This is a personal essay that I wrote for a non-fiction writing class. I thought some of you might find it interesting.
Tiger’s Nest Monastery sits about six miles north of Paro town, perched on the side of a mountain. Reaching the monastery is a two mile hike, with seventeen hundred feet in elevation gain. The path is a combination of hard, rocky earth and more than seven hundred stone stairs. Tiger’s nest is a holy place. It is built around a cave where the Guru Rinpoche sat and meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days, and three hours. The first temple was erected there in the Guru’s honor by a distant cousin of the mad saint Drukpa Kunley in the seventeenth century. The original complex was destroyed by fire in 1998 and rebuilt and restored in 2005, but you can still feel the weight of veneration in the stones and timbers.
It was part way up those seven hundred steps that I realized I wasn’t going to reach the monastery on my own. I fell behind our group, and one of our guides came to walk beside me. I fell further behind, and he took my hand, helping me up the steps. Once we reached the top, we removed our shoes and climbed the Bhutanese stairs – which were more like a slanted ladder – into the monastery proper. We walked silently on stocking-feet across the old wood floors, looking at the murals in the monastery complex. We were ushered into a line of people, and at the head of that line was a small man in monk’s robes seated in an ornately carved wooden chair.
He poured water into my cupped hands with a dipper, and I smoothed the water over my head, as I had seen those before me do. I looked up at him, searching for confirmation that this was the right thing to do. He smiled and gave me a small nod.
I was still shining and damp-headed from the monk’s blessing when we left the monastery. I was worse on the way back. The guide who helped me down the stairs assured me that I was a “good work horse” as he held me up. I babbled to him about how ashamed I was of my weakness, and he smiled.
To the right of the path were dozens of small clay objects; mini-stupas. Objects of mourning, made of clay and the ground bones of the dead. Each one was a corpse, anonymous but not alone, left to weather away in the wind and rain. I didn’t know it then, but I was already sick.
Mount Cholmohari sits on the border with Tibet, rising to 24,000 feet above sea level, the second highest peak in Bhutan. The Bhutanese do not allow people to climb their mountains. The mountains are sacred. Cholmohari has been climbed just seven times, claiming three lives in a 1970 attempt. It is home to goddesses and a sign post on the road to Mount Everest. We camped south of it, so over the next two days I would get to see it lit by alpenglow at both sunset and sunrise.
This was our third day on trek, and I was unable to complete even the first day’s hike.
They had put me on a little mountain pony, straddling a wooden pack saddle laid with blankets to make it more comfortable. They tied rope stirrups for my feet, and I had to squeeze hard with my legs whenever the pony went up or downhill to keep my seat.
I slid off the back of the pony when we reached Cholmohari base camp, and our guides helped me to a folding chair. I sat, at the edge of a tiny creek. Yaks wandered the pasture on the other side. I thought of nothing. I was exhausted. The trek guides worked on setting up the camp behind me.
When the rest of the trekking party appeared around a bend in the trail, they looked like a line of ants. I watched them walk in.
I was laying in my tent. The presence of the mountain throbbed in my mind, radiating so powerfully from the north that I imagined I could feel the gravity of its bulk pulling me toward it. Outside, the soft voices of our trek mates having conversations I could not follow. I imagined that they were talking about me. It was around thirty degrees out and lightly snowing. The cool air felt good, and I squirmed out of my coat. I dozed, and was transported to the dark and smoky dzong near Paro where we had listened in stunned silence as the monks drummed and sang. The music, like the mountain, had a gravity that I couldn’t deny. At the time I’d longed to be able to record it, but that wasn’t necessary. Even now, when I can’t remember the sound of it, I know that music has burrowed its way into me, changing me.
My sister scraped at the tent entrance. I roused from my half-sleep, sweating.
“Can I come in?”
“Sure,” I said, pushing myself into a sitting position.
She unzipped the tent flap and stepped in, not bothering to remove her shoes. She knelt on my sleeping pad, zipping the tent up behind her.
“How are you feeling?”
She eyed me. “You should sleep in your sleeping bag.”
“It’s too warm,” I said.
There was a moment of silence.
“So I think you have pneumonia,” she said.
“Okay,” I said. She’s a doctor; I tend to give her the benefit of the doubt in these situations.
“And I don’t think you’re going to get better until you’re inside somewhere warm.”
“Okay. So what does that look like?”
“Well, I borrowed a satellite phone, and the closest place that can send a helicopter is India, and it would cost fifty thousand dollars.”
“We can do it if we have to. The travel insurance would cover it. But I think if you can, we should hike out.”
“Okay,” I said. My heart sank. I could get up and wander around base camp, I could get to the mess tent for meals, but I wasn’t up to even the short day hikes around the area that the rest of the trekking group had been taking.
She dug around in the pockets of her down jacket and pulled out two orange pill bottles.
“This is an antibiotic, and this is prednisolone.”
“Those are the dog’s antibiotics,” I said, eyeing the black canine silhouette on the label.
“Don’t worry, he doesn’t need them anymore,” she said.
She opened the first bottle and handed me a big, oval shaped pill. She opened the second bottle and handed me four round flat pills.
“We’ll ramp up the prednisolone over the next few days until we’re back in town,” she said. “It’ll help give you the strength for the hike.”
“I’ve been on prednisolone before,” I said. I took the pills, one after the other, with water from my water bottle.
“When do we leave?” I asked.
“We’ll head out when the rest of the group leaves to go over the pass.”
“So the morning after tomorrow?”
The first day of our evacuation hike from Cholmohari Base Camp was a blur. I woke up in my tent in a yak pasture the next morning. I dressed quickly in the chill air and packed up all my personal belongings. The hike was originally supposed to be three days to cover nearly twenty miles, but it had been shortened to two. We had been sent with insufficient provisions. Today was going to be our long hike, the one that would take us back to the nearest road.
I unzipped the door to the tent and the farm dog curled up at the entrance lifted its head. I pet it. It got up, stretched, and trotted away. I tossed my duffel bag out onto the frozen ground.
The guides brought us tea in plastic mugs. My sister handed me eight of the small round pills. The steroids. “I don’t want to go any further,” I told her.
“We have to,” she said. “Take your prednisolone and lace up your boots.”
“When we get back to town I can stop taking this, right?”
My fever had broken. I hated the prednisolone. I hated it every time I had to take it. It made me irritable.
“We’ll see,” she said.
I laced up my boots.
As we hiked, I was distracted by skull-shapes in the shadows and the stones on the trail. Not the terrifying death’s heads of the west, but quiet watchers, their empty eyes holding vigil from the edge of the path.
The sound of an old woman singing followed me down the trail.
When my right knee gave out underneath me, I sank slowly to the ground. I clenched the trekking poles in my hands, kneeling in the dust. Nobody pestered me to get up and keep going. They just stood behind me silently, waiting. I took a few deep breaths and pushed myself back to my feet. I reminded myself to lead with my left foot from then on.
We stopped on a sunny hillside for a lunch of mango jam and butter sandwiches and a single hot boiled potato. That potato tasted like heaven. My sister is allergic to mangoes.
I remember looking down from the trail into the blue-green water of the Paro river, and thinking I could just fall into the water and die. It wasn’t deep enough to drown in, but maybe I would hit my head, or the hypothermia would get me before anyone could reach me.
We reached the pickup point, a flat expanse of gravel surrounding a stupa. A place where the roads end. My sister grinned, I took a photo of her by the stupa. Our guides sat me in a folding chair and brought out cookies and hot chocolate while we waited. The cookies tasted like sand to me.
We were picked up about an hour after our arrival. I dragged myself into the van. I half slept on the way back, snippets of conversation in English and in Dzongkha drifted in and out of my awareness. Nothing made sense.
It was dark when we arrived at Paro town. Our rooms were on the third floor, and I struggled up the stairs on ruined knees and ruined lungs. We would leave for Thimphu tomorrow. I would see a doctor there.
The City of Thimpu.
The city of Thimphu is the capital of Bhutan, and it, like the rest of this region of the country, is made of stone. It rests in a river valley at over seven thousand feet elevation, the fourth highest national capital in the world. Wild cannabis grows on the hillsides, and in the mountains sits the Great Buddha Dordenma, more than a hundred and fifty feet tall and gleaming with gold. Below the golden Buddha, migrant workers from India break rocks by hand and build roads, living in tin shacks along the highway.
I’m standing on my hotel balcony, smoking a cigarette. Below me, the city with its stone buildings and their stone roofs, abutting stone streets. I don’t know if our hotel is the tallest building in the city, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were. Jackdaws flit from roof to roof. Stray dogs bark and whine.
The buildings are a mish-mash of graceful traditional architecture and cement blocks that remind me of buildings in former soviet states, squat and anonymous. Bhutan is a country modernizing in a hurry and on a shoestring budget. Thimphu once had a single stoplight, but the locals didn’t like it and it was quickly removed.
I am a few days back from our catastrophic trek.
This is my last day off before I return to the exhausting schedule of tourism planned by our guides. I spent last night carefully draining the blisters on my feet with a needle and some alcohol pads. I was off the steroids, but had more pills to take from the hospital in Bhutan, where the doctor noted that in addition to respiratory illness, I had hepatitis. The pills were to support liver function.
Smoking in public is illegal in Bhutan, and breaking this law earns you scowls from the locals. As such, smoking makes me nervous, as the balcony feels like a strange space in between public and private. The smoke burns my healing lungs, but I am painfully aware that during the day I will not be able to smoke at all, so I make the most of it. I sit sagging on the side of one of the lounge chairs, still weak, my knees stiff and sore.
As the sun sets, the dogs set up their chorus below – they are most active at dusk and dawn, like so many wild things – and the smell of the city changes from stone to wood smoke. I long for the quiet of Paro, for its dusty streets and smiling children. I long for home, with its sea-level atmosphere and soft rains. I long for my younger self, who would have been up to the trek.