At last the time had come to climb to Tiger's Nest. For so long pictures had tantalised; from far we had read the stories of this holy perch. Now we were open-mouthed, looking up at the monastery of Taktshang Goemba, floating above the void.
At the base of the climb, white prayer flags were tugging in the bluest air above a weathered stupa or chorten as these wayside shrines are called in Bhutan. Inside the chorten, the gold and crimson prayer wheel was endlessly turning. It spun with the splash and thud of a wooden water-wheel - its revolutions driven by a torrent descended from the waterfall we'd glimpsed on the precipice, silk-scarfing the monastery.
While my companions arranged the mules, I set off up the pilgrim's path, striding into the mountain air, stepping up, up, before being forced to a shuffle when my heart began thumping like that wheel below. I rested, went on, rested, went on; breath became all. Ninety minutes later I was close enough that it seemed I could reach out and touch Tiger's Nest, but a gulf of air separated us - a freefall of 700m. Along the dizzy edge of the precipice, fearful of gravity's yawning, I leaned away, gripping at rock and root wherever I could lay hold, tottering around the chasm's rim before climbing up to the holy gates.
In the eighth century, Guru Rinpoche, who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan, came to this rocky lip; the miraculous Taktshang Goemba monastery was built on the ledge around the cave in which the guru meditated for three months. Through the gates a monk takes you to the shrine where, after a prayer and blessing, you peer through a golden door to see the guru's dank meditation cave. He flew to this place in one of his eight manifestations, that of Guru Dorji Dlo, on the back of a flaming tiger, hence its name, Tiger's Nest.
Steeped in Mahayana Buddhism, the Kingdom of Bhutan lived in self-imposed isolation for much of the 20th century, until the early 70s when it began allowing in a handful of visitors. Annual tourism arrivals are rising: about 9000 visited in 2004 and next year 15,000 arrivals are forecast. Conscious of the potential impact of tourism, every effort is being made by the tourist industry to respect Bhutanese cultural values and leave a light ecological footprint.
One of the first international resorts to be invited into the kingdom was Adrian Zecha's Amanresorts. In order to remain very much in harmony with the country's serene environment, Amanresorts developed Amankora, four elegant, understated lodges spread through the central and western valleys of Bhutan: Paro, Thimphu, Punakha and Phobjikha. Aman is Sanskrit for peace and kora means circular pilgrimage in Dzongkha, the Bhutanese language. The seven-day Amankora experience, taking in all four lodges, journeys through mountain passes, forests scented with blue pine and emerald-paddied valleys. It is indeed a circular pilgrimage.
Shorter stays are available but, without a doubt, the bespoke seven-day Amankora journey is the one to take. For the equivalent daily cost of a room tariff of many comparable destinations, at Amankora, guests are provided with a private chauffeured 4WD, a full-time guide, road permits, meals, drinks, accommodation every night, a complimentary spa treatment (all Amankora lodges have spa facilities) and they'll arrange your visa and airport transfers. Note that the tariff adds on hefty but worthwhile government taxes and service charges to protect Bhutan's pristine environment and culture from the impact of tourism.
The drives between the lodges are endlessly fascinating, with your guide taking you through as many dzong (fortress monasteries), goemba (monastic retreats) and lakhang (temples) as you care to fit into a day. Templed-out travellers should be forewarned, the religious buildings of Bhutan are lifetime experiences that you just wouldn't want to miss. The scale of the various dzong is best experienced from their cobbled courtyards, looking up at massive fortress towers made of nought but rammed earth. The goemba and lakhang are unforgettable for their spirituality, for their living medieval antiquity, uplifting spaces and for their joyous colours - mandala murals, spectacular portrayals of gods and saints, spinning gold and scarlet prayer wheels and the billowing rose robes of apprentice monks crossing white-washed yards.
Many of the daily drives involve long distances, made longer by the high passes and the inevitable enticing side-trips, stop offs and picnics under prayer flags and pines. If the full tour is your choice then on the day of arrival, drive from Paro airport to Amankora Thimphu (two hours) and take an easy day. On day two make the long drive to the most distant lodge, Amankora Gangtey (four hours) and spend the next day there to fully enjoy the remote valley of the black-necked cranes. On day four, drive to Amankora Punakha (two and a half hours) and spend the next wandering the river-paths of this blissful Shangri-la. On day six drive to Paro valley (four and a half hours) and climb to Tiger's Nest. Stay that night and the next at Amankora Paro, taking advantage of the lodge's sauna, treatment rooms with hot stone baths and meditation spaces.
There's an element of acclimatisation to be considered and you would not want to attempt the Tiger's Nest climb until you're used to the altitude. Amankora Paro sits at 2280m, Amankora Thimphu at 2630m and Amankora Gangtey at 2979m. Tiger's Nest floats up there at about 3000m and some of the road passes you'll cross surpass the 3000m mark. To put that into an Australian context, Mount Kosciusko is 2228m. Thus, most visitors experience shortness of breath in their first days in Bhutan and the message is: slow down, look around and enjoy a gentler pace.
For Australian travellers to Bhutan, an advantage arises. Australia is four hours ahead of Bhutan, so if you retain your Australian body clock, you'll rise well before you normally would and can take in glorious pre-breakfast walks with the landscape virtually to yourself. Nowhere is this early walk more rewarding than at Amankora Punakha. To get to the lodge you must abandon your 4WD and cross a suspension bridge swinging above the glacier-melted waters of the Mochu River's wide rush. Beside the river, footpaths make their way through emerald rice terraces to river-fronted hamlets, a mountain-side temple and to what was once the King's farmhouse and is now Amankora Punakha lodge. Following the riverside path through the rice fields towards the cloud-wisped temple at dawn is about as perfect as a morning walk can be.
All this walking works up quite an appetite and, in response, the Bhutanese cuisine is more than worth a passing mention. The national dish is a cheese and chilli stew called emadatchi and it's particularly appetising served with red rice. To this recurrent dish, the Bhutanese add vegetables including fiddlehead ferns, asparagus, potatoes, yams and mushrooms. But let me reserve my chief praise for the meat of the wandering yak, for this is a tender, flavoursome, organic flesh, certainly a prince among meats. At Amankora we tried an incredibly light yak carpaccio, superior to any beef equivalent, thanks to the organic, herbaceous flavour of yak.
Up in that mountain air, I devoured a toothsome yak Reuben sandwich - the caraway-rye bread, sauerkraut and corned yak all created on-site. Amankora's executive chef, Brandon Huisman, says they hand-select yaks when they come down off the alpine pastures at winter's approach. The yaks are butchered nearby and hung at Amankora Paro. Huisman extolled the quality of yak meat, "It's wild meat, totally organic. Neither the strip nor tenderloin needs marinating; we just stick it straight on the grill". He makes yak salami and a spicy fennel yak sausage and offers curried and braised yak with chillies.
I emphasise chillies because Bhutanese eat them every day of the year, "Chillies are the broccoli of Bhutan," Huisman explained. He said there were chillies present in the Bhutanese, Thai and Indian menus that Amankora offer on alternate nights alongside the chilli-free Western menu.
Serendipity had it that we visited Bhutan during the brief matsutake mushroom season. These pungent fungi are up there with truffles as one of the world's most expensive food items. We took a mountainous back-road to the hamlet of Geneka where the precious mushrooms are traded for export to Japan. We met with the mushroom gatherers who were down from their secret slopes. They told us how, but not where to look among the pine-needle carpets for their elusive quarry.
At Amankora Thimphu we were doubly lucky to have chef Naoki Okumura visiting from his famed Okumura restaurant in Kyoto. He prepared a matsutake dinner for the lodge's guests and I recall with particular delight his soup of matsutake and monkfish and a spicy tempura matsutake roll.
There are many levels to a week in Bhutan: the beauty of nature, the spiritual aspect of being suffused in Mahayana Buddhism, as well as the cultural eye-openers of the Bhutanese aesthetic of architecture and custom. Also memorable is the human element. The beauty of the Bhutanese people is striking - high-cheekboned, polite, upright in a reserved way and always welcoming. You're aware that you're not of any special interest to them as a foreigner. Unlike many nearby countries, nobody is at you to hire them, buy their wares, or get out of their way. The explanation seems to be in the deeply rooted Buddhist nature of Bhutanese perception - you're just another being worthy of the respect due to all beings, but of no more particular significance than anyone else. As a result, as a visitor to the country, you feel very comfortable being there.
When I think back now to that week in Bhutan, it's not so much in food, people or buildings that I find delight, it's in Nature herself. The sound of rushing water is in every valley, gully, at almost any window; white-feathered waterfalls drape blue mountains, below them thick emerald moss on rocks and stony walls and the deepest verdure of green glowing from the stepping rice fields, behind them the rise of jade pine forests.
At Amankora Gangtey the early hours found me walking the paths of Phobjikha valley, watching sunlight catch the rim of the glacial valley, the golden glow moving slowly down its steep pastures to rouse the farmers from their rustic beds. With no electricity in the valley their first act of the day is to light the kitchen fires causing smoke to mingle with mists that linger around the valley like softly receding dreams.
It is to this valley that the black-necked cranes fly over the ramparts of the Himalayas to see out winter in the company of the welcoming Bhutanese. The people of the valley know the birds are holy, feeling great joy at the sound of their calls of arrival and sadness when departing cries echo across the valley. The valley's yak herders depart for the mountains in spring and their place is taken by the cattle herders and potato planters who come up from the lower altitudes, on the old cattle road.
For me the most elevating of Bhutan's natural wonders was a view from an Amankora Paro bedroom window. From there the holy goddess mountain of Jhomolhari could be seen, her white peak rising from the centre of the valley. At my last view of her, she was glowing in the starlight, a celestial swelling from the dark forest with two bright stars crowning her summit. By the mountains of Bhutan there is much to make the spirit soar.