I love going on treks.
For someone whose idea of exercise is a 5 minute walk to McDonald’s and a walk back with chicken nuggets and Coke, I really really enjoy going on treks. Most of my travel plans include destinations that involve trekking, hiking, long distance walking…basically movements my body/limbs/muscles are not familiar with and hence suffer brutally. All my travel conversations are punctuated with ‘You know that one time I went on this crazy trek and almost died’ with dramatic flourish.
I also love to inflict this torture upon people whose idea of vacationing includes ‘chilling on the beach’ and not chilling their butts off on treacherous ascents. In October 2014, my guinea pigs were my parents who thought they were going to Bhutan to relax in the lap of the magnificent Himalayas. What else can you expect from a country that celebrates happiness and peace of mind as the standard quality of life indicator? (Even though traditionalists now rue the fact that the cultural insularity of yesteryears in Bhutan is slowly making way for mainstream modernity-monks wearing shades, people sporting designer wear, retail cafes and Bollywood)
Taktsang Monastery trek is what you cannot expect.
I don’t normally use expletives in front of my parents (them being garden variety conservatives and all that). But en route to Taktsang, I found myself swearing every half an hour, the frequency and volume increasing as and when we were besieged by wild horses who appeared out of nowhere with complete disregard for personal safety, thereby leaving us hanging onto the trees for dear life. Looking back, these majestic, restless creatures were one of the highlights of the trail.
Our driver had pulled up at the parking lot and pointed out the monastery which didn’t feel very far away. He even assured us that we could do the climb and return in 4 hours. (More swearing had ensued when we remembered his words during the ascent. Who the hell gave him the permission to overestimate us?)
To be very honest, Taktsang is not even a very punishing walk. You don’t really need to brave steep rocks and ridges or dizzying heights. It is for the faint-hearted and avid trekkers alike; what it’s not is for lazy people who lack the patience of enduring long distance walking.
And it’s a mind-numbingly long walk.
One needs to reserve an entire day for the trek. We met travelers in peak shape who complained about the long ascent and how they couldn’t reach the monastery. Did wonders for our confidence!
The route runs through vertiginous mountains and Himalayan forests offering a spectacular view of Paro valley. It is really a wonderful way to experience the best of natural beauty Bhutan has to offer We could also catch occasional glimpses of the monastery which steeled our flagging resolve. But after 2 hours we were ready to throw in the towel. My parents were both well into their fifties with knee problems. And I suffered from a medical condition called Urban Yuppie Too Lazy To Exercise Hence Terribly Unfit.
Here’s something that happens to your brain at this moment. It simply shuts down. It refuses to listen to logic. It simply wants to quit trying. Scenic locales, spiritual spiel have no bearing on it whatsoever. There’s a degree of commitment required to walk to completion but your brain is ready to abandon ship at the tiniest sign of distress. It’s not an act of weakness. It’s a submission to fatigue and mindfuck.
“That’s when you need to tell your brain to shut up and keep moving. I don’t know how. You just do it.”
-advice from a friend and an avid long distance marathoner
What really pushes us to keep moving? Visualizing goals? Fear of failure? Point of no return? Triggers? Real motivation is difficult to come by in our daily lives, let alone on precarious trails in the middle of nowhere. Especially when you keep meeting people, a hundred times fitter than you, telling you that it’s a road to nowhere.
But I do remember meeting a 74 year old Filipino Buddhist man who kept trudging along with us. He looked patient, almost serene. Throughout the walk he did not complain once and spoke only when spoken to. At one point, when my brain told me to turn around and go back, he told my mother that it was 40% physical stamina coupled with 60% mental strength that kept him going. Sans judgment. In my 28 years of earthbound existence I had never met someone so zen and inspiring.
(To be honest, I wasn’t feeling much of this spiritual stuff in my bones. Maybe I was too fatigued to even consider turning back. I just wanted the damn trek to end so that I could sit down and cry)
Our first stop was a makeshift café where we had lunch & a staring contest with the monastery, & contemplated returning (most return from this point). If you’re ready to continue, it’s all uphill from this point. Non-existent roads, steep ascent, the ambient calm made 10 times scarier with very little sign of human presence. The 2nd and the last stop offers you unobstructed views of the monastery and 850 steps (up and down) that you must climb to reach the entrance.
As you start climbing, you will see colorful prayer flags fluttering in the wind. You will left awe-struck by the beauty of nature you will zone out completely and walk as if in a trance. Your legs will be ready to give away; your heart will be on the verge of collapsing. After a while we crossed a short bridge over a waterfall and walked 5 minutes uphill and we had arrived at the entrance to the monastery.
I don’t know about others but upon completing a particularly physically daunting task all I feel is numb. My mind goes blank; I feel detached from my surroundings as my brain struggles to register that I have done it. My mother almost collapsed at the entrance. My father, ever patient and a man of few words, was vocally thankful that it was over. And I sat and stared like a stoned idiot. The trek back down was equally tiring but uneventful. This time we were buoyed by our sense of achievement at reaching this milestone and didn’t mind the steep and seriously risky decline.
I will not bore you with the details of monastery itself and neither do I have photos to show you instead (photography is not allowed here). Because this story is not about that. This is the story of how an extremely unfit, easily demotivated, person overcame a whole new level of mindfuck and lived to tell the tale.