In the final installment of the epic Druk Path Diaries, Fahd Abu Aisha completes his journey and experiences the contrast between Bhutan and Nepal.
Day 8, November 6th: The Tiger’s Nest
I hopped out of bed and got all dolled up in my Gho – with the help of the hotel staff naturally. Tashi and the Driver were there to receive me in the reception as I showed off my outfit, gliding down the lobby stairs à la Rachel Leigh Cook in ‘She’s All That’. We drove to the base of the mountain which the stunning monastery was built into.
It was a moderately challenging 90 minute walk up the slopes. My quadriceps and calves were still aching, their memories from the Druk Path still singeing with exhaustion, but the hike up was worth every pinch my muscles endured.
Legend has it that the Tibetan Buddhist Saint Guru Padmasambhava flew across the Himalayas on the back of a tiger – who happened to be his wife transformed. He landed on the side of the mountain where he meditated in a cave to subdue the demons and negative energy in the country and brought Buddhism to Bhutan. The monastery was built around the cave in which he is said to have meditated in.
I saw five rooms in the monastery; two dedicated to Guru with large statues of him guarded by beautifully decorated altars. Yet another Bhutanese legend I eagerly absorbed, was that one of these statues was originally located in another monastery in the country. One day the statue spoke, simply stating his rightful place was at ‘The Tiger’s Nest.’ When the people tried to move the statue up the mountain – on the very same trail I had climbed – they stopped about halfway and contemplated cutting the statue in two to lighten the load. The statue then spoke again, demanding they leave it there. The local deity of the monastery then moved the statue to its proper place in the temple. When an infamous fire broke out in the monastery in 1999, due to a lamp burning out, the one artifact that remained untouched by the vicious flames was that statue.
The third room was a Chorten – a Buddhist shrine- dedicated to Guru’s most famous disciple. The disciple had died in Tibet, but the local deity again magically whisked his body to this room, burying him under the Chorten. The final two rooms were dedicated to the God of Wealth and the God of Long Life with beautiful imagery adorning their walls and magnificent statues of the deities sat powerfully behind the altars.
We then descended down a very claustrophobic cave, where ahead of the blackness lay an altar. Tashi explained that this tunnel was part of the cave that Guru meditated in but the rest was sealed off and open to the public once a year. Unfortunately for us, visiting hours were closed.
After, we headed halfway down the mountain for lunch at the Folk Heritage Restaurant, which had a sensational view of the mountain and the monastery. They say you can see Guru’s face sculpted in the mountain and I believe I did; his large eyes (two concaved depressions in the mountain face) looming over the city of Paro. We headed back down to the car and that concluded all strenuous and effort-related exercise for the remainder of the trip.
My journey came full circle at the Ta Dzong, which as you may recall was the starting point for the Druk Path trek where we embarked on the first day. The Ta Dzong used to be the watchtower for the Dzong that would alert the city of any invaders. It had now been converted into a national museum with displays of colourful and vibrant masks, weapons and tools used for farming and the home, screens playing videos of their various energetic dances. Following our stop at the Ta Dzong we visited the Paro Dzong, which – like the one in Thimpu – had an administrative building and the monastery where the monks resided. We enjoyed the views of the city from its terraces, the last picturesque mental and phone captured image to forever be ingrained in my memory. We went back to the hotel to prepare my bags for the long trip back home.
Day 9, November 7th: Nepal En Route to Dubai
I woke up feeling dejected. Bhutan had been an eye opening experience and I did not want to leave this beautiful country just yet. After mournfully saying my goodbyes to the wonderful and hospitable hotel staff, Tashi picked me up and drove me to the airport. I thanked him again for sharing his country with me before I walked out onto the tarmac and took a few small steps into the plane.
I made sure to look out of the window as the plane pulled up at an absurdly vertical angle, the belly edging over the mountains that I had conquered a few days earlier. Twenty minutes into our short flight later, the captain of the plane requested we look out of the right side of the plane windows (which I was luckily seated by) to the peak of Everest jutting through the clouds; a frothy mouthed ridge sitting on a white desert. The sight evoked a fantastical hallucination; myself mounted atop that glorious mountain – waving back at somebody in the plane sitting in the seat I was sat quivering in.
It was difficult to avoid the glaring distinction between Bhutan and Nepal. Nepal was suffering. Motorcycles, cars, buses were queued up on the side of the highway, kilometer after kilometre leading to a petrol station. Anguish and frustration added to the cloudy density of the atmosphere. Hundreds of Nepalese citizens stood by their vehicles in fear of a queue intruder. The city was so densely populated (4 million people) and the sky was grey, rife with pollution. It reminded me a little of home in Cairo.
However, the most tragic and haunting of scenes passing through were that of the ruins the earthquake had left behind 7 months ago. I felt the consequences of that fateful day much more intensely once I reached the old city of Bhaktapur. Many of its traditional 3 and 4 storey houses stood half demolished. The once magnificent temples now lay strewn in pieces of defeated debris. The pictures we sifted through over tea of the city pre and post-earthquake were overwhelmingly soul shattering and heartbreaking.
Durbar Square was the main square in the Old City and it was where the striking ‘Fifty Five Windows Palace’ was situated. Built around five centuries ago, the palace is on the verge of dilapidation, having suffered horrifically during the earthquake in 1934 and the more recent one. Adjacent to the palace stands the impressive Golden Gate, dating back to 1754, which was built by then King RanajitMalla. We had lunch on the rooftop terrace with a view of the ancient city overlooking the Palace and its Royal Baths. My anticipation of eating the pizza that this particular restaurant was famous for was sadly deflated when I read the header of the menu: ‘Due to the cooking gas shortage we only have the following…’ I settled for a cheese sandwich instead.
Our final stop in the Old City was to a healing bowl shop, where a young shopkeeper explained their functions and the process of using them. When the bowls are struck they emit rather strong vibrations, which are said to cure headaches and other sorts of pains within the body. He gave me a demonstration, placing the bowl against my back and striking it. It felt like I was sitting in a massage chair, as tantalising vibrations rolled soothingly up and down my spine.
It was getting late and we had to get back to the airport. As we walked through the ancient streets to the car, it was difficult for me experiencing the hardship that these people had been enduring. This feeling was further aroused when I spotted the kilometres of vehicle lines parked by the side of the highway waiting to fuel up. My journey back to Dubai was reminiscent of the day-to-day lives of the population of Nepal. Upon check in, the electricity blew out in the entire airport just as my bag hit the conveyor belt. After we were finally ready and tucked away safely on board, our plane then had to take a detour into the mountains in India to refuel at an impromptu airplane gas station.
I did not have sufficient time to explore Nepal thoroughly but I hope I will return one day and hopefully see this country restored to its former glory. I visited two very different countries, initially thinking they would be more or less the same. It was an engaging and thought provoking adventure that altered my perceptions on life by a certain degree. It instilled an appreciation for the importance of being ‘good’, establishing harmony and working together cohesively amongst our fellow man in order to achieve greatness, no matter who we are or how differently we think.
Words + Photos by: Fahd Abu Aisha