Today was pretty amazing. In town visiting Strassfeld and Eric, we skipped out on the Paro Tsechu and tried to hike to Taksin monastery, otherwise known as Tiger's Nest, otherwise known as the steepest slope in the world with a building on it. Unlike the tourists, though, we weren't taking the lame path off the road. We were going to try and reach it from the other side of the mountain. That means summitting the mountain and climbing down to Taksin from above. The monks weren't going to know what hit them.
Well, we failed. Luckily, at around 3:30, already dead tired from a long ascent and a general lack of available oxygen, we ran into a 20-person hiking party of Bhutanese people who informed us that Taksin was 4 or 5 hours away--meaning our attempted trek was about a 10 hour one, not the "easy" hike we'd been promised. Still, it was unbelievable--Zeb should be posting the pictures soon. Highlights include sightings of mountain goats and visiting a remote mountainside monastery in which we inched across rickety part-broken boards over a 100-foot drop to reach a former residence of Guru Rinpoche, the spiritual father of Bhutan, where we drank from a vat of water blessed by his proximity. Imagine hiking up a sheer face for three hours to discover a tiny outcropping of houses, being led to a tiny cave, and having someone tell you, "Oh yeah! Jesus used to live here. Hey, there's some holy water in his former house. You want some? Go ahead, fill up your bottle!" That's exactly what it was equivalent to. All in all, one of the more memorable hikes of my life.
Oh, yeah. The monastery had solar panels on its roof.
Maybe more memorable than the hike itself were the continual gifts of human faith we keep receiving, unbidden, almost every day we reside in this country. Strass tends to romanticize things, but one refrain of his--"Bhutanese people are the nicest people one Earth"--may be literally true. Two things that happened to us today:
First, we didn't know the exact route to the base of the mountain. Our attempted route involved cutting through people's property. At one small house, we greeted a woman washing clothes, who asked us where we were going. "Taksin," we told here. She spoke little English, but it was clear she wanted to point out that we had no idea where we were going. After some awkward gesturing, she screamed something into the house, and a child of around 12 emerged. With great effort, she turned to us and mustered in her best English: "Take this my son with you." With great humility, we followed this boy as he led us over gates and across rice paddies for twenty minutes to the base of the trail. We offered him some money, which he refused, even though he had every reason to assume we were tourists, and thus both rich and clueless.
Almost immediately after he left us, we came upon an old woman walking through the forest. She vocalized fervently in Dzongkha for a while and pointed towards the woods; we thought we had somehow already gotten lost. We tried some simple phrases on her, but there was to be absolutely no communication this time. After some fraught moments of silence, she motioned for us to follow her but stay behind.
Some thirty feet in front of us stood a herd of cows. At its front was a humongous bull, locked in battle with a smaller cow as we first saw it. This alpha male bull quickly fought off its challenger and stamped its feet, kicking and snorting, in a murderous temper.
We stared in amazement as this bent woman picked up a stick off the ground and headed straight for the enraged beast. Yelling, the woman waved the stick at the bull, landing a couple of solid blows. The bull, a fearsome force of nature, took off stampeding into the trees, with most of the herd following behind it.
The woman calmly walked up to us with a smile that said, "you understand?" We were speechless. Then she insisted on giving us a parting gift of hardened yak cheese as she sent us on our way. Why wouldn't an old woman confront a violent 1000-pound animal to help some foreign strangers? It's the nice thing to do.
It wasn't lost on me that we had these experiences as a consequence of skipping the Paro Tsechu, an important cultural celebration that masses tourists to come and get an 'authentic' view of Bhutanese life via traditional dances that are performed once a year. We were talking about not going to the tsechu, and one of said something to the effect of, "tourists don't know how bad they have it here. The culture is nice and all, but the whole reason this place is special is how the people treat each other. You can't really experience it without living here."
Which we are.