The wind was gearing up. The chill in the air was biting the exposed skin. Fast came out the jackets to cover us up. The wind had a strange howling sound echoing in the mountains. The sun was playing hide and seek as the clouds were congregating on the top of the mountains. We were moving on the rough serpentine road to see the black-necked cranes. With the winters ready to leave we kept our fingers crossed for our luck with the cranes in the Phobjikha valley. It was probably the last wintery bite before it dies. No, it was not the precursor of any storm it was the preparation of the hail storm.
I had a wish to see the Black-Necked Cranes in Bhutan since we planned our visit but was sceptical. It was already the end of winter and the spring was nearing so it was the time for them to fly back to Tibet. With all wishful thoughts, we were prepared to go to Phobjikha and also wished to travel further to the central part of Bhutan to Bumthang.
We started from our beautiful stay at Lobesa and through the road running parallel to the Punatsangchhu, we moved ahead. Bidding farewell to the new township of Wangdue Phodrang with houses built in a sequential order we moved towards the Bumthang road. The Wangdue Phodrang Dzong was seen on the top of the hill overlooking the valley and the confluence of the Punatsangchhu and Dongchu.
Every historical and religious place in Bhutan has a legend associated with it. So does this Dzong too. While in Chimi Lhakhang, the Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel was advised by a haggard old man to construct a Dzong in its present place and in turn it would help to unite the nation. He supposed the old man to be the Lord of wisdom Mahakala (Yeshe Gonpo). He sent his representatives to survey the area who found four ravens encircling the cliff. On approaching closer the ravens flew in the four directions.
This was thought to be a holy sign symbolising the spread of religion in all four directions, so he ordered the construction of the Dzong and a cantilever bridge on the Punatsangchhu in 1638. The flash floods have washed away the ancient bridge but were later built after performing holy rituals and festivals. The Dzong too experienced a massive fire incident in 2012, in which it completely destroyed sparing the lower walls. The reconstruction work is in the process and is expected to be completed by 2021.
We were told about the bad roads towards Bumthang by our guide Lakey. The bad roads were due to the broadening work of the roads. The present road is quite narrow and sharp bends makes it even more dangerous. The visible ascend was accompanied by the change in vegetation and weather.
The snow-covered mountains came even closer. The dense clouds were seen dancing on them. The vegetation has turned to coniferous, and yaks were seen grazing in the slopes. They all belonged to the nomadic group who came down from the high altitude region during the winters.
I was so curious to know about their lifestyle. Suddenly a couple of blue tents were seen in the forsaken slopes. They were the makeshift houses of the nomads. A little away from their home up above on the roadside were a few tents used as temporary shops selling handicrafts made by the nomads. The handicrafts ranged from yak hide items to stone jewellery to woollens.
Here we met an aged nomad lady who was spinning wool from the yak hairs. This cheerful lady suddenly performed an adorable dance move and then laughed to her heart. I repent my unpreparedness as I could not capture this candid moment in my camera. Lakey said that they are very friendly happy go lucky groups who love to interact with people.
I was astonished to see a young man of this group who has good talent in salesmanship. He was speaking in good English and ultimately persuaded me in purchasing a few stone jewellery (on which I too had an eye since we stopped in here). Lakey said His Highness the King has made education compulsory for everyone and also built educational institutions in the remotest part of the nation. So the nomads have a better life with less hardship now. They have electricity and proper education.
By this time I was freezing myself in the chilling breeze. I could not wait for long near a beautiful stupa in the road with pretty and bright prayer flags. The coloured prayer flags stand for the prayer of the living while the white was for the souls who have departed. There was wonderful photo opportunity but I could not make proper use of it as I was shivering even in my warm clothes.
As we neared the Gangtey region there were tiny flakes of snow hitting our windshield. Lakey exclaimed, snowfall – snowfall! We all were so excited. Now the wind was speeding up and the sky was getting darker. It was a strange show of weather with surreal lights within the forested area. I was in a trance of all this when the hailstorm started.
Heaps of sago gathered on either side of the roads and on the roof of houses. There was a vast valley behind the farmhouses and it was the Phobjikha’s valley of the Black-necked Cranes. Black-necked cranes are the winter guests, who fly down to lower altitudes to escape the harsh winter climate of Tibet. They are categorised as vulnerable and enjoys a sacred status in Bhutan.
The Black-necked cranes are considered as a symbol of prosperity and good luck. As per the Buddhist ideology, these birds are regarded as the celestial envoy or the souls of the departed loved ones who bring peace, prosperity and happiness to the valley. It is said that every year during their arrival the birds circumambulate the Gangtey monastery three times before claiming their winter grounds in the valley. They are said to repeat the same act before leaving for Tibet on the onset of spring.
The snowing continued as we drove through the road by the wetlands of the cranes and we spotted a few tiny black and white dots grazing on the ground. The Crane Information Centre is to be visited first so we took a turn towards. It was heavily snowing and we rushed into the information centre. In the meantime caught a glance of a replica of the crane and an original crane in a netted enclosure. The warm interior of the information centre was such a relief from the bone-chilling cold outside.
They had telescopes to see the cranes through the huge glass windows sitting in the comfort of the warm interiors. Here were came to know about the RSPN (Royal Society for Protection of Nature) and its work. The society works with the vision to ensure an environmentally sustainable society for the future generation. It was established in 1987 and presently the Queen of Bhutan, Her Majesty the Gyaltsuen Jetsun Pema Wangchuck is the Royal Patron of the organization.
People are not allowed to enter into the wetlands or the of the cranes. They can be watched from here and while passing through the roads by the grassland. A short documentary film was shown followed this. The documentary gave information about the cranes, their habitat, their migration pattern, the threats that they come across in this wetlands and the initiative, and proactiveness of the RSPN in creating awareness among the locals and educating them on the importance of the Cranes in maintaining the ecological balance.
There were many threats to the winter habitat of these cranes. Threats were in the form of the human encroachment of wetlands for the agriculture, grazing, hydroelectricity, climatic change and the natural predators. RSPN has taken initiative to ensure the return of the cranes every winter. It encouraged and invested in solar electricity and convinced the national energy corporation for underground power grid which would otherwise come in the path of flight of the cranes. It has also ensured maintaining the water level of the wetlands by building weirs and paying the farmers to prevent the encroachment of the wetlands.
RSPN also works for the protection of the cranes from the natural predators with the help of the local farmers. They also treat the sick and injured cranes. The one within the enclosure falls in this group. The crane injured its wing while flying to their winter foraging grounds. It has been treated here and once it is completely cured it will be released back to the wetlands so that it can fly back with the flock.
The snowfall has stopped and then it started raining. We again drove through the road by the wetlands of the cranes to catch a better view of these celebrities. But with my humble 300mm lens and the bad weather, I could not manage good shots of the cranes at a distance foraging in its winter residence. A wish-fulfilling satisfaction prevailed.
Now we went to the holy Gangtey monastery. This monastery is again linked with the prophecy of the famous Terton (treasure revealer) Pema Lingpa. Gangtey monastery is also known as Gantey Gonpa. It is located beside the Black mountain overlooking the Phobjikha valley. The rain has stopped some time ago and now again there was the snowfall. The serene, ancient monastery stood as the backdrop of fluffy snowflakes hitting the ground. Ah! What an amazing sight to behold. It seemed we were blessed by the almighty.
The weather was still very chilling and the interior of the monastery too was equally cold. Even with our double layered warm clothes, we were shivering. With the thoughtful mood on the hardship of life of these residential monks life, we came out of the temple to see the sun shining brightly on a blue sky. The wind was severe and Lakey advised that it would be better to get back to Wangdi than to move forward towards Bumthang through the even worse roads.
With a mixed emotion of fulfilled and unfulfilled wish, we were returning back. Although our happiness quotient weighed more in the weighing scale. On our way back we stopped at a ‘Village Restaurant’ (named so in Dzongkha language). The restaurant was no fancy restaurant but a room with a pair of tables and a couple of chairs adjoining the residence. We were not served in the usual restaurant room rather we were welcomed to the interior of their house where the warm couple served us homely food with lots of love. With so much of love and lovely moments, we returned back to Lobesa to the same old hotel from where we had started.