Bhutan: The Elu­sive Black-Necked Crane Lands in Phob­jika Val­ley

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - BY ROBERT MICHAEL POOLE (Source : BLOUINARTINFO)

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.

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