Pilgrimage to the Sky

Update: In 2016, I wrote an article in Farsi about this journey that was published in the Iranian periodical “Kooh (Mountain)”. You can access the PDF here.

Our journey to the mountain started on a Saturday morning. There was eight of us and we all had backpacks full of food, sleeping bags and extra clothing. The plan was to climb to the famous Phajoding monastery and camp there the night. Next day, we were planning to go up to visit a series of 13 sacred lakes, reaching heights over 4000m.

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Soon after catching a ride to the bottom of the path, we started our ascent up the mountain. It was a pleasant day and although we had to carry a lot of things in our backpacks, the climb was very enjoyable. My friends had kindly arranged everything for me: sleeping bag, space in a tent and a large backpack. Two of our friends had been procuring and preparing food for the whole company in the last few days and we were going to share the costs at the end of the trip. I was the only person not from Bhutan and felt very privileged having a chance to be taken into such a friendly group and having a first hand local experience.

There were scenic spots all along the way and we stayed in a couple of them to refresh and have snacks. My friends were joking that we should order lattes and cakes.

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Dzongkha, the main Bhutanese language, is full of surprises. At our first stop, I learned that the word for watermelon translates to “father’s head”. We had some of this delicious fruit before continuing to head up.

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On our way up, we encountered monks using mules to carry things up and down the mountain.

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After a few hours of uphill climbing we got to the Phajoding beautiful monastery. This was the first series of three monasteries built here by Phajo Drugom Zhigpo, a 13th century saint who considered here exceptionally rich in spiritual energy.

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At this point, we could feel the high altitude (we were at 3690m) and breathing was a little more difficult. The views were stunning, however, and we could see Thimphu valley under our feet.

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Arriving at the Phajoding monastery, we met a group of young monks. Many of these monks are either from poor families or orphans. Unfortunately, these monasteries suffer from a lack of funds to maintain themselves and some parts of them are in urgent need of repair, especially after a recent earthquake caused damage to them.

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We stopped at a second monastery and had a “wet picnic” of cooked rice, some Bhutanese curries and greens.

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As we learned on the way down the mountain, this second monastery houses a special dragon’s egg. While we didn’t see the egg itself, a monk that lived there showed us pictures of it on his phone. It was a large yellow/whitish egg, roughly the size of a child’s head with black dots on it.

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Going a few hundred meters up, we got to a secluded meditation hut. The standard silent mediation retreat lasts three years, three months and three days. There was a water tap outside the hut and as we were washing a silent monk came out of the hut and with sign language gave us directions to camping ground and borrowed us a large container for water.

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We moved further up and reached a relatively flat area where a large group of Yaks were grazing. This was to be our camping ground for the night. The elevation was very high now (3950m) and we had a choice of staying at the monastery here (Thujidrag Goemba) or camp in the field right below it. We decided for the second choice. Two other groups of hikers we had met on the road up decided to stay at the monastery.

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There was a king monk at the monastery who offered us milk tea. It was one of the best tasting teas I have ever had in my life. Life is hard for the monks up here and they have very little but they are very generous and kind. We borrowed pots for cooking from them and a bucket to get water.

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On our way to setup our camp we met another old monk with long hair who said he was going to a nearby cremation site to meditate for that night. Right above the monastery, there is a sky burial site called skeleton mountain. The belief is that these mountains are closer to the sky and especially for dead babies provide a better chance to be reborn as higher beings.

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Setting up our tents, my friends started to make a fire using the wet wood we could find there. It was a very hard task and I was surprised that with much determination they succeeded to not only start a fire but also make noodle soup, rice and curry on it. I did not have much appetite at that altitude but the food was so appetizing that I ended up eating a few plates. The temperature started falling and it became colder and colder. We could hear the soft sound of sacred music playing over loudspeakers from the monastery.

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We gathered around a campfire and started singing songs. I seriously regretted not knowing the lyrics to many songs but really enjoyed my friends singing. The best part was when they were singing Bhutanese songs. There was one particular song that they kindly sang for me and had a very catchy chorus repeating, “come back” in Bhutanese.

After we had eaten and sang many songs, the temperature dropped even more. We crawled into out tents and tried to rest amidst the blowing winds and freezing weather. I could not sleep very much and in the morning saw the ground around us covered with light snow and everything frozen.

We went up to the monastery again and joined the two groups who were waiting for us to join them to go to the lakes and were worried about us because of the cold. At this point, feeling cold and tired, I wasn’t sure if I can climb up to the lakes. After a few moments of reflection, I felt an urge to climb further. I felt sleeping in the cold, the previous night would be rewarded with a special experience if I persisted. It seemed everybody in our group had the same resolution and we all climbed up after breakfast. I decided today I am going to eat very little to conserve energy for the long hike ahead and just had some tasty tea for breakfast. The monks had prepared a big breakfast of rice and curry for everyone.

There are a series of 13 sacred lakes in this area. There are seven high passes to traverse to get to the last pair of lakes. We were basically going through the last two days of the 7 day Druk Trekking Path, that starts from Paro and ends in Thimphu (in reverse).

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Once we were over the first pass, the views became even more impressive and going over 4000m, you could distinctly feel the air getting thinner. Most of the path was relatively easy to walk through although it was a very long walk. A funny excerpt from the book “Mild and Mad Day Hikes Around Thimphu” reads: If you are considering walking reaching the lakes and returning back to civilization in one day, “you have to be 1. very well acclimatized, 2. in excellent condition and 3. an almost complete lunatic.” We did not attempt to reach the lakes and go back in one day but still is was a trying day of almost 12 hours hard walking with an hour break (4 hours to get to the last lake, 4 hours to get back and 3 hours back to Thimphu from Phajodhing).

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The weather conditions up here are notoriously unstable and the belief is that if you are disrespectful towards the land and the lake and scream or throw garbage in the area or smoke, the weather turns for the worst and you might get lost. There is a story of six boys who got lost in a similar mountain (around Cheri Monastery) and only two of them survived.

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Partly because of these beliefs these areas are very clean and a pleasure to walk through. After walking for a while, I felt slowly going into a pleasant trance. The views were mind-blowing and I felt walking through a dream. The quick and dramatic changes in the weather, sunny one moment and foggy the next, made me feel the impermanence of life. You could not hold on to anything, you had to move, savour both sweet and painful moments and walk on. I was afraid to get too excited about the reality of this dream, walking through sacred passes in the legendary himalayan mountains, in case the bubble of my experience might burst.

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We slowly reached snow and icicles (which I helped myself to, to quench my thirst). The air was thin and there was dancing fog all around us, it was as if the mountain was breathing.

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Stone stupas setup by pilgrims were everywhere and blended well with the landscape: not a drastic change of nature, just a re-arrangement. Each of the lakes, had a name and story associated with it: this one was a fish and the two last ones male and female.

A similar belief in sacred mountains with magical powers exist also in the Andes in Peru since Inca times. Andean mountains are guarded by “Apus” or holly protective spirits. I, also, remembered travelling through Peruvian highlands I was struck by other similarities, especially in the colourful dresses and styles, between the two regions.

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I guess this might be true of most mountain culture. When I was growing up in Iran, we used to go to mountains a lot with my father and he always used to say, “you have to respect the mountain and it will protect you, but if you disrespect it and only want to conquer it, you could be in danger.” This is a belief that I happily carry with me to this day.

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Finally, after many hours of walking we reached our destination: Dungtsho, the 13th sacred lake. My companions started to talk in hushed voices and recite prayers, light incense and install prayer flags around the lake. There was some fog over the lake but it slowly started to disperse. I felt this place was truly magical and the voices inside started to quiet down. I saw a staircase right next to the lake going up to a meditation cave. Whoever has meditated there must have special powers!

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After staying there for a little while, we started heading back. On the way back, we went through hail and lumps of ice made the landscape white. I felt protected by the mountain and while I was concerned about it getting dark, there was a strange sense of trust that made me feel everything is going to be alright. Seeing the lake was truly a pilgrimage and it made every little step and cold and warm moment make sense.

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Over the few hours we had spent with the other two teams, a sense of comradery had grown between us. We were sharing snacks and stories and looking out to see if everyone was still continuing and no one was left behind. Finally, we got back to Thujidrag Goemba, where we had more tea and picked up our luggage. We filled cans full of holy water and started to walk down the mountain towards Thimphu.

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We were much lighter on the walk back but still had to be careful not to fall and co-ordinate our tired bodys’ movements. When we made it to the bottom of the road and to civilization, there was a strong sense of accomplishment and happiness. In the car, as we were driving back to Thimphu on the dark road on the outskirts of town, we saw His Majesty the Fourth King on his bicycle going for an evening exercise round on the road that leads to the trailhead. My friends drove me back to my apartment where I dragged myself to a hot bath and slipped into bed, immediately going to sleep. I dreamed I was walking higher and higher towards the sky!

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