In Bhutan, Prayer Flags and Birds From Heaven

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - By Jada Yuan

With two more stops to go, our 52 Places colum­nist, ex­hausted af­ter nearly a year on the road, finds beauty and respite in the tem­ples and val­leys of this Bud­dhist king­dom. O ur colum­nist, Jada Yuan, is visit­ing each des­ti­na­tion on our 52 Places to Go in 2018 list. This dis­patch brings her to Bhutan (no. 9 on the list); it is the 50th stop on Jada’s itin­er­ary.

Sa­cred val­ley

The val­ley was un­speak­ably beau­ti­ful: hon­ey­col­ored hills flanked by moun­tains cov­ered in pine trees. Dark shrubs dot­ted the ex­panse, as did wan­der­ing cows, tem­ples and clus­ters of 108 white Bud­dhist prayer flags. Rel­a­tives of the dead plant the flags — thin strips of fab­ric that run the length of tall poles — dur­ing the 49 days it takes to guide and pro­tect the soul as it moves to­ward the next life.

Ev­ery time I’d see those flut­ter­ings of white, I thought of the ef­fort and de­vo­tion that had gone into cov­er­ing this land­scape in so many acts of love.

My en­ergy lev­els were close to empty when I ar­rived in Bhutan’s Phob­jikha Val­ley, far enough east from the only in­ter­na­tional air­port in this lush, un­der­de­vel­oped Hi­malayan king­dom that it had taken many, many hours of driv­ing to get to.

I had thrown Phob­jikha onto my itin­er­ary af­ter meet­ing a woman on my plane who was go­ing there to see the black-necked cranes who make the val­ley their win­ter home. Clas­si­fied as vul­ner­a­ble, there are only some 6,600 left in the wilds of South Asia. Around 500 of those make the long jour­ney south from Ti­bet to Phob­jikha’s high-al­ti­tude wet­lands each Novem­ber.

Pro­tect­ing these cranes isn’t sim­ply an en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sue. In Bhutanese cul­ture, Phob­jikha is a sa­cred val­ley and the cranes are birds from heaven. “Lo­cal peo­ple be­lieve their ar­rival will bring them good har­vest for the com­ing year,” said Phuntso Dorji, one of my two guides from the lo­cal tourism com­pany Bridge to Bhutan. They’ll even wait to plant their win­ter wheat un­til the first crane has touched down.

The cranes seem to time their ar­rival and de­par­ture to aus­pi­cious dates on the Bud­dhist cal­en­dar, ac­cord­ing to Phuntso, cir­cling the sky three times above the val­ley’s 17th-cen­tury Gangteng Monastery. There’s video ev­i­dence of it at the Crane In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter run by the Royal So­ci­ety for Pro­tec­tion of Na­ture (R.S.P.N.) over­look­ing the pro­tected wet­lands. Ev­ery Novem­ber, the monastery hosts a crane fes­ti­val fea­tur­ing dancers dressed as deities of the for­est, or im­i­tat­ing the cranes’ bow­ing, jump­ing, wing-flap­ping mat­ing dance known as the thrung thrung karm.

To visit Phob­jikha is to feel as if you’ve reached some in­ner sanc­tum of the earth. We drove there on Bhutan’s sin­gle east-west high­way, which twists along ver­tig­i­nous cliffs, crest­ing passes 10,000 feet high. Wind-bowed trees clung to the moun­tain­side as if by sheer force of will. No guardrails stood be­tween our van and 1,000-foot drops. At times, we’d come across a bite mark of pave­ment that had tum­bled down the slope, a mud­slide of top­pled trees, and large rocks we had to drive around. An­other time, the high­way turned to dirt, with a lone moun­tain biker huff­ing through the dust.

And this was the good road, the na­tional high­way.

We made a sharp right turn and drove an hour more on a dirt road lined with yaks. You can’t un­der­stand what cranes mean to this val­ley with­out go­ing to Gangteng Monastery on a hill over­look­ing the val­ley floor. Its white­washed stucco was crum­bling, and the lack of other out­siders seemed to al­low room for more sa­cred en­ergy. Monks were in the court­yard prac­tic­ing chore­og­ra­phy for an up­com­ing fes­ti­val in which they would dance with masks de­pict­ing the wrath­ful form of Pad­masamb­hava, or the Lo­tus Born, who is cred­ited with bring­ing Bud­dhism to Bhutan in the eighth cen­tury.

“Watch out for the land mine!” Phuntso joked, as we dodged cow ma­nure on our hike through the forests above the wet­lands. The cranes were white dots on the val­ley floor, black necks bent down as they feasted on dwarf bam­boo, their main sus­te­nance. We couldn’t get much closer be­cause of park reg­u­la­tions; the cranes don’t in­ter­act well with hu­mans. But all day and all night, their un­steady, high-pitched calls echoed across the val­ley as if on a loud­speaker.

It wasn’t un­til I’d been there for hours that I re­al­ized what was re­ally dif­fer­ent about this place: the to­tal lack of above-ground wires. Back in 2008 when the govern­ment pro­posed a plan to bring elec­tric­ity to the val­ley, the R.S.P.N.

stepped in to pay for so­lar pan­el­ing and con­vinced the govern­ment to do all of the wiring un­der­ground, to guard against the cranes run­ning into elec­tric poles.

Threats still abound, though, from preda­tors like foxes, leop­ards and feral dogs. One of them at­tacked a ju­ve­nile crane, ren­der­ing his left wing un­mov­able and keep­ing him grounded, un­able to fly back to Ti­bet in sum­mer. The R.S.P.N. named him Karma. He has spent the last four years in a pro­tected en­clo­sure at the crane cen­ter, and is the only crane you can see up close.

More per­ni­cious, of course, are the hu­man threats, par­tic­u­larly from farm­ers il­le­gally en­croach­ing on the cranes’ habi­tat to grow more pota­toes, the area’s cash crop. The worry is that some­day the peo­ple are go­ing to want more than spo­radic un­der­ground elec­tric­ity. For now the R.S.P.N. is work­ing hard to con­vince res­i­dents that it’s in their in­ter­est to keep Phob­jikha a place where cranes will come. School­child­ren help with sci­en­tific field­work. The govern­ment also en­cour­ages cer­tain lo­cals to earn in­come by of­fer­ing home stays to tourists. I went to one called Aum Pas­sang Zam Farm House for a de­li­cious din­ner and a bath in a wooden shed, heated with stones straight from a camp­fire. Pre­vi­ous Lives One val­ley west of Phob­jikha is the city of Pu­nakha, fa­mous for a tem­ple ded­i­cated to the wor­ship of a Bud­dhist leader known as the Di­vine Mad­man, or Lama Drupka Kun­ley, who had a magic phal­lus he used to fight off evil spir­its. Pe­nis im­agery is ev­ery­where: Painted on walls in great de­tail, some­times wear­ing a sash. More sub­tle ver­sions in­clude the gi­ant wooden pe­nis that graced my ho­tel room man­tle, and the red-painted wooden penises with air­plane wings that hung off each cor­ner of the ho­tel roof as a form of spir­i­tual pro­tec­tion.

But I had come to Pu­nakha not just for pe­nis im­agery, but also to visit what Phuntso and my other guide and driver, Kinga Ten­zin, said was the best dzong, or fortress in all of Bhutan. It’s a vast com­plex with both ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fices and monas­tic spa­ces, in­clud­ing tem­ples that tell the story of Bud­dha’s life. The week I was there, it was host­ing the Moen­lam Ch­henmo (The King of As­pi­ra­tional Prayers), an an­nual fes­ti­val for the faith­ful in which the Chief Ab­bott, the top re­li­gious of­fi­cer in Bhutan, re­cited bless­ings and prayers for world peace over a loud­speaker.

For miles head­ing to the dzong, the road was lined with pil­grims: men in tra­di­tional gho out­fits (a knee-length robe tied at the waist, with a col­ored sash across the chest to show so­ci­etal rank) and women in their bright­est silk jack­ets and an­kle-length wrap skirts called ki­ras. When we ar­rived, a field was filled with thou­sands of devo­tees, along with tents where they’d sleep for up to two weeks. Some were tak­ing a break to see the coun­try’s long­est sus­pen­sion bridge nearby. They’d trav­eled days from other parts of Bhutan, and had never seen this part of the coun­try.

That night, I stayed in the Pamt­sho Lodge guest­house in Thim­phu, the cap­i­tal, and ate din­ner with the owner, Tse­wang Nidup, whom ev­ery­one calls Un­cle. Both of my guides agreed that he had so much wis­dom that it seemed to em­anate from his pores. I told him about my day at the Pu­nakha Dzong, and how I had looked around and hadn’t seen an­other Westerner in that sea of Bud­dhists.

“You must have ac­cu­mu­lated enough merit in a pre­vi­ous life to be part of the event,” he said. “Or maybe you are al­ready as­so­ci­ated with it in your pre­vi­ous life, so now it’s a con­ti­nu­ity.” Peo­ple who’d seen me there, he said, likely thought the same thing, which is why no one seemed to give me a se­cond glance.

“We are Bhutanese-born here and still we did not get the op­por­tu­nity to see the bless­ings,” he went on, “and you did.”

Had I ar­rived at Bhutan any ear­lier in my 52 Places trip, I’m not sure I would have been as grate­ful as I am now, so close to the end of my jour­ney. I spent so many months stressed out about lo­gis­tics or fi­nances or work. I don’t know if it’s be­cause of the ex­haus­tion that set in when I was in China and hasn’t lifted, or the as­ceti­cism of liv­ing out of a suit­case for a year, but the Bud­dhists sto­ries my guides told me all seemed to make sense.

My trip had be­gun with a visit to the re­cently com­pleted gi­ant golden Bud­dha statue, known as Great Bud­dha Dor­denma, who over­looks Thim­phu and is filled with 125,000 smaller Bud­dhas. There I learned to point with an open hand, and to pros­trate my­self as I thought of the teach­ers who have helped to get me to this mo­ment. My last morn­ing, we went to the an­cient Jowo Tem­ple of Kyichu in the western city of Paro. Or­anges grow in the court­yard, even though the cli­mate pre­vents them from grow­ing any­where else in the val­ley. Cir­cling the grounds clock­wise were half a dozen frail and el­derly Bhutanese, some with hunched backs and canes, chant­ing the six per­fec­tions that lead to en­light­en­ment: gen­eros­ity, moral­ity, pa­tience, en­ergy, med­i­ta­tion and wis­dom.

Phuntso said the el­derly come here and do this all day, ev­ery day. “They are pre­par­ing for the af­ter­life.”

I even be­gan to be­lieve the story about Pad­masamb­hava rid­ing on the back of a ti­gress to fight a de­mon on the high cliff where one of Bhutan’s most pop­u­lar tourist at­trac­tions, the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, is. It takes over four pun­ish­ing hours to hike there, round trip, and was, by far, the most crowded tourism spot I vis­ited. Yet mys­ti­cism still drenched the air.

On the way back, Phuntso and I saw a fig­ure drop from a tree that turned out to be a gray lan­gur mon­key. We had seen gray lan­gurs once be­fore on our trip, and Kinga had stressed what good luck they are. Phuntso said that on all his many trips to Tiger’s Nest, he had never seen one on this trail.

As we left, we pointed the mon­key out to a Bhutanese fam­ily. The fa­ther agreed with Phuntso that spot­ting one here was of great por­tent.

“He must be a dis­ci­ple of Bud­dha,” he said, mat­terof-factly, and walked off, down the trail.

Eat like a lo­cal, though, and you’ll have an amaz­ing time. My first night, my guides took me to Kalden, a tiny pink-walled restau­rant in Thim­phu, where I got my first taste of ema datsi, or chili cheese, which fea­tured dried red chiles re­hy­drated with a thin soup made from fresh yak cheese and but­ter. I made a point to eat its end­less va­ri­eties ev­ery day.

Don’t for­get to try Druk 1100, the stan­dard beer, with eight per­cent al­co­hol, and ara, a grain liquor that tastes like moon­shine. Tra­di­tion dic­tates that you have to eat the cater­pil­lar fun­gus at the bot­tom. It’s a ghost moth lar­vae that has been mum­mi­fied by the fun­gus, and is an aphro­disiac as well as the most ex­pen­sive mush­room in the world.

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