Saturday, January 14, 2017

From Laya to Leech Socks: The Highs and Lows of an Asia Adventure, Act V

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
We drove out of the Mocchu valley, perfectly content to be bouncing along in a warm machine that was propelling us forward and uphill without us having to exert a bit of energy. We poked fun at each other or gazed introspectively at the scenery while secretly smiling as fresh memories surfaced. We had a long drive ahead of us and a stop or two to make before our next destination, the Phobjikha (Poe-JOE-Ka) valley. We have a date with cranes to keep!

Cranes, here we come....ummm....well.....wrong crane?
It takes quite awhile to travel cross-country in Bhutan. Roads are few and far between, and hug the sides of near-vertical mountainsides. Slower, larger vehicles confound the procession of cars and tourist vans, and the country seems to be in a constant state of road maintenance. No wonder, really; with torrential summer rains that fall on steep mountainsides, roads are generally the weakest link in the chain and get washed out pretty quickly. I admired the diligence of the country and its workers to do what they had to do to keep critical access routes open.

Thanks, guys, for all your work.
Note the numerous warning signs and safety barricades...
A near-full day of driving brought us finally into the Phobjikha valley. You'd think we'd have driven about 300 miles. Nope, more like 70. That's how it is in Bhutan.

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?

Black-necked cranes, that's why. This is where it all comes together, folks. The practice of Buddhism in Bhutan, the Bhutanese reverence for nature, and their propensity for joyous celebration in all forms collide together every year on November 11 to honor the return of the black-necked crane to its wintering grounds in the Phobjikha valley.

Black-necked cranes are an important symbol in the Buddhist faith. Representing longevity (cranes can live well over a decade) and faith and commitment (the cranes mate for life--longer than many human marriages, eh?), these birds are revered and considered a good luck symbol when observed flying overhead.

Mural from the Punakha temple
Black-necked cranes inhabit Tibet in summer; they breed in the high alpine meadows and wetlands at 13,000' and above. In winter, many stay in lower valleys within Tibet, but some cross over the Himalayan mountain range (itself quite a feat) to feed in various valleys in India, Bhutan, and Vietnam. There are thought to be about 11,000 of these birds, and they are listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). So, they're not at the edge of extinction...yet...but rare enough that efforts are underway by IUCN and other conservation groups, including Bhutan's Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN) and the International Crane Foundation (ICF) to secure habitat in both nesting and wintering grounds.

Precious valley land protected for the black-necked crane and other wildlife 
In Bhutan, about 500 birds make their way to a couple different valleys, with the bulk of them selecting the Phobjikha. In fall, the valley's human denizens gaze into the sky, waiting for the birds to arrive. Story has it the cranes will circle around the valley's Gangtey Monastery three times before settling into the wetlands below for the winter. The following spring, they lift off for Tibet, circling the monastery again, three times, signifying all is well. The RSPN conserves 63 square miles of the valley's crane habitat in this valley, complete with a trail for crane viewers, and maintains a visitor center and rehabilitation facility for injured cranes adjacent to the wetlands.

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.

Dress rehearsal!

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 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
After ensuring everyone got good views of the cranes and learned what we wanted to learn, we headed towards our evening's accommodations, about which we had only heard would be "farmhouses." Once again, the understated description belied the experience. Ugyen and our guides found a way to immerse us in the culture and life of Bhutan by arranging overnight stays at two separate, but adjacent, family farms overlooking the Phobjikha valley.

Our farmhouse
We weren't just "staying" there; we were invited into these family's lives, eating dinner with each multi-generational family, and enjoying the evening playing with their children, reading them books, and chatting with the adults as best we can given the language barrier (the children were good interpreters, though). We had our first glimpse of TV (TV? So what's happening to the rest of the world, turn it on? Hey, CNN! New U.S. President-Elect speaking!! We are not ready!!! Turn it off!!) which ended up being our last for the remainder of the trip.

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
Black skies turned to a lighter gray as I woke up, rolling over to open the wooden shutter keeping the outside cold away. Because birds were involved, I was willing to sacrifice warmth in order to hear the morning clacking of the cranes, as they woke up from a night of standing in shallow water to protect themselves from predators. There it was, this prehistoric tremolo chorus, sounds of birds that survived through the eons, but whose future may not be terribly secure.

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
We made our way out the front door, herding our family outside to get photos of everyone. I looked out over the valley, marveling at its beauty. Low-hanging clouds, some of the first we've seen on the trip, allowed some of the sun's rays to peek through; the lighting was sublime. Cranes were in the nearby wet meadow. Huge purple turnips were poking out of the ground in fields and buckwheat was harvested. Bushels of carrots and potatoes were stacked in carts, making their way to markets by farmers, who waved at this colorful assortment of really white people trying to get comfortable in new, and completely unfamiliar, clothing.

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!
Meeting up with the rest of our group, we ooohed and ahhhed over everyone's dress and chatted about our previous night's experience with our families. We started to realize that despite looking rather constricting, the kiras were actually warm and allowed quite a bit of mobility. The guys, too, in their ghos commented on comfort (no waistband, button, zipper, or legs; it's a bathrobe disguised as presentable outerwear!). Black gold-toe socks finished off their garb. We all felt quite fancy and gussied up.

The ladies

Check. Us. Out.
We drove to as close to the festival as we could, parked the van, and walked through a long line of vendors into the walled courtyard of the Gangtey monastery. Several Bhutanese commented on our dress, appreciating the attempt, which made us even more pleased to have donned on these new duds. Crowds gathered, mostly Bhutanese, and a number of (clearly) tourists too. Dogs roamed the courtyard--not just as we were all milling around and getting settled, but during the dances as well, which was amusing. Adorable children in tiny mini-ghos and kiras were a delight to watch; as were the stunning Bhutanese women and handsome men.

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...
Here are a couple videos I found on YouTube, the first one was posted very recently that (after looking closely) was shot when we were there:

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
We made our way to our next lodging, a newer hotel that provided a warm dining area and new beds and bathrooms. Unfortunately, the electricity went out across the entire valley, so we only had lights and a working kitchen from a generator. Such is life. It's a reminder that power/phone/lights/heat infrastructure development that we take for granted is actually pretty challenging engineering stuff, especially for a rugged, generally inaccessible country. And, it's a reminder, too, that going 6 days without a shower won't kill you. It might bring about some anxiety and someone throwing a fit (now, who could THAT be???), but tomorrow is another day, Scarlet. Good thing the power came on in time for us to each have a quick, but simply magnificent, shower late in the evening. Whew!

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


  1. Once again, a fascinating story of your adventures. Amazing how a bird can have such influence on their lives. I wondered how big your wood carving is? It's just beautiful.

    1. Thanks! That carving is probably 8-10",small enough to pack easily.

  2. Felt like I was there! Love your photos.

  3. I can imagine your fit about the shower. But I so love your dress! Another life bird?

    1. Yup! It was a great experience, and you can't get much better than cranes!