We awoke in Punakha to a crisp, clear morning. The sun illuminated the Meri Puensum Resort, revealing all the intricate details I hadn’t seen when we checked in the evening before. As you can see, Bhutan’s traditional architecture is a magical balance of stone, wood and hand-painted details. Older structures have beautiful time-worn character while newer ones, like this main building at Meri Puensum, often have whimsical, almost fairy tale-like spirit. A sense of joy seems embodied in nearly all the architecture of Bhutan.
A large prayer wheel sits at the entrance to Meri Puensum, which is located on a hillside with a northerly view toward Punakha. We had an enormous room here with two twin beds, en suite bathroom, sitting area and private balcony with view to the river below. Slopes around Punakha were dotted with intense red leaves of wild poinsettia trees.
After a quick breakfast of eggs and toast, we hopped in the car with Kinga (guide) and Kumar (driver) and began our journey to Phobjikha Valley. Getting anywhere in Bhutan by land requires patience and perseverance — the twisting, turning road (there is only one going east and west) climbs relentlessly along and over the mountains, until eventually it finds the next valley and barrels to the bottom. Thirty minutes up the road, we stopped to take some pictures while Kumar gathered some fresh blooms from the roadside to decorate the hood ornament on the car — a touch of beauty for the ride that matched Kumar’s constant smile and happy demeanor.
The timing of our trip fortuitously coincided with the arrival of black-necked cranes in Phobjikha Valley so we were headed there to do a bit of bird watching. After over two hours on the road the hills finally parted, revealing a glimpse into the valley. We continued on, arriving shortly thereafter at a small village called Beyta where we started our journey on foot at Gangtey Goemba.
For approximately 450 years, Gangtey Goemba has overlooked the Phobjikha Valley from the top of a hill on the northwest side. Old, red double doors opened into the courtyard where the prayer hall suddenly appeared in silent grandeur — dominating, awe-inspiring and just… big.
White exterior walls accentuated the goemba’s size and angularity. The structure seemed larger at the top than the bottom — articulating outward to a multi-tiered roof with rich, gold detailing and protective deities placed at the corners. The goemba seemed generally not of human-scale, inspired by something larger than life, dwarfing the characters in its doorways. A closer look at the carved and painted woodwork showed astonishing artistry — brush stroke after brush stroke, highlights, shadows and perfect portrayals of symbolic figures and animals.
Monks’ quarters were located around the perimeter of the courtyard, each doorway with a number and a decorative swath of fabric hiding the interior. This was room number 37 with a scene depicting the “Four Friends”, a legend of Bhutanese culture involving an elephant, monkey, rabbit and bird and their harmonious relationship with each other and with nature.
From the goemba we walked through Beyta, a small village with a central road and a handful of homes alongside. People were out tending to the needs of their daily lives — fixing a roof, hanging up laundry and drying those ever-present chili peppers in the warm sunshine.
The Gangtey Nature Trail led east from Beyta, down the hill through pine forest and dwarf bamboo. Fences and rock walls defined plots of vegetables, like potatoes and turnips, surrounding two-story homes.
Breakfast! These kids were eating raw turnips just pulled from the ground.
Emerging from the forest, the valley opened in front of us. A small deck near an enclave of prayer flags provided the perfect resting spot from which we could look for the nesting black-necked cranes. The cranes migrate from Tibet, arriving in Bhutan near the end of October. They winter here in Phobjikha Valley, returning to Tibet around February. Supposedly, every year the cranes circle Gangtey Goemba several times before leaving the valley on their way back to Tibet.
We were quite far away from several groups nesting down the hill, but in the midst of looking at them several other flocks took flight and passed us going east (click any image for a larger view).
I regretted I didn’t have a more powerful zoom lens to photograph the nesting cranes, but the blue sky was a nice backdrop for the several dozen flying to other parts of the valley. Black-necked cranes are endangered, numbering between 5,500 and 6,000. In the end, it was nicer to just put down the camera and watch them fly over us for there was something intangibly special about plainly seeing this endangered species for what may have been the one and only time in my life.
Turning to the east, Kinga led us down the hill further into the valley. We saw a handful of nesting cranes here and there, sometimes among the grazing livestock. It seems the livestock isn’t helping the health of the valley’s low-lying wetlands — eating the grasses and trammeling paths across the habitat of the black-necked cranes.
Reaching the bottom of the valley and the village of Tabiting, we stopped for lunch. It was just the two of us, Kelly and Kelly, along with Kinga and Kumar (we eventually called ourselves K4 in the spirit of the fourth and former king, also known as K4). We were welcomed to lunch by a Bhutanese woman who made a place for us to warm our hands and feet by the fire. Lunch was a heaping helping of several tasty dishes — potato dumplings (just like tater tots), scrambled eggs with tomatoes, cauliflower, roasted eggplant and a spinach-cheese Bhutanese combo.
We made one last stop before departing the valley at the Black-necked Crane Information Center. A resident nearby opened it upon our arrival — that day we were the only tourists as far as the eye could see. It’s an impressive center with lots of information about the cranes, a viewing room and two high-powered telescopes that enable you to see nesting groups far up the hillside near the base of the treeline. So far this year they had counted over 300 cranes in the valley. Here’s a gander of a black-necked crane up close and personal:
Back on the road, we began the arduous return to Punakha as the sun moved west and dropped shadows over the mountains. Turning a corner, we encountered a group of gray langur monkeys on the roadside (also known as Hanuman monkeys named after a Hindu monkey-god). Like little old men, tufty gray hair bearded their faces and framed their delicate features. But there was nothing delicate about their movement as they ran full speed and jumped into the trees nearby, swinging from arm and tail in a commotion of sound.
Sound… noise. It isn’t often that I visit a place and become aware of the absence of something, but the absence of noise in Bhutan is noticeable. It is such a quiet country. There is no noise overhead — no engines buzzing as aircraft and people fly from one place to another. There is little noise on the ground — just a handful of roads have few cars and trucks compared to anywhere else in the world. There is no raucous nightlife or 24/7 need for convenience that drives this society into the wee hours of the morning. People sleep, wake and live like the rest of us used to. Yes, the Bhutanese have mobile phones, computers and televisions, but they’ve somehow managed to keep out the peripheral madness that often accompanies these advances. In many ways Bhutan seems to have astutely watched and learned from the rest of the world — taking what works (organic farming, nature conservation, regulated tourism, democratic voting with over 80% voter turnout) and discarding what doesn’t. Bhutan is very wisely marching to its own drum, making beautiful music in the process.