Bhutan, the kingdom of the clouds
We plan to approach the Tiger’s Nest the long way round, across the craggy spines of the surrounding mountains rather than up the well-made path from the car park a couple of hours below. The two-day route follows part of a smuggler’s trail that continues to Tibet, where Bhutanese men in bleached jeans and knock-off Nike trainers guide pony trains laden with Chinese medicines, radios and DVD players. The trail passes through cloud forests draped with tendrils of moss, over ridges where trees have been contorted sideways by the prevailing winds and eagles drift far above. Beyond lie the sacred, unclimbed peaks of Bhutan’s tallest mountains, rising more than 7,000 metres and capped with snow throughout the year.
The trail opens onto a high plateau where yak herders seek shelter in winter and the Uma Paro hotel establishes a tented camp in the spring and summer. Guests spend the night in these gale-shaken tents before heading to the Tiger’s Nest at first light.
As dusk settles, the smoke of a warming bonfire mingles with flakes of snow dropping all around, our lungs aching from the altitude. Whispers turn to the mythical yetis that have been given their own national park in the east, and of a population of tigers recently tracked by government rangers within sight of this camp. For generations, monks living at the peak’s summit have told of watching a ghostly tigress stalk the surrounding plateau under the light of a full moon, wondering if they were witnessing the reappearance of the flying tigress once ridden by the founder of the Tiger’s Nest monastery.
A black billy goat with horns painted bright yellow has been dragged up here by two men seeking the karmic benefits of saving him from being slaughtered for a feast. They deliver the goat into the freedom of one of Bhutan’s most sacred high places, abandoning him to the wilderness in the process. He bleats pitifully all night, fearing unseen predators, desperately latching on to our party as we descend towards the Tiger’s Nest at dawn. A few hours later, the goat appears to express joy and relief at being handed over to some monks who tend a collection of similarly abandoned creatures in their idyllic mountainside farm. He will spend the rest of his days here, safely cloaked by the comfort of tradition, looking out over a country where the wild is always close at hand.
Ahead is the Tiger’s Nest, a shimmering monument with golden pinnacles to its rooftops set over stark, whitewashed walls that somehow cling to the cliff face. From the path where pilgrims gather to look on in awe, ropes bearing prayer flags in a rainbow of colours are strung over a deep gorge towards the monastery. These carry the wishes of believers off on the breeze, spiralling them across the valley beyond – full of hope for the present and wonder at a future once unimagined in this kingdom of the clouds.