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Snowman Trek4

Bhutan Snowman Trek — Adventure in the High Himalayas

Writ­ten by Expe­di­tion Leader Deana Zabal­do, this blog is the first in a series which will take you through the towns we vis­it and the peo­ple we meet on this extra­or­di­nary trek. Com­mon­ly referred to as the world’s hard­est trek, this trip is filled not only with gor­geous scenery but unique, up close and per­son­al cul­tur­al expe­ri­ences as well. Read on to start the trek from your arm­chair, and let Deana take you on the trip of a life­time. Enjoy, and keep your eyes open for the next post! 

Our Snow­man Trek began in the west­ern town of Paro with a cul­tur­al and reli­gious ori­en­ta­tion to Bhutan, as well as phys­i­cal acclima­ti­za­tion to high­er alti­tude. We explored the town’s dzong, a mas­sive stone monastery-fortress which helped defend and uni­fy this Bud­dhist nation. Today, it’s home to over 100 monks and also hous­es civ­il admin­is­tra­tion offices for the dis­trict. This merg­ing of Bud­dhist prac­tice with man­age­ment of civ­il affairs has been going on since the 16th-cen­tu­ry and is direct­ly relat­ed to why Bhutan is one of the hap­pi­est places on earth. The first code of laws was writ­ten by a Bud­dhist teacher, and the gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues to apply Bud­dhist prin­ci­ples in practice.

In the evening, we vis­it­ed one of Bhutan’s old­est tem­ples, spin­ning prayer wheels and light­ing 108 but­ter lamps to spread bless­ings to all sen­tient beings and to ask for an aus­pi­cious journey.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing, we hiked 1,500 feet up into the moun­tains to the famous Tiger’s Nest, a com­plex of tem­ples and caves impos­si­bly built onto the side of a moun­tain. The Tiger’s Nest is named for the 8th-cen­tu­ry sage Pad­masamb­ha­va and his Tantric partner/​consort, Yeshe Tso­gyal, who took the form of a Tigress in their med­i­ta­tions. They were the first to med­i­tate in these remote caves, doing deep Tantric visu­al­iza­tion prac­tice, dis­pers­ing neg­a­tive ener­gies in the val­ley, and bring­ing Bud­dhism to the ear­ly peo­ple of Bhutan. Many impor­tant sages and spir­i­tu­al mas­ters fol­lowed them and used these caves for retreat and rev­e­la­tions across the centuries.

The Tiger’s Nest remains an impor­tant pil­grim­age site because Padmasambhava’s teach­ings and insights are the foun­da­tion for all of Tibetan Bud­dhism, includ­ing the teach­ings of the Dalai Lama. Sto­ries abound of Padmasambhava’s trav­els through the Himalayas, spread­ing Bud­dhism on a time­line that spans mul­ti­ple life­times and an impos­si­ble swathe of geog­ra­phy. He was a real his­tor­i­cal fig­ure, but it’s dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish where his­to­ry ends and leg­ends begin. In Bud­dhist cul­tures, teach­ings and wis­dom are often more impor­tant than a lin­ear notion of time, so Bud­dhism is flex­i­ble about the chronol­o­gy of events. Padmasambhava’s life across mul­ti­ple cen­turies is taught as his­to­ry in the pub­lic schools. His spir­i­tu­al prac­tices in these moun­tains came to define a reli­gion that con­tin­ues to shape our own think­ing hun­dreds of years and half a world away.

The famous Tiger’s Nest built onto the side of a moun­tain and held there by the hair of daki­nis, fem­i­nine sky dancers, who are believed to have car­ried the con­struc­tion mate­ri­als up the cliff cen­turies ago. (When the tem­ples burned down in an elec­tri­cal fire in 1998, Bhutan had to rely on more mod­ern meth­ods for the rebuild, includ­ing a steel cable car from the val­ley floor 1,500 feet below — but they dis­man­tled it after con­struc­tion because a pil­grim­age to the tem­ples should require effort to help cleanse you of any sins.)

In Bud­dhism, a rit­u­al bless­ing is a pre­req­ui­site before any major jour­ney or under­tak­ing, so after tour­ing the cap­i­tal, we rose ear­ly one morn­ing and drove to a near­by nun­nery. Our group and some of our trekking staff were seat­ed in a dim­ly lit hall, the walls paint­ed with fiery deities and serene Bud­dhas, and the altar stuffed with enor­mous stat­ues, orna­ments, food, flow­ers, offer­ing bowls, water ves­sels, incense, mon­ey, rice, jew­el­ry, and pho­tos of impor­tant reli­gious teach­ers. Tibetan Bud­dhist tem­ples are a col­or­ful cacoph­o­ny of sym­bol­ic items and images, which stand in ornate con­trast to the sim­ple lives of the monas­tics who prac­tice there daily.

The nuns were seat­ed in lines along one side of the hall, and we were seat­ed in a line along the oth­er. They chant­ed in Tibetan, ask­ing the god­dess Tara for pro­tec­tion, as we sat qui­et­ly con­tem­plat­ing the present moment and the jour­ney ahead. We all drank steam­ing tea that a nun poured into mugs before us. At the end of the cer­e­mo­ny, the rank­ing nun placed silky white prayer shawls around our necks and gave us sacred threads to wear for pro­tec­tion. We in turn made an offer­ing of tea and food to the monastery and walked down the line of red-robed nuns with shaved heads, giv­ing a dona­tion to each of them one-by-one as is tra­di­tion­al. Par­tic­i­pat­ing in the rit­u­al, rather than observ­ing it from afar, was an expe­ri­ence that stayed with us long after we left the room, the town, the country. 

2020 Dates: Sep­tem­ber 30-Octo­ber 28

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