Divine Details of the Phobjikha Valley
Post of the Day: Adding a bit of light to the darkness as we get through the pandemic together.
This series features travel photos from my archives, shared with you as we shelter in place.
June 18th, 2020
Today I’m sharing some of my original narrative (with a few edits) about the Phobjikha Valley, Gangtey Goemba and black-necked cranes of Bhutan, with updated photos.
The timing of my trip coincided with the arrival of black-necked cranes in Phobjikha Valley so we headed there to do a bit of bird watching. After more than 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 walls accentuated the goemba’s size and angularity, with a multi-tiered roof of 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. There was so much history embodied in this monastery. Our quick stop here (although thoroughly enjoyable) felt grossly insufficient in understanding the time, effort and meaning behind each minute detail that had been so attentively placed by someone in history.
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.
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 three times when arriving and departing the valley on their way to and from 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. 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 farther 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.
We made one last stop before departing the valley at the Black-necked Crane Information Centre. 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 which 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.
We walked outside for one last view before departing Phobjikha Valley. 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 was no noise overhead — no engines buzzing as aircraft and people fly from one place to another. There was little noise on the ground — just a handful of roads have few cars and trucks compared to anywhere else in the world. There was 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, 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.