Bhutan: The Elusive Black-Necked Crane Lands in Phobjika Valley
T he allure of Bhutan lay in its rarity, a nation whose culture remains carefully protected and where fear remains that external influences could affect its very ecosystem. And nothing is more emblematic of this than the black-necked crane, an elusive Himalayan bird that visits Bhutan every year and whose existence is equally under threat.
The tall white birds descend on the glacier valley of Phobjika in late October, staying until mid-February each year. The flock first circle high above Gangtey Monastery three times – an act they repeat when the leave for Tibet come spring.
Phobjika valley is reached via a rocky mountain drive through majestic natural scenery, surrounded by a forest of fir, juniper and rhododendrons. Little visited, there are just a few farmhouses dotted around the valley, with just two significant buildings within the basin – the Crane Observation & Education Centre, and the Amankora lodge, a luxury modern property built using traditional Bhutanese architectural techniques at one far end of the pass.
Around 300 of the rare cranes, revered in Buddhist cultures, visit Phobjika annually. Their whitishgrey feathers, black heads and red crowns see them stand out in contrast to the lush green of the wetlands that attract them here. No-one though is allowed near them. Fortunately the Crane Observation & Education Centre on the valley’s bank side is set up not just to educate, but with its powerful telescopes, to also allow visitors the ability watch the birds up close.
The surrounding mountains are primarily home to shepherds and yak herders – electricity is still relatively new here – and make for hiking that feels mystical and timeless. But if there’s one experience that is truly magical, it’s the opportunity to spend time in one of Phobjika’s converted potato sheds.
The Amankora Gangtey is the best place to watch the sunrise melt away the mist, situated as it is with a natural ridge at its front. Designed to blend in to the nature and to represent the Bhutanese spirit, the lodge works closely with the local community, and uses a stone-built potato shed for extraordinary candlelit dinners. Usually filled with potatoes from the autumn harvest, the rustic sheds are filled with hundreds of candles, and heated by a wood-burning stove.
Outside, staff in traditionally inspired dress prepare a bonfire and bring out local instruments to serenade the night with Bhutanese folk songs. Situated at the edge of a field, the atmosphere here is like a fairytale brought to life, where a synergy of nature, wildlife, and the human spirit combine in magical ways.
Come the morning the sun waits to rise again in the winter home of the cranes, and like them, guests are invited to bathe outside. Well, partially at least. The lodge has two hot stone baths set facing the valley floor.
Situated in the middle of a field and heated by rocks dropped in through a hatch, the open faced sheds are somehow primitive and luxurious at the same time – a metaphor for Bhutan as a whole, a nation of deep tradition that is at once behind the times, and possessing of such extraordinary cultural wealth that simple pleasures feel intrinsically opulent.