Reaching the Tiger’s Nest

 Ross Mackenzie heads to the eastern end of the Himalayas to visit the real Shangri La


“Not much further now."  Sonam was always encouraging.  "Just keep going.”

We were slowly climbing through the trees towards the Taktshang Goemba, the Tiger’s Nest.  Every few minutes we got a tantalising glimpse of the glistening white temple clinging to a sheer cliff-face high above.

The Taktshang monastery is over 10,000 feet above sea level at the eastern end of the Himalayas in the isolated Kingdom of Bhutan.  While Nepal was becoming a standard fixture on the 1960s hippy trail around the Indian sub-continent, Bhutan remain aloof.  For many years it was impossible to get permission to visit Bhutan, and even now tourism is tightly controlled.  Bhutan still isn’t open to independent travellers, but does now welcome small groups of tourists provided they are looked after by a local guide.

Our escort was Sonam.  A quiet softly-spoken young man from the Trashigang District at the eastern end of Bhutan, always keen that we understood both the history of Bhutan and what it means to live in a Buddhist country.   His patience in retelling stories about each temple was endless, and when he spotted the bird guidebook we were carrying his eyes lit up and after that he came to life whenever there was an unusual bird to point out to us.

Like almost every tourist visiting Bhutan we arrived on Druk Air – the only airline regularly flying into the country.  Other airlines keep away from a final approach that weaves through steep wooded slopes to the short high-altitude runway at Paro, perhaps not quite believing the assurance in the in-flight magazine that the ‘mountains aren’t as close as they appear’. 

Bhutan’s self-enforced isolation has allowed it to retain customs and traditions found in few other countries.  It is the last of the Asian Buddhist kingdoms, but even here there is some change.  Ten years ago the country was still ruled by an absolute, if benign, monarch.   It is now a constitutional monarchy, albeit one still adhering to Buddhist principles.  Every new government policy is examined in terms of how it will improve the Gross National Happiness of the people. 

The isolation has also ensured the development of characteristic architecture, the retention of archery as the national sport, and perhaps most surprisingly the presence of chili as a key element of the Bhutanese diet. The signature dish on most menus is the innocuous-looking ema datse, a cheese sauce hiding a very generous helping of chili peppers.

The most obvious landmarks in Bhutan are the dzongs which stand over the fields in the lush green valleys.  The fortress-like dzongs with their orange and white walls, high wood-roofed watch-towers and enclosed courtyards are both monasteries and office buildings.  And outside every office you’ll see men in their traditional knee-length checkered gho with, on formal occasions, a pale sash slung over the left shoulder – the Bhutanese ‘jacket and tie’.

Any trip to Bhutan is going to include numerous visits to monasteries and at least a little bit of trekking. For many visitors the high point of their stay is combining the two by climbing to the Tiger’s Nest, Bhutan's ‘must-do’ attraction.  In most countries this would guarantee hoards of people and souvenir sellers. Not in Bhutan.  The trek up to Bhutan’s ‘must-do’ site is carefully protected – requiring locals to wear national dress when they visit.

In legend, privileged visitors get to soar to the monastery on the back of a flying tiger.  We, like most others, needed to struggle up the path from the valley.

Just ten minutes from the start, a gap in the trees gives us our first encouragement in a glimpse of the brightly sun-lit temple nearly 2000 feet above.  And back along the valley below a checker-board of farms, houses, temples and of course dzongs. 

Along the pathway I was thankful to find rest-stops offering soft drinks and Bhutanese tea, and yet more grateful to meet an old man immaculately dressed in an orange gho proffering a walking stick to help me carry on up through the increasingly thin air. 

Further along the path, prayer wheels appear festooned with strings of red, yellow, green, white and blue prayer flags.  These provide prayer stops to let the faithful to ask for help in completing the climb, and give the gasping tourist another perfect excuse to rest and take photographs.

Finally, after a little more encouragement from Sonam, we reached a rocky outcrop providing an eye-level view across to the monastery clinging improbably onto the rock, in legend attached to the cliff-face by the hairs of angels.  A rainbow of prayer flags shaded the steps down into a deep chasm, holding a sparkling waterfall and the peaceful Snow Lion Cave – still used as a meditation retreat – before we climbed to the gates into the welcome shade of the monastery.

The red-clad monks welcomed us into the complex,  each ready to tell us the story of the monastery and the people who’ve lived here over its 400-years.  The buildings guard the entry to a cluster of sacred caves and grottos in the cliff face each dedicated to a famous figure or story in Bhutanese mythology.  Away from the caves, we spend a peaceful few minutes listening to the winds whistling through the balconies of the monastery with the soft chants of the monks in the background, before retracing our steps back past the still-spinning prayer wheels towards the valley floor. 

Our visit to the Taktshang Goemba, like most other experiences in Bhutan, has improved our Gross Happiness and we’ve earned a dish of ema datse, and maybe a bottle or two of Red Panda, Bhutan’s local beer.

Is Bhutan really Shangri-La?  There are lots of hidden valleys tucked away in the Himalayas claiming the Shangri-La tag.  For me the grandeur of the Bhutanese landscape and the welcoming generosity of the Bhutanese people make it a very strong contender.

Ross travelled to Bhutan with Cox and King's, flying from London to Kathmandu via Delhi with Jet Airways, and to Paro with Druk Air.  The local ground arrangements were provided by Blue Poppy Bhutan, and the itinerary included Thimphu, Paro, Trongsa, Punakha and the Bumthang Valley.

Polar Fever

Ross Mackenzie has been talking to himself again…

So when did the malady first appear?
The first evidence of an outbreak of polar fever was when I was at school.  I felt drawn to do projects on exploration and science in the Antarctic. Fortunately the symptoms seem to have been at least temporarily calmed by an intense application of books and visits to libraries.

And the first recurrence?
Was when I was finishing a physics degree.  I got as far as filling out the paperwork to join the British Antarctic Survey, but for reasons that escape me now, it seemed like a good idea to volunteer to spend three years sitting in small dark rooms at Bristol University rather than overwintering in small dark rooms in the Antarctic.

Did that get it out of your system?
It certainly seemed to have done, until late 2006.  I’d been doing quite a lot of travelling to hot places and there seemed to be a reaction, initially appearing as an urge to drive north at the slightest provocation.  I once got as far as the Arctic Circle before I was able to turn the car round.  My first attempt to properly address the problem by visiting was to book a trip on the MS Nordkapp from Ushuaia down to the Antarctic Peninsula in early 2007.  That plan ran aground, as did the Nordkapp, and my trip was cancelled at short notice.

So, what did that do to the symptoms?
Made them much worse.  After consultation, my travel agent agreed that there was no alternative therapy other than to arrange treatment in both the Arctic and Antarctic as a matter of urgency.  So in summer 2007 I flew north to Greenland to see icebergs, and in autumn south to Ushuaia to attempt to see real ice.  Of course that southern trip wasn’t without tensions.  The fear, and the fever, that my first peninsula trip would be pulled away again was triggered by getting the news, as I waited to fly south from Santiago to Ushuaia, that another polar ship (this time the MS Explorer) had foundered in the Bransfield strait just north of the peninsula.

That must have been a bit scary?
Not as scary for me and my fellow travellers as for the passengers and crew on the Explorer.  They were all rescued, and we paid much more attention in the safety briefing than we might have done otherwise.

And was the trip worthwhile?
Absolutely.  The polar fever symptoms cleared completely as we crossed the Drake Passage, and the first penguins came into view. 

So, did that get it out of your system?
Um, No.  I think the symptoms came back as the boat lurched back across the Drake Passage heading northwards.

I suppose the next fix was to see if going all the way North sorted the problem.
Yes, that was right.  Although I did experiment by visiting the Falkland Island to see if they were remote enough to calm the symptoms, before going to northern Norway and then to Svalbard in 2010 to see if polar bears were sufficient to chase the symptoms away.  Again the relief of symptoms was only temporary.

What were you left with as the next remedy?
I tried another course of intensive travel going all the way to South Georgia, not quite Antarctica but well inside the Antarctic Convergence, then quickly up to the real Nordkapp (as opposed to the ship) at the northern tip of Norway.  Again the relief from the urge to be in polar places was temporary.

Have you given up trying to find a cure?
Absolutely not.  I haven’t tried going to the Northwest Passage yet. So that’s the next course of treatment.  But I’m not optimistic that even that will cure me, so I’ve already started planning for another southern remedy.

Have you considered hypnotherapy rather than air miles?

2012: The North Called

At the end of 2011, I was picking my way through the wall of images I’d taken in the South Atlantic in November and December and reflecting on the first half of my ‘temporary escape’ from meetings and daily commuting.  I had three months of clear time before the office called me back – and I could (with a few budgetary constraints) do anything I wanted.

As I sat in Oxford contemplating, I was clear that I didn’t want to jump onto a plane for another long haul flight either back to south America or to Australia or New Zealand anytime soon (both directions had been on my ‘maybe-list’).  That made ground-based stuff look promising, and the observation that I’d not yet managed to get any decent images of the Northern Lights pointed my way North.

Norwegian Coastal Sunrise
The first idea for the next phase was based round boats and trains around Scandinavia – and I was on the point of booking when an email arrived telling me that a collection of old frequent flier miles was about to expire.  I opted to burn these on flights from London to Stockholm at the start of February to start a Scandinavia meander, and back from Copenhagen at the end of February to complete the loop.  Between the two flights I decided to try and fit in city-time in Stockholm, Oslo and Bergen, a trip up the Norwegian Coast to Kirkenes on the Hurtigruten Coastal Steamer, a block of time in the Lofoten Islands and a few days in the Faroe Islands.  Surely by spending that much time up North – and quite a lot of it inside the Arctic Circle I’d get at least one decent look at the Northern Lights.

January 2012
Before heading properly north, I drove up to Shetland – in a car pretty much filled with sofa – to finish working through the southern images.  Shetland offered all the things you would expect in January – big storms, lots of rain, low clouds, not much light.  It also offered things you might hope for, but never expect, such as the Northern Lights. My first really good view of the Northern Lights was from the kitchen window of the Shetland house, and my images from just outside the front door made lots of news websites around the world and was the background image for a Sky News item about how dramatic the aurora had been in late January.

February 2012
Having already ticked off the Northern Lights in Shetland I was able to set off on my Scandinavian Odyssey from a Business Lounge at Heathrow (I had a lot of frequent flier miles to use up!) ready to add to my ice photo collection.  Stockholm delivered on the ice.  Overnight temperatures down around -20C ensured that the harbour froze over – the morning serenade (heard from a water level cabin on a yacht converted to floating hotel) was the harbour ice-breaker grinding through the ice to allow the regular passenger ferries to run.  The always comfortable – and usually on-time - Swedish and Norwegian railway moved me from Stockholm to Oslo to Bergen ensuring that I was able to appreciate snowy landscapes and still have enough time to see at least some of the attractions in each city.  Having stayed on a boat in Stockholm, I made sure I got to the Fram Museum in Oslo to see what life was really like when ice was grinding along the hull of the boat, before heading to Bergen to join my boat heading for the far North.

There are two sorts of boats that Hurtigruten use on their traditional route up the Norwegian Coast.  Most of the boats look like small-scale cruise ships, but a couple of the older boats date from an earlier generation and look much more like ferries of old.  They don’t have things like car decks, and all the cargo needs to be either wheeled up the gangway, or winched on board.  Once I had decided to go up the Norwegian coast I wanted to use a traditional boat.  So in early February I found myself in a little cabin, deep in the Hurtigruten version of steerage ready to go North.  Suffice to say that the boat looked very much the part of the traditional coastal steamer (lots of brass and mahogany), and the engine, just a few feet from cabin, sounded very much like a traditional coastal steamer.    The other observation is that the Hurtigruten is THE way to get a glimpse of Norwegian coastal life – most days the boat stops for long enough to let you get a flavour of the towns, and you always get a full on view of both the Norwegian weather and the dramatic coastal scenery.  The Hurtigruten is also the perfect way to see the Northern Lights – they aren’t guaranteed to put in an appearance, but if they do you’re probably going to get a good view.  The Hurtigruten isn’t, however, a great place to photograph the Lights – a rolling ship and long exposure make for interesting images, but not good representations of the aurora.  The ships timetable does mean that you will wind up having time in some remote places at strange times of the day – just accept these as the opportunity to photograph some great sunrises!

Having chugged (and I use the word advisedly, now being an expert on chugging boat engines) north to Kirkenes, further north than Nuuk in Greenland, and as far East as Cairo. I spent long enough in Kirkenes to realise what -25C feels like, and to discover that there isn’t much to do there other than practice your Russian in the shops, then turned round to go back through a very dramatic winter storm around the North Cape to the Lofoten Islands.  Lofoten had just had its first serious snowfall of the year, and the despite making driving a little bit entertaining did provide some excellent photographic opportunities – snowy landscapes, glimpses of the top of the Lofoten Wall, and another fix of the Northern Lights.

The Faroe Islands was a complete contrast to Lofoten – it’s a bit further south, and a lot further out in the North Atlantic, and it’s been on my “islands to visit” list for many years.  From the geography you might expect the Faroe Islands to be a mix of Iceland and the Scottish Islands.  And you would be exactly right.  From Torshavn, possibly the only capital city with a grass-roofed parliament, a direct flight got me back to Copenhagen to complete my Scandinavia jaunt with a couple of glasses of probably the best beer in the world. Well it tasted good at the time.

March 2012
March was the time to head back to Shetland.  My Scandinavian timing meant that I’d missed the big fire festival in Shetland, so I did make sure I was on Shetland for my local version of Up Helly Aa.  This involves a large number of people dressed (more or less) as they imagine Vikings might be dressed, parading down the main road accompanying a replica Viking longboat which was torched while floating out into one of the local bays.  I didn’t see any evidence of fire festivals anywhere else in Scandinavia on my travels around the north.   The other attraction that Shetland in March provided was several opportunities to both see and photograph the northern lights yet again – not quite as intense as the January offering, but with lots more colours.

April 2012
At the end of March I should have been contemplating a gentle end to my six months away.  I did actually complete the time with not one, but two, trips to Finland (which I had missed out on the main trip).  The first trip was a chance to ski, ice-climb, snow-shoe and particularly to learn to drive a dog-sled (and to see the Northern Lights again).  The second was a rather less frenetic bird-watching trip with the goal of spotting a Great Grey Owl.

Having packed quite so much into the first three-and-a-bit months of the year, the next few months were going to have to work pretty hard to compete.

May 2012
June 2012
I managed a short trip to Denmark for a Confirmation Party in April (Denmark having been short-changed earlier in the year) before resorting to more traditional photography themes in May, June and July.  

May provided unconventional nesting blue tits in Milton Keynes, June snail-racing in Oxford, and July puffin spotting on Shetland. 

July 2012

But just in case my passport started to seize up, I spent a very hot and sticky week in New Orleans – mostly working but just finding enough time for a boat trip along the Mississippi.

August 2012
That was all before the country got submerged in Olympic euphoria during August – and I can’t deny that I got caught up in it too. I’m not sure when I’ll get to take pictures at another UK Olympic Games, so I took plenty at this one.

September 2012
September found me back up on Shetland.  While southern England was busy getting drenched Shetland was seeing what might be called a Viking summer – with clear blue skies and light warm winds.

October 2012
Occasionally the sun did shine in the south too –the biggest bar code in world (photographed in October on the OU campus) always looks better with a spot of blue sky behind it.

November 2012
November was another fix of Shetland – this time with dramatic seas to accompany the sunshine.

December 2012
My final trip for the year was to add another country to the catalog.  I never managed to get to Yugoslavia, but having got to Slovenia a couple of years ago, it was good to add Serbia to the list.  Belgrade is a fun place to spend a weekend – and I hope I’ll get a chance to visit again in the not too distant future.

During 2012 I spent over 50 days outside the UK, although the number of separate trips and different countries I clocked up makes it seem like it should be rather more than this.  I don’t, yet, have a long catalog of trips lined up for 2013, but I do expect to be clocking up a bit more time inside the Arctic Circle (can't ever have too much time up North), and it would be fun to add the Antarctic Circle to the list too.