It is said that when the Black Necked cranes arrive from Tibet in late October, they circle above the Gangtey monastery three times as if practicing kora, the meditative ritual of circling around a sacred site or building. Their arrival in Phobjikha is celebrated each November with a huge, colorful festival to honor the endangered bird; a legendary symbol venerated throughout Bhutanese folklore, music, dance and art. Known locally as Thrung Thrung Karm, the birds are a revered Buddhist symbol for peace and longevity. Shrouded in mysticism, the sacred cranes are celebrated as messengers from the heavens; if seen flying above their fields, local farmers rejoice it as the sign of a good harvest; others believe they are carrying the souls of deceased lamas back to Gangtey monastery to pay their respects. Something about these tall, sleek birds has enchanted humans for centuries. Only when you see the cranes with your own eyes will you understand.
Once covered in ice, Phobjikha is a bowl shaped valley surrounded by irregularly formed mountains carved by years of glacial activity. 90% of the valley floor is protected by dwarf bamboo which helps to distribute river flow, prevent erosion, recycle nutrients and retain ground moisture. By winter the shoots have been gnawed to short stumps by grazing cattle, turning the valley floor into a stubbly wetland. It is an ideal setting for the wintering Black Necked Cranes to forage for the microscopic creatures that flourish in the nutrient rich wetland habitat.
Phobjikha is home to more than 400 cranes during the winter months of October-February. Local residents of the valley are the cranes closest neighbors; some have even sacrificed pieces of their farmlands for the birds. The close proximity of humans to this endangered species habitat creates a unique conservation scenario. Since 1987, Bhutan’s Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN) has been educating the local communities to increase awareness and collaboration for the preservation of natural environments and protection of the Black Necked Crane populations. Phobjikha valley is now a nationally protected area and due to local conservation efforts and a community-based sustainable tourism project, the crane populations have grown in recent years. According to the RSPN website, there were 550 cranes, including 63 juveniles counted in Bhutan during the 2013/2014 winter, more than double the numbers recorded in the early 90’s.
Return of the sun
The sounds of a Japanese tour group taking jump shots in front of the hotel wake us at 5:50am. They finish their photo shoot and I roll over for another few hours of sleep. At breakfast, the late morning sun is soft and the air is still dominated by the night’s chill. Sometime before noon we begin our slow meander north along the road we came last night. In less than an hour we’re both desperately shedding layers as the high altitude sun has burned the morning sleep from his eyes.
We walk past many baby cows and gaze at distant cranes. The bright glare squints our eyes and dust explodes under our feet with each step. Today is Nyilog, meaning ‘the return of the sun,’ the Bhutanese winter solstice celebrates the prolonged daylight and is a sort of New Year; a day for karmic cleansing. Ploughed fields are empty of people. The fluttering of flags and crows’ wings adding depth to the silence; the profound quiet interrupted only by persistent calls from the raven, answered occasionally by a cow.
Gentle slopes surrounding the wetland floor are divided into rectangular plots of farmland. Agriculture is the only source of income for the majority of local families; their main cash crop is potato, yielding about 30% of Bhutan’s total potato production. There are 49 villages throughout Phobjikha valley but the population is greatly reduced in winter as many locals—known as Gangteps, migrate to lower elevations. Only 130 km from Thimphu, not nearly as far-flung as many of Bhutan’s villages, Phobjikha seems centuries away. For a moment I’m reminded of other places I’ve been—the rough stone walls in the mountains of Colombia and Ecuador, small communities in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. But in the next instant everything is so unlike everywhere else I’ve ever known. This place is like traveling back in time; the 800 families received electricity only three years ago and many windows still sit open to the elements, empty of glass. (Because Phobjikha is a protected area, the power lines had to be buried to prevent interference with flying cranes).
Along the solitary dirt road we meet a little boy and his four year old sister. She has big cheeks with bright red circles on the apples—one of the many bodily adaptations to living at altitudes above 3000 meters. In order to better retain oxygen and circulate blood in low pressure mountain environments, there is an increase in capillary blood vessels to the skin and an increase in myoglobin which helps muscle cells store oxygen. People living at high altitudes are found to have ten times more nitric oxide in their blood which causes blood vessels to dilate and release more oxygen to the tissues, hence the deep flushed color in their cheeks.
Little sister has a snotty nose and a look that reveals her skepticism toward the random chillups in her village. Her brother speaks good English and his questions seem to put baby sister more at ease. She stops walking and asks to be carried piggy-back. She smiles when we call her ‘lazy bum choo’ (pudgy little girl). They veer off to their house, little sis crawling under the fence while big brother jumps over the top. They both turn and wave goodbye.
We seek shade for a water break before climbing a steep hill to reach the Gangtey Goempa. The stout structure stands impressively in the bright afternoon sun, gargoyles casting hook nosed shadows against the white walls. Heavy, red doors with round, iron handles open into a foyer where the debre (painted canvases glued to plaster walls) are peeling, the ceiling mandala chipped and faded and wall paintings disappearing before my eyes.
We continue to the Ngelung Drechagling Lhakhang where novice monks are playing soccer and puppies wrestle in the yard. Returning down the hill we find the Gangtey Nature Trail which takes us across to the other side of the valley. The sun is beginning to fall, casting the first golden rays across the brown patchwork fields and illuminating the sky in streaks of white and blue.
Entering the forest, the conifers are draped in bright green lichen, known locally as ‘old man’s beard,’ Its presence is a testament to the purity of the air as it only thrives in clean environments. I take deep, intentional breathes. As the sun falls behind the mountains I look to the east and see the moon spotlighting over the ridge. The blue in the sky has turned sapphire and the clouds are streaked with pink. Suddenly, three cranes burst over the ridge line, their sleek, elegant bodies silhouetted against the evening sky. They fly directly above our heads giving us a glimpse of their white bellies and long, slender legs.
With the last rays of light, the rest of the flock begins to gather in the marsh, flying in groups of twos and threes from every direction, raising a chorus of honking greetings and goodnights. The moon is encircled in a halo as the clouds encroach over the valley.
Winter came in the Night
A slight drizzle of rain falls from the grey morning sky. We wake early and bundle up to go see the cranes in their morning routine. We’re overdressed again, the blanket of clouds effectively insulating the valley. The smell of freshly lit bukhari (wood stoves) wafts from the tin chimneys of the houses. I think how dark it must be inside with all the windows boarded up or covered with thick plastic. A tractor rides by with a wagon full of women, scarves pulled tightly over their heads. Lone cows lumber aimlessly along the road. The cranes honk at each other as they forage the wet fields, occasionally taking graceful flight. A dead cat is being eaten by a crow and there is the sound of short grass being ripped from the earth by wide, flat bovine teeth.
At breakfast the fog creeps over the mountains, sliding slowing down the face into the valley. The rain falls harder now and the fog thickens. White takes over.
Hours later a hole opens up and the sky bursts through the surface taking a deep gulp of bright blue air. The rain was just enough to tame the dust and refresh the parched fields. Mountains are dusted with powdered sugar and there is welcome moisture in the air. Inhales are revitalizing where yesterday they were dry and suffocating. The contrast between the two days is stark and invigorating; hot turns cold, snow trumps dust.
The sun begins its afternoon descent so we find a little outcrop to sit on and enjoy the golden splatter painting the farmlands across the valley. With each warm sip of matë, the sky sinks into a deep, dark blue behind the white washed mountain tops. To our right, a family tills their field. A crane honks overhead and slender figures fill the sky, heading back to their stubby bamboo roosts for the night.
*This piece written for publication in Kuzuzangpo-la, In-flight Magazine for Bhutan Air