It was the day after my birthday, the 24th of November, 2017. In the early-hours of Bhutan’s sleepy Haa Valley, in a farming family’s cold wooden-floored & walled chamber, under layers to thick blankets, I lay.
THE JUNEDRAK HERMITAGE
I had woken up sooner than usual. This morning we were to embark on a hike – the Junedrak Hermitage. It was pitch dark outside, the sun was yet to alter the colours of the skies. To go or not to go, was the question I was asking myself. It wasn’t influenced by the momentary laziness or the discomfort of getting out in the cold.
Haa Valley has opened itself to tourism in 2001, albeit that it’s still to arrive on the tourist circuit. It’s the closest town to the Chinese border and is essentially the basecamp for the guarding Indian Army. There’s no touristic value to this place, no sites, no hotels, no fancy restaurants, absolutely nothing to see, we two were probably the only outsiders in the valley that day. This hike was special, at least in my head, weighing over the done-to-death Tiger’s Nest.
Not much is said or written about it, given the paucity of visitors in the valley and Bhutan’s idea of remaining Asia’s best-kept secret. Junedrak Hermitage is roughly a 1.5 hours hike through the Katsho village and a forest to climb up to a tiny little shelter etched on the mountain-face. There’s religious value to this place, but that wasn’t what attracted me towards it. It was its isolation and unique location, I wanted to know why would someone do that to self.
TAKING AN UNBEATEN PATH
I had agreed with a local cabby to pick me from Ugyen Homestay and drive me to the starting point of the trek. With an empty stomach, I started and 15 minutes into the drive, we were at the face of a narrow make-shift pathway which leads to the forest through which the Hermitage was located. The sun was out but it was still chilly. Walking alone through the small village, I could see the day’s chores were already in full-swing, cows were enjoying their breakfast, kids were playing in mud, and hens were being chased. Just under a five-minute walk the village ended and there laid an open ground with a sight of a modest monastery afar.
My lungs had just warmed up to the idea of what was to come and my feet were still in defrost mode. In a few meters, I moved past the monastery and with a gut-feeling decided to continue moving straight. Neither were there people to guide, nor signages. I knew I couldn’t have gotten lost just yet, civilisation wasn’t that far and it was a clear day for me to remember the path I had taken thus far. While I was only beginning to have self-doubts about the path, I could see what looked like an entrance gate to the forrest. Through it lied the Rhododendron forrest which is exactly where I were to be. It wasn’t the blooming season, yet the forrest looked stunning with the hues of yellow, green, and brown, the light filtering through the canopies on the dusty grounds, birds singing sporadically, and prayer flags fluttering in the nippy winds. Amidst all this, I stood alone. It was a meditative state of sorts, one that kindles thoughts and move you to feel differently.
NO TURNING BACK
There were no set paths, I had to create one of my own. With every step my lungs were filled with cooler and greener air, and my mind with excitement and inhibition, making me second-guess each of my decisions. Should I be here alone? It this the right direction? What if I’m lost, I don’t even have the phone to call anyone? What if there’re animals that may see me as their Brunch and attack? Should I turn around? I was zapped and were still walking.
These thoughts seemed justified, I couldn’t see or hear anyone else, which is what I thought I wanted, an isolated affair of sorts, but then this started to appear a little too exciting as well. And just then appeared a red and yellow signage with something written in local script which I couldn’t decipher. What it clearly indicated was the direction to follow. I had all the reasons to believe that it was pointing me towards the hermitage, and without second-guessing I followed. Barely 100 meters in that direction, the canopies opened up to the most assuring view, that of the Hermitage itself.
My confidence grew manifolds, and I was excited like a young kid on a joyride. My feet started moving twice as fast, my lungs pumped air faster than a vacuum cleaner, I could feel a pearl of sweat traveling down the back of my neck, and my mouth drying up from breathing frosty air. The path became more certain, and as it gathered more height, the sounds of flutter prayer flags became more and more aggressive. It was after a few turns and steep patches that the destination became visible. The Junedrak Hermitage, a magnificently located sanctuary laid just in front of my eyes. The closer I moved, the more exciting the views became. Passing through a gompa/mani, my destination stood right in front of me. Just another 30-40 meters I would’ve unravelled the suspense of the place. But these final few meters were to be the most testing.
FINAL BLOCK TO THE HERMITAGE
A hand-made ladder followed by a sheer vertical climb on slippery shiny rocks that was supported by a rope, falling from which was a definite death-sentence. But there was no other way, and I wouldn’t turn back now. I thought of all the scenarios, analysed the risk involved, and failed to find a reason why to take upon this climb. Yet, I embarked upon this daunting task. A few shivery steps, couple of pulls, and an embarrassing attempt of appearing to be a defence cadet who is nothing but a powerhouse who can take upon any physical challenge later, I had successfully reached the hermitage gates.
VIEW FROM THE OTHER SIDE
It was the view from the other end that made me realise what a stupid deed I’ve just committed. It wasn’t safe by any measure. But, now I was to move ahead, just a few more steps. But then there was another hurdle, the final challenge, that of passing through a cave hole, the radius of which was rather small for my curvy self. Without allowing myself an opportunity of self-doubt, I manoeuvred through by twisting self in ways that I didn’t know I could. When I looked back from the other end, I was rather surprised, and stood trumped, thinking to myself, how in this world am I going to get through this on the way back?
A’LAS, THE HERMITAGE
A few steps on and I was in the hermitage. Its first chamber looked like someone’s mini living room, which it was, that of the guarding priest. He didn’t appear surprised from my unannounced presence, and quickly invited me with an uninterested smile, he wouldn’t speak, and pointed me towards the second half of his cottage, to a dented rock, around which were the carefully placed prayer flowers, incenses, pictures of Guru Rimpoche, and other religious items. I asked the priest if he understood Hindi or English and he nodded to English. I had to enquire what was I looking at, what had I just taken this eventful hike for?
He pointed at the dent on the rock and explained that it is believed that it’s actually the left footmark of Guru Rimpoche who hopped over these mountains while looking for a spot where he would meditate. It’s believed that at the infamous Tiger’s Nest Guru Rimpoche meditated, which is where also rests his right footmark in the rocks, and Junedrak Hermitage is the pre-cursor to that finding. Fascinating story but what’s the proof, I said to myself. But, I had to take in what was told, how could I question the old man’s faith? I am no expert on the subject anyway. However, there were more practical questions I had to ask.
MEETING THE PRIEST
I asked the priest why would he live in isolation in that sanctuary, how does he survive here, how does he eats, and what keeps him at it? With a smile, he replied with a certain warmth. He said he was nearly 80 years old now, and it’s his belief that keeps him at the Hermitage. There was honour in living next to such an iconic piece of history for years. He doesn’t earn a wage, and whatever people donate is what he utilises to live on. Every 15 days he climbs down to attend the village-level meeting, buys groceries and carries what he needs himself, unassisted. He has been requesting the village authorities to build a proper climb up to the sanctuary and spread the word to the visitors to come see the footprint, not to earn more money off of it, but to generate enough interest in the locals to carry on his belief once he is gone.
The man spoke with confidence and so visible was his belief that it would not only counter every thought or doubt one had, but would even leave you a tad converted. He wouldn’t allow me to take a picture of the footprint, which was smaller than half of your palm, but didn’t hesitate when I requested to take picture of himself. The glow on the man’s face was unignorable.
TIME TO RETURN
I placed some money near the footprint, bowed to the priest, and with an ethereal heart and good-feels carried back down. The climb down that daunting patch of rope, ladder, and rocks didn’t seem that intimidating. May be it was the mood of the moment, the crisp optimism that was still lingering, or may be the happiness of returning to base.
On my way back, just as I passed the monastery, I saw a guide and an Asian lady walking towards the forrest. I was still wearing that smile that I left with from the Hermitage. The smile grew wider with an encounter with an old lady and the prettiest doll in all of Bhutan. They posed, I clicked, waved to the little one and came back to the spot where the cabby had dropped me. In another 10 minutes he was to come pick me up and take me to the homestay. I had my breakfast of wheat pancakes, eggs, and toasts, petted the cat, and we were on our way to Paro.
The climb I was patting my back for is what he made twice a week with 15 days of supplies, making me think a tad insignificant of self. And there I sat, thinking what a stud I was. And I thinking lesser of self.
LEAVING WITH A LEARNING
Junedrak Hermitage is the single most humbling experience from our trip to Bhutan. The most memorable instance would alway be standing on that bridge and feeling Arundhati’s heart beat in my chest, but the realisation on the Hermitage trek, the sheer power of someones belief, a lifetime dedicated to preserving a small chapter in nation’s religious history, a deformation in a stone on a rocky mountain, that still gives me goosebumps.