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Waiting for the annual return of Bhutan's 'Birds of Heaven'

Karma Dorji Bhutan Himalaya Travel Programs Coordinator

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Each year, a small number of visitors to Bhutan are fortunate enough to see the rare and endangered Black-necked Cranes. Elegant, mythical and evocative, the Bhutanese countryside— and avid birders who have traveled  halfway across the world— wait for these "Birds of Heaven" to arrive with bated breath.

The traditional scalloped windows of my room at the lodge in Paro open to a late autumnal view of post-harvest rice-fields that reveal just how much Bhutan's two or three main "cities" still retain their traditional roots. For most Bhutanese people their farms, their ancestral homes, and their age-old traditions are never very far away.

1. Window of Opportunity

The Bhutanese countryside wakes slowly outside our scalloped windows in Paro valley where most of our journeys begin. Paro has the country's only international airport and is one of the Bhutan's three main "cities." But even here, the country's agrarian heart is clearly evident.

 

This view of the fertile rice paddies of Paro coincides with the golden post-harvest season. Crisp clear mornings, dazzling days and the sparkling Bhutanese country side are the norm as we journey east toward the gateway valley of Phobjikha to catch the arrival of Bhutan's rare and endangered Black-necked Cranes. We have always managed to time this journey well (see Celebrating Bhutan's Black-necked Cranes) but fluctuations in annual migratory patterns due to weather, climate, human interference and a host of other reasons beyond our control mean there is always a possibility that we may miss that window of opportunity. 

The 169-feet tall statue of the Giant Buddha Dordenma, made of bronze and gilded in gold, towers above the landscape from its perch carved on a high shelf on a mountain near the entrance to Bhutan's capital, Thimphu.

2. Enter the Buddha

 

On our way east to see the Black-necked Cranes, the museums, markets and cultural importance of Bhutan's capital, Thimphu, makes it an obligatory stop. Also obligatory is the trip up the mountain to see the burnished Buddha Dordenma statue, which rises above the capital like Christ the Redeemer above Brazil's Rio de Janeiro, a visible landmark from nearly every distance in the valley. Rio's landmark is 125-feet tall while Thimphu's Buddha is 169-feet. The giant Buddha includes a kora at its base, a ritual circular walkway around the image that Buddhist faithfuls perform as a devotional act at various points during the day. Of particular note is the fact that visitors can enter the giant Buddha through its gilded doors near the base. Inside, it becomes a full-scale temple where one can meditate and make religious offerings. This may give the statue an even greater appeal for the large crowds of spiritually-minded Bhutanese people who daily flock the grounds as the ultimate goal of Vajrayana Buddhism is to merge into the enlightened qualities of the Buddha.

 

Seated in front of the Dordenma (a name that means "Seated on the Diamond Throne") we offer our own aspirations and hopes that we have successfully timed our arrival in central Bhutan  for a good viewing of the cranes. 

One of our guests pauses to admire the intricate wall carvings inside one of the capital's most impressive monuments, the "Fortress of Auspicious Faith," or Tashichhodzong.

3. Fortress of the Faith

 

One of our many stops in the capital is the beautiful 17th century building which houses the offices of His Majesty the King of Bhutan and other important branches of government as well as Buddhist shrines, temples, and a fully functioning national monastery which has been open for centuries. Bhutan's constitution states that government must be grounded in the happiness of its people.  Both are inseparable from the tenets of Himalayan Buddhism which expresses harmony between the spiritual and the practical through art, architecture and good governance.

 

Seen in this light the building that protects the spiritual needs of the people while housing national entities that pursue progressive policies for a secure future—such as the Gross National Happiness Commission, which balances modern development with life-satisfaction for Bhutanese citizens—seems rightly deserving of the title Tashichhodzong which, translated, means Fortress of the Faith

A private prayer ceremony inside the Buddhist monastic school n Phobjikha

5. Crane Dance (pun-intended!)

The whole time we have been on the road, I have been calling our contacts at the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (which oversees Crane Conservation) as well as the on-site manager of the Crane Observatory in Phobjikha. The news is discouraging. There hasn't been a single crane sighting and no movement in the skies have been noted even though crane observers in the valley have been scanning the skies to distraction. I still have a strong feeling but the news is not good. So we get busy as soon as we arrive. What better way to use the time than to host a private Buddhist blessing for our guests, with special prayers for the cranes thrown in for good measure! To our guests we explain that it's like doing "a rain dance for the cranes." In fact it's, dare we call it, a Crane Dance

A brief afternoon shower on our way to the valley of the cranes brings a double-rainbow outside the car window.

4. A Double Rainbow

The road to Phobjikha, sometimes called Valley of the Cranes because of its significance as one of the main wintering grounds for the Black-necked Cranes in Bhutan, passes through the lush Black Mountain Range. During our drive, a sudden unseasonal shower rinses the countryside and blesses us with a double-rainbow which we take to be a lucky sign!

View from the Kumbu, above Phojikha

6. A Celestial Hike (partly down memory lane)

It's Day 3 in the valley and still no cranes. We have explored most of the valley and are still waiting for the cranes. Word from the observatory is "still no cranes." So, after a morning phone chat with my father who lives in Thimphu, I take his advice and launch a day hike up a hidden corner of Phobjikha where the views are spectacular.

For some time in the late 1940s, my grandfather served as the Shaa Droom (more formally, Drungpa), a regional governor appointed by the king to administer Phobjikha and its subsidiary valleys. According to family lore, my father was carried on horseback numerous times in and out of the valley as child and, later, as a youth, hiked its many high passes and ridges with my grandfather on official tours and seasonal migrations. 

Descending from the 12,139-foot pass between Phobjikha and Drang Haa valley to the east—along a trail that my grandfather walked many times back in the day when roads were non-existent in Bhutan—the skies open up to a heavenly light. The valley’s celebrated "Birds of Heaven" still have not arrived but I think this view is pretty celestial on its own!

A second rainbow of the journey, this time over the Kumbu valley in the Gangtey and Phobjikha region, gateway to central Bhutan.

7. Another Rainbow!

The day ends with another spectacular rainbow which greets us on our return from the high pass between Phobjikha and Drang Haa valleys. The village of Kumbu where the house at the end of the rainbow is located, is a small and hidden community on the high slopes of the valley. The people here still practice an ancient religion that blends shamanistic Bon and the more mainstream Vajrayana Buddhism. A cousin who is from the area but currently in Australia reminds me on my social media feed that everyone here is either named Kumbu after the village, or Sigay, for Angay ("Grandmother") Sigay Gyem, an old Bon spirit who is the designated "protector" deity of the valley. 

Morning in Phobjika, as the sun gradually warms the sleepy, serene valley.

8. Final Blow

 

Day breaks over the sleepy valley outside my window without so much as a feather stirring in the air below me. 

 

Even though I know we have played our best hand by scheduling our visit well into the first week of November—in previous years, the first cranes arrived mid-October while the last ones landed around the 1st of November—there is no sign of the much-anticipated Black-necked Cranes. I can't help feeling disappointed for the guests. 

Making a final call to the crane observatory, I'm told what I have already confirmed with my early morning scan of the skies. And yet, I still have a persistent, if rapidly fading, hope. So, after a quick discussion, I decide with the rest my team that we push our departure into the afternoon. ​We will have a picnic lunch in the valley and leave afterwards if the cranes haven't arrived. 

Black-necked Cranes flying overhead in Phobjikha, Bhutan

9. Arrival!

 

Sometime late morning, we are out for a final walk on the valley floor with the group.  ​Two things happen at once. I notice five or six tiny specks in the sky that make my heart leap. My phone begins to buzz without stopping. I put the phone to my ear and hear the crane observatory manager speaking the words my eyes are now confirming. The cranes are here! Then the first familiar cries announcing their arrival, as they glide past a stand of prayer flags in front of us, sweeping gracefully over the valley. I quickly motion our staff but they are already on the job, pointing at the sky, helping the delighted guests pinpoint arriving cranes. Everyone is laughing excitedly and taking pictures of incoming cranes. Then, with an audible whoosh of wings, they fly right over us in what feels like a personalized private blessing! I only manage to get some quick blurry shots as they go by but I feel completely happy, grateful and fortunate. By the end of lunchtime we count a total of 14 birds, adults and juveniles together, the first group of Black-necked Cranes to arrive for 2017, at the end of their epic annual migration over the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas. 

Black-necked Cranes flying past prayer flags in Bhutan's Phojikha valley. The prayer flags are believed to send blessings on the wind while the cranes return each year to the valley as blessings on the wind.

10. A Kind of Benediction

In my journal later that evening I read this entry:

"Good morning from the Gangtey valley, where the annual return of the rare and endangered Black Necked Cranes is awaited with bated breath. Nearby, the 17th Century Gangtey Monastery provides a calm reminder that time is a relative notion. I dedicate the stillness of this morning to the sacred cranes who must make the arduous and heroic journey from the Tibetan Plateau and beyond, over the cold and jagged Himalayas, to grace the valley again with their familiar and reassuring presence through the harsh winter in this high region of the Bhutan Himalaya."

 

To that, I add:

"And then, to our great good fortune, mere hours before we leave this blessed valley, after two auspicious rainbow sightings, Bhutan’s 'Birds Of Heaven' have arrived in the Gangtey-Phobjikha valley as they have for hundreds of years, bringing joy to locals and visitors alike. I feel the blessings of their presence in my heart as a kind of benediction!" 

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