Our columnist, Jada Yuan, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2018 list. This dispatch brings her to Bhutan (no. 9 on the list); it is the 50th stop on Jada’s itinerary.
The valley was unspeakably beautiful: honey-colored hills flanked by mountains covered in pine trees. Dark shrubs dotted the expanse, as did wandering cows, temples and clusters of 108 white Buddhist prayer flags. Relatives of the dead plant the flags — thin strips of fabric that run the length of tall poles — during the 49 days it takes to guide and protect the soul as it moves toward the next life.
Every time I’d see those flutterings of white, I thought of the effort and devotion that had gone into covering this landscape in so many acts of love.
My energy levels were close to empty when I arrived in Bhutan’s Phobjikha Valley, far enough east from the only international airport in this lush, underdeveloped Himalayan kingdom that it had taken many, many hours of driving to get to.
I had thrown Phobjikha onto my itinerary after meeting a woman on my plane who was going there to see the black-necked cranes who make the valley their winter home. Classified as vulnerable, there are only some 6,600 left in the wilds of South Asia. Around 500 of those make the long journey south from Tibet to Phobjikha’s high-altitude wetlands each November.
Protecting these cranes isn’t simply an environmental issue. In Bhutanese culture, Phobjikha is a sacred valley and the cranes are birds from heaven. “Local people believe their arrival will bring them good harvest for the coming year,” said Phuntso Dorji, one of my two guides from the local tourism company Bridge to Bhutan. They’ll even wait to plant their winter wheat until the first crane has touched down.
The cranes seem to time their arrival and departure to auspicious dates on the Buddhist calendar, according to Phuntso, circling the sky three times above the valley’s 17th-century Gangteng Monastery. There’s video evidence of it at the Crane Information Center run by the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (R.S.P.N.) overlooking the protected wetlands. Every November, the monastery hosts a crane festival featuring dancers dressed as deities of the forest, or imitating the cranes’ bowing, jumping, wing-flapping mating dance known as the thrung thrung karm.
To visit Phobjikha is to feel as if you’ve reached some inner sanctum of the earth. We drove there on Bhutan’s single east-west highway, which twists along vertiginous cliffs, cresting passes 10,000 feet high. Wind-bowed trees clung to the mountainside as if by sheer force of will. No guardrails stood between our van and 1,000-foot drops. At times, we’d come across a bite mark of pavement that had tumbled down the slope, a mudslide of toppled trees, and large rocks we had to drive around. Another time, the highway turned to dirt, with a lone mountain biker huffing through the dust.
And this was the good road, the national highway.
We made a sharp right turn and drove an hour more on a dirt road lined with yaks. You can’t understand what cranes mean to this valley without going to Gangteng Monastery on a hill overlooking the valley floor. Its whitewashed stucco was crumbling, and the lack of other outsiders seemed to allow room for more sacred energy. Monks were in the courtyard practicing choreography for an upcoming festival in which they would dance with masks depicting the wrathful form of Padmasambhava, or the Lotus Born, who is credited with bringing Buddhism to Bhutan in the eighth century.
“Watch out for the land mine!” Phuntso joked, as we dodged cow manure on our hike through the forests above the wetlands. The cranes were white dots on the valley floor, black necks bent down as they feasted on dwarf bamboo, their main sustenance. We couldn’t get much closer because of park regulations; the cranes don’t interact well with humans. But all day and all night, their unsteady, high-pitched calls echoed across the valley as if on a loudspeaker.
It wasn’t until I’d been there for hours that I realized what was really different about this place: the total lack of above-ground wires. Back in 2008 when the government proposed a plan to bring electricity to the valley, the R.S.P.N. stepped in to pay for solar paneling and convinced the government to do all of the wiring underground, to guard against the cranes running into electric poles.
Threats still abound, though, from predators like foxes, leopards and feral dogs. One of them attacked a juvenile crane, rendering his left wing unmovable and keeping him grounded, unable to fly back to Tibet in summer. The R.S.P.N. named him Karma. He has spent the last four years in a protected enclosure at the crane center, and is the only crane you can see up close.
More pernicious, of course, are the human threats, particularly from farmers illegally encroaching on the cranes’ habitat to grow more potatoes, the area’s cash crop. The worry is that someday the people are going to want more than sporadic underground electricity. For now the R.S.P.N. is working hard to convince residents that it’s in their interest to keep Phobjikha a place where cranes will come. Schoolchildren help with scientific fieldwork. The government also encourages certain locals to earn income by offering home stays to tourists. I went to one called Aum Passang Zam Farm House for a delicious dinner and a bath in a wooden shed, heated with stones straight from a campfire.
One valley west of Phobjikha is the city of Punakha, famous for a temple dedicated to the worship of a Buddhist leader known as the Divine Madman, or Lama Drupka Kunley, who had a magic phallus he used to fight off evil spirits. Penis imagery is everywhere: Painted on walls in great detail, sometimes wearing a sash. More subtle versions include the giant wooden penis that graced my hotel room mantle, and the red-painted wooden penises with airplane wings that hung off each corner of the hotel roof as a form of spiritual protection.
But I had come to Punakha not just for penis imagery, but also to visit what Phuntso and my other guide and driver, Kinga Tenzin, said was the best dzong, or fortress in all of Bhutan. It’s a vast complex with both administrative offices and monastic spaces, including temples that tell the story of Buddha’s life. The week I was there, it was hosting the Moenlam Chhenmo (The King of Aspirational Prayers), an annual festival for the faithful in which the Chief Abbott, the top religious officer in Bhutan, recited blessings and prayers for world peace over a loudspeaker.
For miles heading to the dzong, the road was lined with pilgrims: men in traditional gho outfits (a knee-length robe tied at the waist, with a colored sash across the chest to show societal rank) and women in their brightest silk jackets and ankle-length wrap skirts called kiras. When we arrived, a field was filled with thousands of devotees, along with tents where they’d sleep for up to two weeks. Some were taking a break to see the country’s longest suspension bridge nearby. They’d traveled days from other parts of Bhutan, and had never seen this part of the country.
That night, I stayed in the Pamtsho Lodge guesthouse in Thimphu, the capital, and ate dinner with the owner, Tsewang Nidup, whom everyone calls Uncle. Both of my guides agreed that he had so much wisdom that it seemed to emanate from his pores. I told him about my day at the Punakha Dzong, and how I had looked around and hadn’t seen another Westerner in that sea of Buddhists.
“You must have accumulated enough merit in a previous life to be part of the event,” he said. “Or maybe you are already associated with it in your previous life, so now it’s a continuity.” People who’d seen me there, he said, likely thought the same thing, which is why no one seemed to give me a second glance.
“We are Bhutanese-born here and still we did not get the opportunity to see the blessings,” he went on, “and you did.”
Had I arrived at Bhutan any earlier in my 52 Places trip, I’m not sure I would have been as grateful as I am now, so close to the end of my journey. I spent so many months stressed out about logistics or finances or work. I don’t know if it’s because of the exhaustion that set in when I was in China and hasn’t lifted, or the asceticism of living out of a suitcase for a year, but the Buddhists stories my guides told me all seemed to make sense.
My trip had begun with a visit to the recently completed giant golden Buddha statue, known as Great Buddha Dordenma, who overlooks Thimphu and is filled with 125,000 smaller Buddhas. There I learned to point with an open hand, and to prostrate myself as I thought of the teachers who have helped to get me to this moment. My last morning, we went to the ancient Jowo Temple of Kyichu in the western city of Paro. Oranges grow in the courtyard, even though the climate prevents them from growing anywhere else in the valley. Circling the grounds clockwise were half a dozen frail and elderly Bhutanese, some with hunched backs and canes, chanting the six perfections that lead to enlightenment: generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation and wisdom.
Phuntso said the elderly come here and do this all day, every day. “They are preparing for the afterlife.”
I even began to believe the story about Padmasambhava riding on the back of a tigress to fight a demon on the high cliff where one of Bhutan’s most popular tourist attractions, the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, is. It takes over four punishing hours to hike there, round trip, and was, by far, the most crowded tourism spot I visited. Yet mysticism still drenched the air.
On the way back, Phuntso and I saw a figure drop from a tree that turned out to be a gray langur monkey. We had seen gray langurs once before on our trip, and Kinga had stressed what good luck they are. Phuntso said that on all his many trips to Tiger’s Nest, he had never seen one on this trail.
As we left, we pointed the monkey out to a Bhutanese family. The father agreed with Phuntso that spotting one here was of great portent.
“He must be a disciple of Buddha,” he said, matter-of-factly, and walked off, down the trail.
That mandatory fee Bhutan’s constitutional monarchy tightly regulates tourism, and visitors can expect to pay between $200 and $290 per day, depending on the season and whether you’re in a group or traveling solo, which is more expensive. That fee covers a set $65 that goes to the government for social projects; the salaries of your mandatory local guides and drivers (I used Bridge to Bhutan; independent travel is not permitted); a night at a three-star hotel; and meals. Think of it as a contribution to Bhutan’s concept of Gross National Happiness, which emphasizes preservation of culture — the high cost keeps the country from being overrun with tourists. The environment is also key to Gross National Happiness. Bhutan doesn’t export lumber, and it is carbon negative, with an estimated 71 percent of its land under forest cover. (I had a hacking cough that cleared up after a day in Bhutan.)
Connection Don’t count on your hotel’s Wi-Fi working. Use the downtime to go to the Thimphu Post Office, get stamps made with your face on them, and send post cards to your friends.
Stay Standard hotels covered by your daily fee usually have incredible traditional architecture and décor (one of mine had a throne), and rarely have central heat; the Bhutanese historically migrated to warmer valleys in winter, so insulation isn’t standard. I loved my cozy, wood-burning stove at Hotel Dewachen in Phobjikha.
If you choose to stay at a five-star hotel, you will be charged the full cost of your room, plus the standard Bhutan daily rate, with no discount for not staying at the standard hotel. I had one luxury stay, at Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary, and relished the nonfreezing bathroom floors. Be aware, most five-star hotels are partly or fully foreign-owned — though employ many locals. If you want to keep your money with the Bhutanese, Zhiwa Ling Hotels is one good option.
Eat My guides had warned me that Bhutan is not where tourists go for a great culinary experience and that I might want to bring my own snacks. (In 2004, Ruth Reichl, then-editor of Gourmet magazine, declared it “the world’s worst cuisine.”) That’s because most hotels serve buffets catering to western palates (read: can’t handle spice), which means a lot of offerings resembling mediocre Chinese takeout.
Eat like a local, though, and you’ll have an amazing time. My first night, my guides took me to Kalden, a tiny pink-walled restaurant in Thimphu, where I got my first taste of ema datsi, or chili cheese, which featured dried red chiles rehydrated with a thin soup made from fresh yak cheese and butter. I made a point to eat its endless varieties every day.
Don’t forget to try Druk 1100, the standard beer, with eight percent alcohol, and ara, a grain liquor that tastes like moonshine. Tradition dictates that you have to eat the caterpillar fungus at the bottom. It’s a ghost moth larvae that has been mummified by the fungus, and is an aphrodisiac as well as the most expensive mushroom in the world.
1: New Orleans
7: Kuélap, Peru
12: Denver, Colo.
15: Branson, Mo.
16: Cincinnati, Ohio
18: Buffalo, N.Y.
21: Oslo, Norway
22 and 23: Bristol, England, and Glasgow, Scotland
24 and 25: Tallinn, Estonia, and Vilnius, Lithuania
26 and 27: Arles and Megève, France
28 and 29: Seville and Ribera del Duero, Spain
30: Tangier, Morocco
32: Ypres, Belgium
33: Belgrade, Serbia
36: Südtirol, Italy
37 and 38: Emilia-Romagna and Basilicata
40: Kigali, Rwanda
42 and 43: Top End, Australia, and Tasmania
44: New Zealand
47: Gansu, China
Next dispatch: Laos and Cambodia
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