This is where the Guru Rinpoche landed on his flying Tigress, heralding a new age of Buddhism in Bhutan that has sustained throughout the ages and is now the only remaining sanctuary of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Legend has it when Guru Rinpoche heard the thunder booming through the high winds of the lofty Himalaya, he named this place Druk Yul – Land of the Thunder Dragon. The dzongh (temple-fortress) is almost 3000m up, around 900m from the valley floor. Up there the air is cold and dry. It's one thing I've noticed about this place. Dry air, fresh and cold. The lining of my nose has fallen to pieces. Something like this was bound to happen.
To get to the Tiger's Nest, you first walk through lush mixed woods. Pine suffuses the air. Fluffy green mosses hang from the branches and flutter in the breeze. Prayer flags are scattered amongst the trees, anywhere where wind can take the mantras and send them skyward. Every now and then a stack of prayer wheels invited your hand to brush against them. Fill the karma banks. Towards the end you walk out of the forest and into a cleft in the mountain, skirting a waterfall that terminates in a pile of snow that encroaches on the bridge. Every now and then the water carries snow with it and it crashes down around the path. It's really cold in this place where the sun does not reach and we all chill quickly before the threshold. At the entrance we are frisked for phones and cameras. Then you're in.
The rooms are all shrines to various enlightened ones. Pilgrims prostrate themselves before golden Buddhas, make offerings and take the waters. It makes perfect sense for me to do the same, and I do so. I have no idea who these deified people are, but it is sufficient for me to give thanks for the example set by the first Buddha. He taught that the ritualistic trappings of Buddhism must necessarily be discarded for enlightenment to be attained. The rituals in themselves are not the path, but they serve to remind those who stray easily from it and would like to keep close; signposts for the way, sticks to help them along. He also told us not to trust the words he left us, but to question them. Critical thinking, precisely what the purpose of education is. He also told us to think of death each day instead of fearing it.
Walking up the path to the Tiger's Nest, mindful of my steps and my breathing, I am reminded of all the places I've walked and I am grateful for the inclination to be a mountaineer and a hiker. My mind drifts back to dawn and dusk on the Cuillen Ridge on Skye, to the endless yellow arrows of the Camino de Santiago, to the glorious winter-summers of the high Alps, icy Scottish ice-climbs, the wild lands of Knoydart, multi-pitch Dolomite spikes and all the leafy dales and lanes of rural England - anywhere this quiet mind of steps has trodden. The world is full of glorious paths and life is mere steps to be taken one after the other, breath by mindful breath.