Mutts and Monasteries - Page 2
Eventually, plans for a 25-kilometer run took shape. A brutal ascent off the west side of the valley would ease to contouring south along ancient trade routes, linking a series of remote goenpas, or monasteries. Four thousand feet of climbing culminated on a ridgeline scramble to the 13,200-foot Thaptsa Peak. I’d start at the well-known Druk Path trailhead and finish at the giant golden Buddha perched in Kuenselphodrang Nature Park, with creative route-finding filling in the gaps. Sangay imparted his pre-run advice: “Call out to yak herders from one kilometer out. They tie up dogs.” I listened this time.
Clinging to the eaves of Wangditse Goenpa, a golden dragon greeted the dawn with a wrathful grin. Standing alone at the trailhead above the quiet monastery, I tapped into my astrologic intuition and all signs pointed toward an auspicious morning. Vertical white prayer flags hung limp as I began dodging frosty cow pies, lungs burning from the uphill effort. Thickets of blue pine rang with playful orange-crested birds—hoopoes!
The 169-foot-tall Buddha Dordenma at trail’s end.
Steeper yet, the trail switchbacked above a preserve enclosing a small herd of Takin, the national animal. (Think awkward, tiny buffalo with the head of a hairy manatee.) Deeming captivity in a zoo to be very un-Buddhist, the fourth king had attempted to free them years ago, but they drifted downtown in a domesticated trance.
An abrupt snort and rustling jolted me to wide-eyed attention as something resembling a furry coffee table went crashing through the underbrush. Wild boar. I was slightly on edge, thinking about a patient back at the hospital who was recovering from an attack by a territorial bear near his village—potentially a good reason to reconsider my usual unarmed policy while trail running. “I stabbed bear thrice with short sword,” boasted the brave survivor, white tendon still visible through his bear-bitten foot. I ran on, enjoying a long-held delusion that I was Bear Grylls of Man vs. Wild, capable of fashioning a weapon at will.
After 3000 vertical feet reduced my pace to a spirited hike, I plugged upward through thick rhododendron forest, eventually reaching Phajoding Goenpa. Perched on the hulking slopes of Skeleton Mountain, a handful of temples and meditation huts sat ethereal and forgotten.
It was here I had first happened upon Namgay, the resident lama, on a previous scouting hike with my wife. He’s a 21st-century monk with a cell phone; today, we’d arranged a mid-run tea break. Over hot butter tea he spoke about Zhabdrung, the founder of Bhutan, who had declared these lower Himalayan valleys the menjong, or medicine forest. I liked that; it had a more soothing ring than “bear-mauling forest.”
My fears allayed, Namgay sent me off past a quiet pond inhabited by the deity Shingjong Wangmo. Literally meaning “powerful female who protects the field,” Shingjong Wangmo just might be the ideal running partner. I could hear a group of novice monks back at Phojoding laughing long after I’d been enveloped by the dark fir forest.