When the sun went down last night I felt really cold for the first time. The space heater in our room only worked on one side so LeeAnn and I moved with our i-Pads to the restaurant where there was tea and a warm fire.
I had been looking forward to a farm stay. I saw it as an opportunity to get a clearer view of what life is like for Bhutanese citizens who live on and off the land. However this is not what I had imaged. I don’t think it was what Jaim Yong was expecting either as he was on his cell phone a lot and kept reassuring us that his manager back in Thimphu was trying to get us into something different. That wasn’t working out well as the Black-Necked Crane Festival is on and what little accommodation there is, is completely booked. He even tries to get us a room above the restaurant! I figure that what doesn’t kill me makes me strong so we tell him, not to worry, we will be fine.
We share our space with two beds, and a Buddhist shrine. It is clean but not fancy. Our windows have fretwork and the door has the biggest padlock and key that I have ever seen! It’s very serviceable and fits both the outside and our bedroom door. This is significant because our entrance has both a door and a curtain. The curtain is patterned and sort of orange and hangs three quarters of the way to the floor so the heat and smoke from the woodstove can seep under it. That works better of course when the door is open but as it turns out Jaim Yong is sleeping in the outer room on a narrow ledge so that he can stoke the fire all night so it seems appropriate that we close the door.
Now the woodstove, that’s another thing. LeeAnn says the rules are different here and that I should not worry about how it is installed. I say that fire is the same everywhere! Sure the stove is sitting on a nonflammable surface in the middle of the room adjacent to our bedroom. It has a four-inch pipe that extends above the stove, makes a right-angled turn and then makes a downhill run to a creosote-stained wall. Jaim Yong keeps it stoked all night and seems oblivious to any hazards. He also keeps a large pot boiling away to give us warm water for washing. We really just have poor accommodations, not that it will kill us but rather that it just isn’t that good and I haven’t even got to describing the washroom yet.
A shower would be out of the question. Not so much because it is cold and dark and mildewy in there but because one would probably have to stand on top of the washing machine. And… I know I am whining but I really hate Asian toilets and I’m just lucky that I didn’t pull the sink, that drains onto the floor, off the wall when I did my best to use it.
Please note that we had passed a campsite on the way to the farm — nice western style wall tents and three stately latrines all set in a field that overlooks the valley. It has crossed my mind to run away from home! In the end however, we opt to use the restrooms in the restaurant as needed.
It’s frosty this morning and everything in the Phobjika Valley has a white fringe. I should have taken my camera to breakfast. By the time we are ready to head for Gangten, the site of many of the events of the Black-Necked Crane Festival, the frost has melted.
Gangten sits on the east side of the Black Mountains at an elevation of about 9800 ft. The loftiest peaks in this range rise to about 16,000 ft. There are many nomadic shepherds and yak herders in this region.
As we near Gangten, there are lots of families walking. Festivals or tsechus are major religious and cultural events in this country and no one would want to miss the festivities. Everyone is wearing the national dress. Stalls line the narrow street leading up to the Monastery. It looks like a Walmart truck has unloaded. Winter coats, plastic toys, vegetables and oranges are set out on rugs or piled on counters. It’s all laid out together. It’s like a fall fair. The people stop, look, buy and follow the growing crowd that is working its way up the hill.
The Gangteng Monastery follows the traditions of Pema Lingpa’s revelations. Pema Lingpa was believed to be a reincarnation of Guru Rinpoche and at the age of twenty- five began a hunt to locate the sacred treasures that Guru Rinpoche had hidden. This resulted in the founding of many monasteries in Bhutan including the Gangteng Monastery that is one of the two main centres of the Nyingmapa school of Buddhism in Bhutan today.
The Gonpa was established in 1613 and underwent a massive renovation between 2000 and 2008 at a cost of 700 million ngultrum. (Approx. 50 N = 1 $US) While many timbers had to be replaced, all efforts were made to preserve the old structures, carvings and paintings. This large complex now contains a school, living quarters for monks, meditation halls, a guest house and five temples. It takes a hundred lay monks to maintain it.
The large square inside the monastery walls and in front of the main temple is the primary site for today’s Black-necked Crane Festival. It is a big event not only for the Phobjika Valley but also the monastery. It is held on the 12th of November every year and is sponsored by the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature.
We arrive at the monastery early and find the courtyard fairly empty. Only a few people have claimed a space and the village dogs are wandering around. Too late we realize that being in the shade will mean seeing the back of the dancers a lot of the time. The crowd gets bigger and the excitement grows. Local families lay down mats on the stones and settle in. School kids race around and the atmosphere is reminiscent of the preamble for a Christmas concert.
Local dignitaries and a Lama from the monastery speak at length in drongka. I guess it is hard to turn down the opportunity to address a captive audience. On the serious side, part of this Tsechu is the blessing of the cranes and I suspect that that was what I missed because I didn’t know the language. Following the speeches there is a parade of dances performed by children and older members of the community. It unfolds before us in a blaze of colour and a show of fitness.
The kids are amazing and their show-stopping dance of the black-necked cranes has them doing their best to imitate the mighty birds. A group of aerobically fit men, dance on and on, in bare feet, on the hard stone. For more than twenty minutes, lead by the endless drumming of a monk on the steps leading into the temple, they leap and twirl making their bright costumes and heavy headdresses repeatedly dip and dive. They are in the sunshine and are performing at nearly 10,000 ft. and they don’t even break into a sweat! Women, groups of boys and girls, more male dancers….the list of performers is lengthy. The music is sometimes live and sometimes taped. It is rhythmic and repetitive.
The crowd is thick now and the people friendly. A lady offers me fried rice. It appears to be “Bhutanese popcorn”. Children smile and do the things that all kids do. Monks walk through the crowd from their lodgings on the outer perimeter of the square. Families are opening bundles to share snacks. Some people lose their snacks! A very ignorant tourist demands that I move. (Oh well, there are people like that everywhere) Four other tourists are decked out in ghos and kiras. They are delighted. Jaim Yong is not so thrilled.
A little before lunch we head out to avoid the rush and retrace our steps down the narrow road that wound its way through the market stalls. On the way back to the farm I spot my first cranes far down in the marshy section of the valley.
The valley covers about 163 square kilometers and is the best-known marshland in Bhutan. Even though I came to see the threatened Black-necked Cranes, apparently, there are thirteen other equally endangered species hiding in the bushes. The Cranes roost here for three and a half months of the year because of the presence of a special variety of dwarf bamboo. Although they winter here, they spend the summer in the high altitude Tibetan plateau. Deer, wild boars, Himalayan black bears and even leopards have also been seen in this valley.
This afternoon it is sunny and warm as LeeAnn, Jaim Yong and I hike up the valley. We head down the farm lane past the prayer flags and then turn towards the marshlands on the far side. The footing is uneven and the grasses high. Jaim Yong spots several cranes and we creep forward so as not to scare them off.
They are medium-sized, weigh about 12 pounds and are a grayish white with a black head, and a red crown patch. Their wingspan is nearly eight feet. Their characteristic trumpeting is loud and if it were not for the strong wind I would have tried to record it.
We knee in the grasses watching them forage. Our wait is rewarded when three magnificent birds take to the air. Unfortunately, in my excitement, I fail to increase my shutter speed sufficiently and I now have more candidates for my collection of images entitled “ blurry birds”!
We watch their grace-filled flight and follow them first with our eyes and then our feet. We head deeper into the valley. There are restrictions about how close one can go to the cranes and it’s not close enough for good images with my 300mm lens. Not to be deterred we head back to the farm and take the car out along the entry road where we park and walk behind the Crane Observation and Education Centre. Sitting in the manure-strewn field, in the shade of the mountain, we watch the birds make majestic landings and forage until the light begins to wane and our fingers are cold.
Dorji takes the car and we follow the road to the farm on foot. People are coming home from the Festival and a series of “paddy wagons” weighed down with whole families weave their way through the walkers. These wagons are attached to a cultivator that is used to plough the rice paddies. To ride and not walk is abnormal in this country. Whole families, from Grandma to a new baby, are bundled into the wagons. I count as high as twelve!
In the yard, Jaim Yong stoops to pick up wood shavings to use as kindling for the stove in our outer room. Within minutes of arriving at the farm, he is at our door with tea. There is time for some reading before dinner. Our electric heater glows red and warm air swooshes under the orange curtain. It’s cozier here tonight but I am still keeping a toilet seat on my wish list for our next stop.