an easy pace. Then the trail begins to climb with a much steeper slope, switchbacks twisting among the blooming red rhododendrons and groves of white prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. Ethereal wisps of pale green moss hang from the tree limbs creating a fairytale canopy over the path. Hiking stick in hand, I tackle the incline one step at a time.
A few tourists pass as I brush the sweat out of my eyes and look longingly at the ponies they are riding up the hill. The rewards will be all the greater for getting up the hard way, I tell myself repeatedly, a mantra to soothe my burning calf muscles. We continue to climb.
Over an hour later, we arrive at a wooden teahouse perched along a ridge and get our first hazy views of the monastery. Often visitors just hike to the teahouse, our guide informs me, hinting that there’d be no shame in putting my legs out of their misery. But there is no way I am stopping now. I can just make out the gold medallions and red rooflines across the gorge, taunting me to get a closer look. After a cup of tea and a quick rest I am ready to conquer the next, steeper leg of the hike.
Up and up we climb, until finally the trail begins to flatten out. We traverse the deep chasm between the teahouse and the monastery along a rocky plateau, arriving at the top of a long set of stone steps, seeming carved right out of the side of the mountain.
Rainbows of red, green, yellow and blue prayer flags fill the bright sky above us as we descend across a waterfall and footbridge. Only a few hundred steps back up the stone staircase separate me from my goal. We begin to ascend once again.
The red and gold details of the monastery buildings become sharper with each step up. It is silent except for the sound of the wind and the rapid heartbeat in my chest. I am breathing hard, dizzy and exhilarated from the altitude and the nearness of these incredible buildings clinging to the cliff before me. A few more steps. A few more steps. I am here, breathless and awestruck, 900 meters above the valley floor, standing in the gateway to the Taktsang Dzong monastery.
You can check out more of our photos from Bhutan here.