Friday, July 27, 2012

Black-Necked Cranes, Phobjika Valley, Trongsa, and on to Bumthang

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,
Temple Goat

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.
Incense Maker

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.
Chendebji Chorten

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.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Into Central Bhutan

A Tata truck - they are everywhere

We left Thimphu at 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday before the 8 a.m. start to pedestrian day - no cars are allowed within the cities. Lines of walkers, clutches of police, and yellow tape delineated the no car zone. Buses and taxis (taxis with odd numbered and even numbered plates alternate weeks.) are allowed in. The unanticipated consequences (such as, Wednesday traffic jams) may doom the three week old policy.

We began the day with a noodle soup unique to the region and  available only in the morning. The noodles were solid wheat nuggets in a spicy broth. With our tummies warmed we headed out for a leisurely journey, stopping at what interested us.  First stop, the Royal Botanical Garden (too late in the year to witness the large collection of rhododendrons in bloom) – although schools were on holiday we were the only visitors. Our take away fact - over 25% of Bhutan's land is in nature reserves. Low numbers of visitors and minimal development should allow native species to thrive and delight trekkers
The last rhododendron of the season.

Lake at the Royal Botanical Garden

Next we stopped at a spring ("holy water") for Rattu to take a sip and wet his head. People stop at springs to sip the water, fill water jugs, and take sponge baths. We also used the stop to buy a juicy cucumber - much larger than the long, skinny varieties we are used to.

Our visit to Wangdue was poignant. Wangdue is Rattu's home district. Here Rattu's parents took their infant son to the monks to ask his name. (At a local temple he showed us the image for Rattu.) The dzong, built in 1638, burnt to the ground on 24 June. In Paro we had visited a dzong destroyed by fire in the 1950's. Later we stopped in town which lost its market to fire in 2011. (We started looking for evidence of smoke detectors and extinguishers at the various hotels or at least made sure there was a reasonable escape route.) Fund-raisers for the dzong are taking place throughout the country, and local communities are being asked to pledge funds for the dzong's restoration. 

A haunting survivor

In addition to losing a spiritual home the fire destroyed all the monks' bedding and robes and local government records were totally destroyed. We found the loss of the latter as unimaginable. At least the future of new and rebuilt dzongs may be brighter, The prime minister promised a rebuilt dzong that is earthquake and fire resistant and a model for designing future dzongs.

Rebuilding underway - plan is to keep traditional design
but use less lumber

Meeting of government officials asked to pledge local
funds to  rebuild the dzong. White scarves
are worn by civil servants. Not pictured were members of judiciary
red scarf and village heads purple scarfs

Rattu asked if I would like to live in a rural area. My immediate answer was "no." Fortunately he ignored my ungracious answer and drove on. We stopped at Chhuzomsa to see a cable car system that carries down logs from the forest - 45 minutes each way. At one time it made two trips to carry tourists - I wasn't disappointed  that it has been discontinued.

We drove to the Phobjikha Valley, home of the black neck cranes. During the summer monks leave their  Wangdu and Punakha  for the valley. As the monks return to winter quarters they are replaced by cranes. (Hence we did not see one crane.) More often than not instead of enjoying the scenery I kept my eyes on the road. It was narrow with a continuous curves. (Another ignored advice - bring Dramamine.) Honking to announce a car's approach was the rule for this part of the day. In addition it was road construction season - land slides (""shooting rocks") and a broken road beds marked our path. Of course, we encountered to occasional truck to add to the "excitement." 

An hour's wait for road construction

We went to the hilltop to enjoy the scenery and start inquiring about guest houses. We spotted our first and only yak (said to be quite common in lower areas of the country during the winter).

Boys on the road

A developing nation with modern communications

This is why we were often reminded of Ireland

The end of the day at the top of the world

At our guest house Yo La Ki Guest House

That night in the guest house we learned that the valley was only fully electrified in 2011. Another guest was an environmental consultant. He was meeting with the community to discuss a pilot project that would ask travel agents to contribute to a fund that would be turned over to the communities to maintain their way of life.

The bottom line - the Phobjikha Valley was utterly peaceful and relaxing. We hated to leave and it is first on our itinerary for a return to Bhutan,