Dances with Cranes:
The Bhutan Adventure Continues
For previous Bhutan entries, go here (or click on the Bhutan & Thailand tab at the top)
Now that we were veteran trekkers, our tired, proud, and happy bunch clamored into the van after our night at the Gasa Hot Springs guesthouses. We were only a week into our 12 days in Bhutan; what more could we possibly toss on top of the amazing pile of adventures we already accumulated?
As we gathered at the van, I observed our group. It was yet another clear, crisp, sunny day, and the sun shone on our grinning faces. Faces that were sorta-clean-sorta-dirty, topped with hair that was sorta-clean-sorta-dirty. Depending on how clean one could get wearing swimsuits in sulfury hot spring water the previous night, we were probably on the lower end of a sliding scale from really filthy (0) to squeaky clean (10); I'd say we were all around a 3 or 4. But you don't really notice how bad you are when everyone else around you is in pretty much the same condition, right? So no one really cared, other than having maybe a niggling thought that it'd been 5 or 6 days since a good shower (with a trek tossed in there for good measure). We had a chance to re-organize our stuff, put on some clean (or, more likely, cleaner) clothes, and now we're ready for a road trip!
|Beautiful Bhutan countryside|
|The occasional monastery popping out from a hilltop|
|Cranes, here we come....ummm....well.....wrong crane?|
|Thanks, guys, for all your work.|
Note the numerous warning signs and safety barricades...
Now, most valleys in the Himalayan mountains are where people congregate, right? Not as steep as the surrounding mountains, often with water available, valleys are where people live; ergo, valleys are where there are terraced farms, houses, roads, village shops, and other things that make up the fabric of all communities. The Phobjikha was a bit different, though. People lived here, and a community existed, but the main part of the valley was roadless, uninhabited, and natural--grassy wetlands and meadows with a shallow stream bed lined with stubby trees. Houses were on the foothill slopes, as were roads and all things human. Why is that?
|Mural from the Punakha temple|
|Precious valley land protected for the black-necked crane and other wildlife|
While in the Phobjikha valley, these cranes are without a doubt the main attraction for both residents and visitors alike. For the past 20 years or so, on November 11, the entire country celebrates the return of the black-necked crane with a national holiday and a festival held here at the Gangtey Monastery grounds. Co-hosted by the RSPN and ICF, dances are held all day long--professional Bhutanese dancers in colorful costumes and masks, dancing to traditional music. Vendors and Bhutanese people come from all around the country to celebrate the return of the cranes. The highlight of the day is the Dance of the Blacked-Neck Crane, starring the local school children dressed in crane costumes and mimicking crane movements and behavior. To see this dance, by these kids, at this festival, was on our collective Bhutan Bucket List. We couldn't wait.
You can see that this festival is a big deal. Our entire trip to Bhutan was timed (and our itinerary developed) around this festival. No ifs, ands, or buts...this is why we were in Bhutan, right here, right now.
We drove into the Phobjikha valley the afternoon prior to the festival, as we had a special event all our own. Thanks to Becky, her work with early childhood development led her to connect with several schools in Bhutan. One in particular, this Phobjikha school, held a special place in her heart, and she had asked all our group beforehand if we would like to contribute school supplies to present to the school upon our arrival. Without hesitation, we all jumped in to buy notebooks, pencils, and other basic necessities, making room for them in our luggage. We had arranged to meet the children and school principal the day before the festival with these supplies, and watch as they practiced their crane dance one last time before showtime.
Here's a short bit of their rehearsal, courtesy of Lynn:
As in Laya, the children were a delight; the principal and other teachers were obviously so committed to not only educating, but caring for, these children. Everyone's spirits were high with anticipation of the big festival day coming up. I shouldn't have been surprised when I mentioned how I couldn't wait to see a black-necked crane (binoculars in hand), and one boy pointed out the window to the larger valley below and said "there's three right there." Lo and behold, three tiny white dots seemingly a mile away were my first views of this magnificent bird, thanks to a boy who lives with them every winter. All the children were so attuned to these cranes--these birds are an integral part of their lives, giving us hope that this place would provide a home for these magnificent birds forever. The connection between these children and the Phobijkha Valley's cranes is embodied in the book "Crane Boy" by Diana Cohn (illustrated by Youme), a book worth having on your shelf:
We left the school and ventured closer into the valley, and visited the RSPN-managed Black-necked Crane Visitor Center. Cranes were off in the distance, and a plate-glass windowed room with spotting scopes afforded closer views. Interpretive signs described the bird's ecology, habitat needs, cultural value, and conservation activities. We eventually hiked a trail through the protected meadow, enjoying the view, seeing cranes, and getting some fresh air.
|Black-necked crane visitor center--|
Photo from Norris Dodd
|An injured crane being rehabilitated for release back into the wild|
|Messing around with digi-scoping...camera placed on spotting scope eyepiece|
|A boardwalk part of the trail, to protect the meadow from us;|
and to protect us from the wet meadow
|The TV (above Russ, see it?), at first of interest by us just because we're Americans used to TV, |
spent the day and evening ignored. Good.
But there's more! Later that evening, Ugyen and our guides tromped up the stairs with their arms loaded down with colorful kiras and ghos, the traditional dress for Bhutanese women and men. Tomorrow, each of us would have a special outfit for the festivities. Since we had no idea how to arrange these swaths of fabric around our bodies, tonight was an exercise in preparation. The men picked out their ghos, large rectangles that magically become robes. We women picked out our ensemble--smaller rectangles of woven fabric that were to be our skirts; a long-sleeved blouse; and a coordinated jacket. Holding the fabric, we tried wrapping it around our waists, laughing at how our folding and tucking failed miserably to stay put. We'd have to wait until morning to see how it really came together.
|Becky trying out her kira|
Photo from Norris Dodd
We all got our creaky morning bodies up and around. After tea and a filling breakfast of buckwheat pancakes, hard-boiled eggs, and a rice porridge, we took turns as the host family helped us dress. Pins! That's the secret! Pins and a borrowed belt for me.
|Liz getting a little help|
Photo from the Sisters Dodd
|Rose getting a little help-|
Photo from the Sisters Dodd
|Delicious turnips; roasted for dinner along with carrots, onions, and parsnips.|
|Sherrie with two new buddies|
|Funny thing: Only after the camera clicked would the women break out in happy grins. |
For the life of us, we could not get them to smile BEFORE the click!
|Check. Us. Out.|
The ceremony began with some dignitary welcome speeches, religious prayers, and flag marches. Then came the dances.
Women in traditional dress:
Colorful masked dancers paying homage to our animal counterparts:
And, finally, the children's crane dance:
|Entering into the arena from each corner, through the audience|
|'Scuse me, need to be over there now...|
This one is a photo and video montage posted a few years ago:
We departed about halfway through the full suite of dancers in order to browse through the vendors before the post-festival crowds burst out of the courtyard, buying everything from wood carvings and beads to potato chips (sour cream and onion? Two bags, please!!).
|My favorite wood carving, now in my craft room|
The following morning, we woke up once again to the revered black-necked cranes clacking in the meadow, serenading us onto the next part of our journey. Standing outside with milk-tea in one hand, binoculars around my neck, and camera in pocket, I let the sounds sink in without bothering to look closer or to take a picture. The sounds and the tea were enough.
|The valley of the black-necked crane. And of the people who love them.|
Stay tuned for more: monkeys, takins, the biggest Buddha, and saying farewell.
For more information on our tour company, please visit Druk Leisure Tours.