Friday, 31 January 2014

The Black-Necked Cranes of Phobjika: An Exploration of Myth, Space and Experience

In the pink, milky light of dawn, Lucy pulls her scarf tighter against the cold as we make our way down the dirt road to the sleeping marshlands of the Phobjika Valley. Burnt dry by the icy winter winds, the once verdant grasslands have been leached of colour, sandy tufts poking out below the thick covering of frost. The spreading light throws a warm glow over the forests that line the valley walls, home of the Himalayan black bear, muntjac deer and the rare clouded leopard. But we are here searching for another creature, the fabled black-necked crane.

Perhaps because of their size, their elegance or their odyssean migrations, cranes have captured the imaginations of cultures the world over and are mythologised in ancient and contemporary cultures alike. Theres a kind of ethereal quality to these stories that insists on the separation of cranes from their human counterparts.

In Japan, a famous folk tale tells the story of a poor peasant man who one day finds an injured crane with an arrow in its wing. He nurses the crane back to health and soon it is able to fly again. That night he is surprised when a beautiful woman appears at his door and asks to be his wife. But I am poor, he replies, I cannot provide for you. Dont worry, the beautiful woman tells him and locks herself in a room and begins to weave. She weaves for seven days and seven nights without eating or drinking. Eventually, the woman emerges looking pale and thin but carrying the most beautiful silk cloth the man has ever seen. He sells it at the market for a handsome profit and thanks the woman profusely. But promise me, she tells him, that you will never watch me while I weave.

Soon the man grows greedy and pleads with his wife to make them an ever bigger piece of cloth. The wife is reluctant but eventually agrees. She weaves for many nights and many days, without drinking or eating. The man becomes overwhelmed with curiosity: how can his wife weave without using thread?
Cautiously, he peels back the door and sees not a human being but a crane, smeared in blood. He watches as the crane pulls bloody feathers from its skin and weaves them into an exquisitely patterned cloth. Yes, I am the crane that you saved and I wanted to repay your kindness by becoming your wife. But now that you have seen my true form, I must leave. And with that the crane flew away, leaving him the silk cloth to remember her by. 

We cross a quietly burbling stream. A lone horse stands in the grasslands behind us. To our left, a small boy picks through tussocks of grass, swinging from his fathers hand. The rest of the valley is still, the predawn hush punctuated only by the distant honking of the cranes. We step off the road towards the birds, seeking out glimpses through the dispersing thickets of fog. Rounding a corner, I draw a quick, involuntary breath: a group of black-necked cranes stands silhouetted against the fog.

The cranes stand impossibly tall, elegant feathered necks stretched towards the skies. Their height and proximity is startling
I am shocked by how vivid and real they are now that they are right here in front of us. For a moment I imagine standing there in the circle with them, a fortuitous human visitor to the celestial world of the cranes, watching as they scratch and fossick through the mud in the gentle morning quiet.

I first became aware of the singular hold that cranes can have on the human imagination when listening to a radio documentary about the plight of the endangered whooping cranes in North America.  In the story, a group of scientists and aviators become so deeply attached to the endangered birds that they take to wearing crane costumes and using crane-headed puppets in order to teach the young cranes how to survive. To teach the birds to fly, the scientists wear their costumes while flying ultra-light airplanes which the young cranes learn to follow through the skies as if the planes and the scientists were their natural, biological parents. 


After years of devoted parenting, the cranes learn not only how to survive but also how to migrate. The scientists carefully select new breeding and feeding grounds for the birds who follow the ultralight airplanes from their breeding ground in Wisconsin to their summer feeding grounds in Florida more than one thousand miles away. The cranes remember and repeat this migration without guidance and are able to mate and breed in their new breeding grounds, happily, without instructions from humans. But, in a strange twist to this heart-warming tale, often it happens that without warning, these animals who have been bred in captivity by bird-costumed scientists and taught to fly by man made machines, one day walk away from their eggs before the incubation process is complete, leaving their hatchlings without parents to help them to survive.   

Arriving in Phobjika the night before, at the end of a jolting, frigid journey, five hours on a local bus up winding narrow switchbacks and over frozen mountain passes, we entered the valley in pitch darkness, guided through the cold by kind locals who showed us to a traditional Bhutanese farmhouse where we would be able to spend the night. We climbed the narrow wooden ladder to the upper floor where a roaring bukhari flooded the dining room with warmth. We ate red rice and ema datsi huddled by the fire, gazing at the beautiful murals of black-necked cranes painted on the mud brick walls. In that short, quiet evening, when we had the entire farmhouse and, so it seemed, the entire valley all to ourselves, I had a palpable sense of my proximity to the cranes. Here, I shared the same valley as they did, breathed in the same cold, winter air, fell asleep immersed in the same quiet expansiveness.

In Bhutan, the black-necked crane occupies a very special place in the national psyche. The people of Phobjika believe that when the cranes first arrive in the valley from their mating grounds in Tibet, they circle the famous Gangtey Goempa three times as a mark of their veneration and respect before making their way to the valley floor. So esteemed are the cranes by the people of Phobjika that to avoid them being impeded by overhead wires, the local inhabitants delayed the installation of electricity by two years so that cables could be dug into the ground.

In recent years, an annual festival has been developed to honour the sacredness and conservation of the cranes. School children dress in hand-stitched, black and white costumes and perform dances that mimic the cranes courting rites bowing, flapping and jumping much to the delight of the crowd. Plays are performed to encourage the conservation of the cranes and visitors are welcomed to stay in local farmhouses, giving farmers an extra source of income to compensate for farmland made unavailable by the cranes. At the end of the winter, the cranes, believed by many to be the souls of deceased lamas, are again seen to circle the goempa three times, a final act of devotion before commencing their epic journey back to Tibet.

As the fog lifts, Lucy turns, eyes alight, mouth wide. Through the lifting clouds we see the silhouettes of a group of black-necked cranes rising into the sky, their wings gilded by the rays of the sun. We stare in wonder as they soar above us, their calls resounding around the valley to announce the beginning of the day. We follow them long after they have become specks in the distance, as if watching for the last time the flight of celestial messengers returning to their kingdoms in the sky. 



Crane-wife design by super talented illustrator William Chua. Find more of his work here.


Saturday, 11 January 2014

A Homestay in Haa for Lomba (Haap New Year)

Despite its close proximity to Paro and Thimphu, the Haa Valley is one of the least visited valleys by tourists coming to Bhutan which seems odd to me, given its fabulous name, beautifully forested hills and quiet, unspoiled nature.

The beautiful Haa valley in summer
My interest in Haa was first stirred by my colleague and Dzongkha lopen, Thinley Pelden, himself a proud Haap (as people from Haa are known). Thinley told me in detail about the special Haap New Year, called Lomba, which is celebrated on the 29th day of the 10th month of the Bhutanese calendar. After hearing his impassioned descriptions of how his childhood New Years were spent making karma-altering offerings of dough effigies and eating voluminous quantities of hand-crafted buckwheat dumplings, I knew I had to go and experience this unique celebration for myself.

Last year, Lomba fell on the auspicious date of 12/12/12. Not to be outdone, this year Lomba fell on the same date as western New Year’s Eve – a very rare occurrence that was explained to me as being only possible on something akin to a Bhutanese leap year. So on this confluence of Haap and western New Years, it felt only natural that we should be following up our morning’s amazing hike above Cheli La by celebrating Lomba with a local family in Haa.

Our hosts Ugyen and Dolay (photo from their website)
The local family was that of retired yak herder Ugyen and his wife Dolay who have recently opened their home to visitors through a homestay program supported by the Tourism Council of Bhutan. After arriving in the Haa valley, Ugyen’s brother Dodo met our car on the road and guided us up a pot-holed road to their family’s traditional mudbrick and timber house in the tiny village of Dumchoe. There we met Ugyen’s other brother Namgay who is the head teacher at Phajoding Monastery, and Ugyen’s sister Chimi whose nearby house also functions as a homestay. You can find out more about their homestays here.

Ugyen and Dolay's Home (photo from their website)

Breakfast with Ugyen's family: (from left) yours truly, brother Namgay, Ugyen's father, sister Chimi and Ugyen
As Ugyen speaks almost no English, Dodo had done all our pre-arrival negotiations and had organised for us to have hot stone baths in the rustic shed in the front courtyard. After a day’s hiking and almost a year with no hot water system, it was a sublime experience to ease my tired bones into the steaming water and listen to the dramatic hisssss of red hot rocks being dropped into the end of the wooden tub.
Our hot stone baths were followed by the unique experience of learning to make hoentay – the Haap delicacy normally only made at Lomba. Unlike other Bhutanese dumplings, hoentay are made from locally grown buckwheat which gives them a wonderfully wholemeal flavour and texture. The filling is normally fashioned from a delicious combination of dried turnip leaves (lom), local cheese (datsi), Szechuan pepper (thingay), mushrooms, ginger, garlic, onion, chilli and melted butter: an entirely vegetarian affair for an auspicious day like New Year.
Making hoentay
In the warm family kitchen we were invited to sit on the floor where watched in awe as Dolay fashioned her hoentay with the effortless mastery of a true artisan, kneading and moulding the dough into tightly wound little pots which she then adroitly stuffed with filling. We – of course – made sloppy, flaccid versions of her tightly constructed offerings and were laughed at uproariously by Dodo who was refreshingly honest in his assessments of our efforts.
“How about this one, Dodo? It’s okay isn’t it?”
“No! No! Too thick! Try and do it like this.”
“Hey Dodo! What about this one? Too thin?”
“Oh yes! Much too thin. Look there is a hole in it already.”
A Short Photo Essay on The Dumpling Making Process

After rolling the dough into a thick cigar shape,
Dolay would use her index finger to fashion the dough into a small bowl
With a potter's skill, the dough would be ready for stuffing
Full of goodness.
This is a terrible (chilip) example of the pleats used to seal the dumpling
The finished product
As we sat and drank tea, rolling our hoentay dough and discussing Bhutanese and western culture with Namgay and Dodo, I was struck by how wonderful and unique it was to be so seamlessly and effortlessly included in so many aspects of Ugyen’s family’s life. Throughout our stay we drank tea and ate authentic Bhutanese meals with our hosts, met their neighbours who popped by for New Year’s, shared thukpa (rice porridge) on the morning of their annual rimdro (ritual) which happened to fall on the day after Lomba and really had a sense of being a part of a living, breathing Bhutanese household. 

The whole gang
By the time the hoentay had been stuffed, sealed and prepared for cooking, it was time to prepare the other important aspect of the Lomba celebration – a dough effigy to rid us of bad luck for the year. According to Namgay and Thinley’s explanations, Haaps believe that throughout the year an evil spirit follows them around seeking to impart all manner of bad luck and sickness. To eliminate any chance of this happening, each Haap household creates an effigy out of dough that is designed to trick the malevolent spirit into believing that the effigy is in fact the members of that household. The spirit thus follows the effigy, bombarding it with a deluge of horrible happenings and nasty diseases, leaving the actual real life members of the house to live a year of good luck, honest toil and robust, red-cheeked good health.
Ugyen's household effigy
At Ugyen’s, a nephew of the couple had designed the effigy to be sitting astride a sturdy dough horse, all the better for escaping evil spirits and impressing any young female effigies to be seen along the way. In order to keep the effigy travelling far enough to distract the evil spirit, it was loaded up with helpful provisions such as tea, local buckwheat, millet, barley, some cash, a butter lamp and of course, a handful of chillies.
Once the effigy was prepared and blessed by all members of the household, we carried it down to the local stream – hollering and yelping with typical Bhutanese abandon to try and attract the attention of the evil spirit. As head of the household, Ugyen placed the effigy by the river and said a prayer to wish it safe travels. Feeling purged and protected, we headed back to the house where a lavish meal of hundreds of homemade hoentay awaited us. 
  As the meal drew to a close and I found myself leaning back against the kitchen wall, stuffed to the brim with delicious, crispy hoentay, full of heart-warming Haa hospitality and sated by the happy memories of a day spent hiking, cooking, soaking and banishing evil spirits for the rest of the year, I found myself wondering if this weren’t perhaps a fail-proof recipe for all future new years. 
Other great links about Lomba and Haa: 
  • The Bhutanese Prime Minister, Tshering Tobgay, himself a Haap, writes about the significance of Lomba on his blog.
  •  My friend and excellent food blogger Dolro writes about her affection for hoentay in her Bhutanese food blog.
  • Passang Tshering - a well liked blogger in Bhutan - also a Haap - writes about what Lomba means for him.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Best Views of Jhomolhari: A Day Hike Above Cheli La

Jhomolhari 7314m (left), Jhomolhari 2 6942m (middle) and Jichu Drakye 6989m (right)
On a typically beautiful, clear winter day, we headed up to Cheli La from Paro with my visiting brother and sister in law on the way to Haa for New Year's Eve. Fears of ice on the road had our driver feeling a little reluctant to take the Cheli La road, but despite a few thin icy patches the road was fine when driven carefully. Our friend Heather Robertson had told about a great hike up the northern ridge line from Cheli La and on such a clear and sunny day, we were keen to check it out. Luckily Heather passed on great details of her trip so we knew where we were going. You can see her account here.  

Manidhar prayer flags carry prayers for Chenresig, Boddhisattva of Compassion
From the pass at 3810m, we headed up the northern ridge beyond a large gathering of white manidhar prayer flags and dwarf rhododendrons burnt limp by the frost. We continued climbing for three km or so to the radio tower at 4144m, about one hour from the pass. The views of Jhomolhari and Jichu Drakye were so spectacular that I think we managed about 200m for every photo stop. I don't know whether it was a combination of the altitude, wind, cool air or spectacular scenery, but in my exhilarated state, every new angle presented a unique photography opportunity that needed to be taken. 

Chris and Amy get their mountain pose on

From the radio tower a path continues along the northern ridgeline towards a sky burial site and onwards to the beautiful Kila Nunnery (just visible in the bottom right hand corner of the photo below). Friends who have walked to the nunnery say that it is about a six hour walk from Cheli La to the nunnery and then back to the Paro-Cheli La road - including lunch and plenty of photo stops. You can see Brick's account of this trip here.

Kila Nunnery (bottom right) seen from the ridge above Cheli La. Jhomolhari and Jichu Drakye are in the distance.

The sky burial site is one of the few I have heard about in Western Bhutan, another being on the plateau above Takshang. Although relatively rare in Bhutan where cremation is the norm, sky burial was commonly practiced on the Tibetan Plateau and steppes of Mongolia where the absence of trees and hard dry soil makes it more difficult for cremation or earth burial to take place. More than this, however, sky burial - whose Tibetan name translates as 'alms for the birds' - allows for the corporeal remains of the deceased to be disposed of in the most generous and ecological way possible - a practice I can't help but find incredibly moving and selfless - not to mention breath-takingly sensible. I still have haunting memories of the clouds of vultures soaring on the thermals above the sky burial grounds in Lhasa, beaks and mouths gorged with who knows what kind of human body part. It was wonderfully gothic and gruesome!

Sky burial site with Jhomolhari in the back ground
 From the radio tower we stopped for a picnic lunch of Bumthang emmenthal and Season's multigrain (a truly decadent pleasure, I know) and enjoyed the beautiful views of the Haa valley with Chhundu Kang (aka Kangchenjunga - third highest mountain in the world) rising up serenely in the distance. The mountain is named after Chhundu the troublesome, pre-Buddhist protector deity of the Haa valley whose quarrels with the Paro protector diety, Jichu Drakye, reportedly led to the irascible Parop stealing all the water in Haa which is why the valley no longer grows rice.

The peaceful Haa Valley watched over by Chhundu Kang
aka Kangchenjunga - third highest mountain in the world.
To the south and east, I was able to trace out the last few hours of the Dagala Lakes trek, including the descent from Pangalabtsa to Geynika valley where Randall Krantz and I encountered something close to 90km/h winds barreling up the Paro Valley. To the north I could trace the drive we did up the Paro valley past Drukgyel Dzong to the army check post at Gunitsawa - about 12 km from the Tibetan border.

Coming up the ridge - Pangalabtsa and Geynika Valley in the top right
Ruining the view...
A few portraits with the mountains.
 After lunch we descended the western ridgeline down a winding herders' path in the direction of a large power pole that abuts the Haa-Cheli La road. The path flanks some beautiful forests of fir and larch (leafless and brittle in the cold) until it reaches the power pole and another cluster of manidhar prayer flags. We had asked our driver to wait near a '19km to Haa' road marker and we were happy to see his car waiting patiently by to take us down to Haa. On the way, the auspicious New Years Eve continued with the sighting of a leopard cat darting out across the road in front of us. Lha-gey lu!

Moving past the firs and rhododendrons
The common leopard or jungle cat