We also made a brief visit to a very quiet nunnery before touring the Punakha Dzong, also known as the Fortress of Great Bliss. As the second dzong to be built in Bhutan in 1637, it served as the capital until the mid-1950s when the seat of government was transferred to Thimphu. The dzong sits on a strategic and beautiful location at the confluence of the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu, the mother and father rivers. While most of the historically and spiritually significant rooms and relics are understandably not open to the tourist public, it was nonetheless enjoyable to view the dramatic dzong from its inner courtyards, passing through a modern day security check in order to do so.
In the late afternoon, we began our drive toward Gangtey in the Phobjikha Valley, arriving in the dark to our own private lodge, not by design but because of the lean season of tourism. As we descended into the valley from the 3,360-meter Lowa La pass, we could see sparse twinkles of lights lining the edge of the valley floor below. Had we visited just five or so years prior, perhaps we would have been met with total darkness since electricity had only been introduced since then, likely motivated by tourism. We settled in to our double space-heater equipped rooms at the Gakiling Guesthouse and enjoyed a cozy dinner next to a woodburning stove in the dining room, much appreciated since we had gained over 1,500 meters since leaving balmy Dagapela.
On our short walk outside back to our rooms, we heard the intriguing calls of the reason we had traveled so far: a population of endangered Black-Necked Cranes. Phobjikha may be cold for us, but for the cranes it is an ideal habitat for overwintering, migrating from their summer nesting sites on the Tibetan Plateau. We woke early the next morning to walk down to the edge of the marshy valley floor and get our first glimpses of them omnivorously foraging for whatever combination of plant roots, insects, fish, snails, or voles they could find. After a breakfast with toast kept warm on the woodburner within an arm's reach, we visited the Black-necked Crane Information Center to learn more about their natural history and conservation status, as well as take a closer look through some spotting scopes. The observation center is run by Bhutan's own Royal Society for the Protection of Nature and supported by the International Crane Foundation as well. Together they host an annual festival celebrating and promoting conservation of the cranes as well.
Since these cranes are more tolerant of human activity than other crane species, it was no surprise that our best view of them happened to be a pair of the four-feet tall birds poking about for forgotten potatoes in a farmer's field at the edge of the road while driving up to the hilltop Gangtey Goemba.
From the monastery, we took a trail down the other side of the valley, skirting clusters of houses and strolling through beautiful pine forest. In the middle of the forest, Mike began to feel fatigued with some back pain and stopped to rest on a rock, bowing his head down. He announced, "I'm done. Call the car!" We all looked around at each other, not sure if he was joking or not. When it became apparent that he was serious, Esther calmly pointed out that there was really no road in the middle of the forest. He picked up his head and looked around, then gradually began to chuckle at himself. Meanwhile UD called Namgay to meet us at the closest intersection of trail and road. Luckily, the pick up point was not so far away and once we walked beyond the edge of the forest we were blessed with the sight of several cranes in flight overhead. Locals say that when the cranes leave the valley in the spring, they all circle the Gangtey Goemba clockwise three times as they depart. Our Western minds are quick to categorize this as myth, legend, or superstition, but isn't it more beautiful to simply believe it?
Once we had Mike safely resting in the van, it was time for us to depart too. In our ongoing quest to see places before they undergo rapid change, the Phobjikha Valley is one that I feel confident will remain roughly the same as long as the cranes still come. The main threat they face is habitat degradation and loss. Their winter high-altitude wetlands are particularly vulnerable to irrigation demands, dam construction, draining, and grazing pressure. The human residents of the valley seem understand this and as long as they keep to their traditional way of life with limited development, then they will continue to be blessed by the presence of the cranes and the tourism income it generates. If Phobjikha can successfully remain a safe haven for these unique birds, then perhaps a viable population stands a chance of surviving into the future as well.
We backtracked to Punakha and after overnighting there, we arrived in Thimphu late morning, in time for a quick cruise through the market selling local produce on the top level of the parking garage-like structure and produce imported from India on the bottom floor. Of course, the market heavily featured chillies, being that they are regarded as a staple vegetable here rather than a spice to be used sparingly. The market was easily the cleanest and most well-organized of any I have visited on my travels.
No visit to Thimphu is complete without visiting its dzong, where we also got a distant glimpse of the adjacent abode of handsome and charismatic King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and beautiful Queen Jetsun Pema. In keeping with the true character of Bhutan, their home looked comfortable but quite understated for royalty, and is certainly less square-footage than most suburban McMansions in the States! Following this with a visit to the ornate golden-topped National Memorial Chorten only reinforced the contrast. Circling the chorten with locals of all ages highlighted a pervasive value of devotion to Buddhism largely superseding the individual's pursuit of material wealth in this culture.
Our last sightseeing stop of the day was an informal one, popping in to an archery tournament in progress at the National Stadium. When we first approached the sidelines of the competition, we saw a gentleman let an arrow fly from his traditional bamboo bow, but searched for the target in vain. UD pointed to the far end of the field where another cluster of gho-clad men huddled around a tiny wooden board. We were incredulous that the arrows could fly 145 meters (476 feet) with any modicum of accuracy, but soon enough an arrow lodged into the board closest to us. After the teammates performed a victory song and dance, they resumed their places standing right next to the target and gauged the incoming arrows in flight, barely moving an inch as a few crash-landed at their feet. Based on the traditions, skill-level, and enthusiasm of the archers we watched, it is no surprise that archery in the national sport of Bhutan and the only event they compete in at the Olympics, except in 2012 when one woman also entered the 10m air-rifle.
For the first time on the tour, we checked in to our hotel before dark and enjoyed a little downtime in the aptly named Peaceful Resort in the hilly outskirts above town. We debated taking a taxi back into the center in pursuit of a passion we had not been able to indulge for a long time: craft beer. Upon learning that Bhutan had its own microbrewery, I had attempted to route our itinerary through Bumthang for a brewery tour and tasting, but it was simply too far east for the time we had available. It was then a pleasant surprise to learn that at least their flagship beer is bottled for national distribution if we were lucky enough to find it in stock at one of its select locations. Prepared for an all-evening scavenger hunt, it was all too easy when our hotel produced a couple of bottles upon inquiring where we might start. The Red Panda unfiltered weiss certainly delivered a more flavorful happy hour than the "refreshing lagers" we had been making do with, especially since we didn't even have to tear ourselves away from the coziness of the lobby's fireplace.
The next day was filled with more sights of Thimphu, beginning with a visit to the Takin Preserve. Since you probably have no idea what a takin is, if you imagine the head of a goat on the body of an adolescent bison, you'd get pretty close. Bhutan's national animal is usually found high up in the mountains, but we saw them in an enclosure along with a few other interesting species of the burly sambar deer (most likely) and the diminutive barking deer (muntjac).
We also toured a handmade paper factory where we got to see the processing of the mulberry plant from raw material to finished products, a few of which we purchased with enhancements of dragons and black-necked cranes painted by a local artist. We walked along the main street of Thimphu with the objective of watching a white-gloved policeman gracefully directing traffic from within a decorated octagonal booth. Although the capital city is by far Bhutan's largest at around 100,000 residents, there are no traffic lights. According to Lonely Planet, one was once installed but people complained that it was too impersonal!
Before leaving Thimphu, we wound our way up the side of the prayer flag-lined valley to the base of the Buddha Dordenma, a gold-gilded bronze statue of an imposing 51.5 meters (169 feet). Still under construction by the Aerosun Corporation based in Nanjing, China, the total cost of the project will be 100 million U.S. Dollars when completed, funded by donations large and small, domestic and international, personal and official. Gazing upon it, I tried to imagine it filled with its eventual 100,000 8-inch Buddha statues in the body and 25,000 12-inch Buddha statues in the three-storey tall throne.
While the tremendous scale of this undertaking may seem out of place, especially overlooking Bhutan's tiny little "big city," these present day events have historical roots. Two separate prophesies have cited that a large statue would be built there, thus bringing blessings of peace and happiness to the whole world. Of course, the local pride and excitement surrounding the Buddha Dordenma is another example of how a deep faith in Buddhism is so integral to all aspects of Bhutan. Thimphu may be understated, but their devotion is not. One only has glance up the hill to see that manifested in one of the world's largest Buddhas.
For non-Buddhists, it may challenging to wrap one's mind around prioritizing the substantial funds and resources for the pan-Asian trend in building big Buddhas. The Buddhist perspective sees it very differently. His Eminence Trizin Tsering Rinpoche, chairman of the Buddha Dordenma project, explained, “By building Buddha statues limitless people can pray and offer for thousands of years, thus by receiving blessings, clearing negativities and building virtues, this life will be happy, next life will be better at a higher level then finally everybody will be enlightened. The well being of future generations is dependent on the kindness and compassion of the present sponsors, Buddha makers and those who participate in this activity. This project brings benefit to self and all beings.”
With Buddha Dordenma now appearing much smaller in our rear view mirror, we headed to the National Museum in Paro. I imagine the exhibits would typically provide a nice introduction to Bhutan, but in our case we enjoyed filling in the gaps of our knowledge base from what we had already observed and experienced first hand. We got to see the details on the masks of the sacred dances up close, and learned the natural history of some flora and fauna we had seen in the different ecosystems we had passed through.
We rounded out the day by visiting one of the oldest monasteries in the country, the Kyichu Lhakhang built in 659. During our travels in Tibet, we had learned about a network of temples built by King Songtsen Gampo to pin down a giant she-demon that lay across the Himalaya. It was a cool connection that makes history come alive to learn that this one restrained the left foot, thus doing its part in subduing the evil force that was squelching the spread of Buddhism in Tibet.
No first-time visit to Bhutan is complete without a trek up to the Takshang Goemba, also called the Tiger's Nest Monastery. If you are not so familiar with Bhutan, but seem to have an image in your head, it is probably one of this iconic temple perched mid-way up a vertical cliff face. Understandably, this is the Machu Picchu of Bhutan and during the high season, it sounds like the steep path to get there is nearly as crowded as the Inca Trail as well. We were happy enough to be missing the tourist-jam as four sturdy ponies gave us a lift up the switchbacks while their caretakers kept pace with us on foot and UD walked even faster ahead. We dismounted at a tea shop and viewpoint where we then hiked up and down and up stone steps etched out of the side of the mountain. Mike and Esther tracked our progress with binoculars from the viewpoint, even catching a glimpse of us after entering the monastery's complex.
Even with all of the build-up, the dramatic location simply can not disappoint. While many aspects of the temple are in keeping with those found in more accessible places, there are some unique elements as well. Influential figures in Buddhist history have meditated in the caves tucked into rock forming the back walls of the modern-day structure. It's name comes from the occasion of Guru Rinpoche flying there on the back of his consort, Yeshe Tsogyal, as she took the form of a tigress. His mission was to subdue a local demon, but then stayed to meditate for three months. With its rich history, intriguing multi-level design wrapped around the curvature of rock ledges, and sweeping views, the magic of holy Takshang is tangible despite its ever-increasing global popularity. Refreshingly, it also seems that visitor impact has effectively been kept to a minimum. Trail side litter was almost non-existent and rules regarding photos, dress, and temple etiquette were politely and consistently enforced.
We reunited with Mike and Esther at the trailhead, whom had been waiting for us after enjoying a leisurely hike through the forest down the switchbacks. For our last evening in the country, we continued the iconic theme of a traditional hot stone bath compliments of Bhutan Swallowtail. At a farmhouse back in the Paro Valley, we appreciated the sweaty work that went in to preparing our baths as we passed by a red-hot pile of granite that must have been "cooking" all day on our way in to the bathhouse. We were all quite curious how this was going to work, but it soon became clear as Namgay carried shovel-loads of the stones and dropped them into a submersed compartment at one end of the feeding trough-shaped wooden tub. After the initial hissing of steam, the stones gradually released heat, so we only had to circulate the water in the tub when it started to cool off. Since heating the rocks releases well therapeutic minerals as well, it is a bit like creating your own homemade hot spring!
After our relaxing treat, we were invited upstairs in the farmhouse to join our gregarious host for a home cooked dinner she had prepared. Sitting on floor mats surrounding a smokey fireplace, we started with butter tea, then she filled our bowls with rice and we served ourselves various dishes, mainly featuring chillies, cheese, and potatoes, in that order of course! Esther and Mike particularly enjoyed discussing education and parenting perspectives in Bhutan with her, although we only got a peek at her young son while he was being bathed by his aunt in a baby-sized hot stone tub as we left the bath house.
The fun of the day was over yet as we got to wrap up our Bhutan experience over nightcaps with the founders of Bhutan Swallowtail back at our hotel. Tashi and Sonam make every effort to meet their clients face-to-face and are genuinely interested in getting to know them as friends. Besides the opportunity to taste K5 whiskey, made for the coronation of the reigning 5th King, the informal meeting was a lovely personal touch and yet another demonstration of a Bhutanese way of life that allows for the ideal to be actualized as an everyday reality.
Speaking of the ideal, in the previous post I shared my internal conflict with seeing Bhutan firsthand. After having had a week to take it all in, it seems to me that Bhutan grapples with the same issues as the rest of the world, societal ills, political drama, globalization and more, but they do so with a bit more grace. The historical isolation of Bhutan has not created an immunity for the vices of human nature. In the pursuit of Gross National Happiness, they have some key factors in their favor that other nations do not, such as a small culturally-similar population, but with those advantages come their own set of challenges as well. Bhutan, with its imperfections, becomes a much more believable place, one that an outsider can relate to and connect with intimately. And even though it can be tough to let go of fantasies, I'll take the real Bhutan over Shangri-La any day.