Descending into the Phobjika Valley in Bhutan in the late afternoon was a beautiful experience.
|Phobjika Valley at dusk|
From the rim of the valley we entered through the small town of Gangtey. It is the home of the Gangtey Monastery which the black-necked cranes reputedly circle when arriving each fall. (In American terms think of the swallows return to Capistrano Mission). In the long twilight we descended several hundred meters, seeing farms stretch across the high valley. The farms houses and barns are located along the wooded mountain slopes containing firs and hemlock forests. While not “virgin” forests, they do not appear to have been clear cut by modern lumbering activity. The center of the valley is absent of buildings, with the exception of one monastery. Even road appear to follow the boundaries of the valley with one crossing to the eastern side. It is a wide, u-shaped valley, most likely created by glaciers. No moraines were immediately visible. The floor of the valley lies at 3,000m (9,842ft).
Lights begin to twinkle on the edge of the valley, but no utility poles are present. In the early 2000’s the valley had no electricity, except for the occasional generator. The nearest electrical substation was several hours drive away (not necessarily a great distance given Bhutan roads) where east/west travel necessitates crossing north/south river valleys. The first effort at electrification was the provision of solar panels. This satisfied the need for electrical lighting, but refrigeration, computers, telecommunications and the rest of modernity necessitated a central electrical distribution system. But overhead wires were incompatible with the nature refuge for the black-necked Cranes. An underground electrical distribution system was installed in 2010. This system was partially funded by the Austrian Development Corporation. High power electrical transit towers are painted green, and the 12 meter clearance normally required through forested areas as greatly reduced by using insulated wires So the people of the Phobjika Valley have electricity and can continue cohabitate with the needs of the black-necked cranes.
Our hotel for the night was the Yo Lo Koe Guest house. It is a small family run operation located below the Dewachen Hotel.
|Yo Lo Koe Guest House|
It is up a rather steep drive, and is the only occasion where our trusty steed (Chevrolet Aveo U-VA)
|Liz, Rattu, and our trusty Chevy Aveo|
hatchback failed us. Liz and I both got out and the car made it up the drive. It just couldn’t start up on a steep slope. Our room was on the end, with two large windows looking out over the valley. I went out and saw the only stars of the monsoon trip to Bhutan, but I could feel their twinkling through the thick cloud cover. It must be magnificent on a cloud free night with no ground lighting to interfere with their power (another trip in is the mind).
In the morning as we were preparing to leave, one of the staff mentioned handicrafts in the adjacent “barn”. It is the location of a locate women’s weaving cooperative. We went in, the weavers were not there but their handicrafts were. If I had been quicker, I would have purchased a locally made carpet,
but our host beat us to it. Besides, I lacked the ready cash. The carpets are made using local wool with German chemical dyes. Beautiful knots were tied and a three dimensional effect was achieved by carving the wool on the plush side.
Out on the valley floor we followed the only road across the valley. We passed the remains of a school, with the football pitch still being used. We parked in a meadow walked across a stream to the Khewang Lhakhang monastery. I stopped to take a picture of two sub teen monks. After the snap, one of the young monk boys said no pictures, then came over and said “delete”! Goats,
sheep, and cattle were all over. Behind the tsechu we found an incense factory. All processes were performed by hand. Plastic is invading the process as they are wrapped in plastic film, and heat shrink is not far away. They were evaluating it with several samples in sight. I guess incense is a competitive business. We purchased two varieties.
Before we left the valley, a visit to the black-necked cranes information centre was in order. We hesitated to enter because a meeting to discuss the consultant’s report on eco tourism was being held. So we visited the adjacent BHU (basic health unit). BHU’s are ubiquitous in Bhutan. First level health care occurs here, immunizations, pre-natal care, and all health care that can occur without referral to an MD. People are stabilized and moved up to dzongha level hospitals. We saw ambulances on the highways, transporting patients to the main Thimphu referral hospital. Given the roads, it must be an arduous journey.
We returned to the information center. The meeting was still going on, we were invited to attend, but demurred. We learned about the black-necked cranes, who winter here but nest in Tibet. Some attempts to use tracking devices to follow the cranes back to Tibet have been made. However, Chinese authorities refuse to allow naturalists to follow the cranes and investigate their habitat. One quote was chilling, if the nesting grounds cannot be preserved, then why preserve the winter habitat. The linked article shows the interesting and perverse effect of the Chinese Swimming Teams use of traditional medicine and the health of endangered species found in Bhutan. Perhaps the sporting authorities should penalize teams for the use of such products.
After exiting the valley, we followed the road to Pele La pass, and a two hour (70 km) journey to Trongsa. Beautiful valleys were viewed. Housing and roads always are always placed on the edges of the valleys, preserving the maximum amount of arable land. We stopped at the Chendebji Chorten, with a large stupa, and a beautiful flower garden. At last we caught sight of the Trongsa Dzong across a valley.
It was a full 30 minutes later before we arrived in Trongsa. Valleys are deep and we needed to follow the contours along the valleys to get there. This was a money stop (literally, there was a Bank of Bhutan ATM). Cashing travelers cheques requires photocopies of passports and travelers cheques, and exchanging foreign currency requires photocopies of passports. Series 1991 USD currency is not exchanged in Bhutan due to US Dept of Treasury circulars warnings on counterfeit bills.
After a late lunch at the Oyster House (clean bathroom and a huge snooker table) we were off to the Bumthang Valley, only 2.5 hours and 68 km away. Another mountain pass at 3425m (11,236 ft), but this time deep in the clouds, made it a difficult and dangerous drive. After a long day, we arrived at our hotel in Jakar shortly after 6pm.