The horses were stamping, the pine needles whispering in the wind when we arrived at the trailhead to climb to Taktsang, The Tiger’s Nest. We rode horses without reins, which was slightly disturbing for those of us who had ridden before. I had no control of my animal and could only cling to the leather lip of the saddle. The horses wandered loose after each other and our Bhutanese horse wranglers walked alongside us clicking, and prodding the ponies every few yards.
The pine forests felt and smelled like Colorado, but with our guide walking alongside us in his puffed robe (called a gho) and knee socks, I felt like I was riding through a scene in Robin Hood. White-washed shrines and prayer flags had been draped through the trees where glacial streams flowed down from the mountain. There were women in the woods selling Mandalas and prayer beads on blankets. The trail made of hard-packed orange dirt switch-backed up through the forests, opening up to deeply gouged valleys. Thunder beams sliced through storm clouds. The pines shivered. White haze rolled in and soon stinging rain was biting our bare skin as our horses mounted the first plateau. This is where we left our horses.
The rain now had crystals of ice in it even as the sun raged through and a rainbow bowed over the valley. At the crest of this plateau, a giant prayer wheel the size of a merry-go-round, creaked slowly in circles. A net of prayer flags called lung tra (“wind horse”) had been cast in a wide net of tangled sails against the sky. There was a fantastic view of the Tiger’s Nest from here, built high on the streaked cliff. The sky had split open now—bright sun, ocean blue storm clouds, the air painfully clear.
Coming around the bend, the Tiger’s Nest was poised directly at eye level, built into the rock face like a swallow’s nest. Prayer flags were suspended across the chasm like colorful gossamer spider threads. A waterfall leapt from a lip of rock high above our heads, the water flinging itself into a bank of snow. We climbed down the stairs, ducking under prayer flags that brushed our forehead. I literally couldn’t keep myself from gasping out loud, unable to believe the setting I was climbing into. Gold dragon tongues licked the wind from the eaves of the temples built into the cliff. Snow frosted the crests of the distant mountains. We took off our shoes and spun the cogs of ancient prayer wheels. We were the last visitors to come just before dusk.
A monk led us from temple to temple, climbing under the eaves of the dragons. Our socks on cold stones, such quietness. It was strange to feel the weather of being on the wall of a mountain, but at the same time ducking under curtains before gold gods. Some deities rode tigers, mad eyes filled with a sense of power. The tigers paws crushing the bodies of jealousy and attachment beneath it, a sash of scorpions slung around the god’s neck. For being a static statue, it felt alive, sending shivers running down my spine. We sat cross-legged at its feet. The altar was festooned with gold, pressed into reliefs of flickering dragons. Peacock feathers fluted on ornate teapots, butter lamps burning plumes of thick sweet smoke. The monk poured holy water into our hands. We slurped and through the droplets over our foreheads. It burned with the fragrance of eucalyptus.
It was time to go now, darkness swiftly thickening and we still had yet to climb down from the Tiger’s Nest. None of us wanted to leave this magic place, but the breeze at sunset was biting, promising cold as night came. As we descended from this sacred nest, we kept looking back at the lights piercing the sky as they came on with the stars. I couldn’t help but think that it was so high, it could be one of the constellations.