Phobjikha Valley

On Friday, October 26th, we drove to Phobjikha Valley for a short stay. Phobjikha is to the north-east of Paro, like many of our past destinations, so the beginning of our drive, through Thimphu to Dochula, was familiar. It was clear again, as it is most days now that monsoon season is over. From Dochula we saw peaks well over 7,000m – we had not yet been able to see that far from the pass.
Phobjikha Valley was a destination of ours because it is an important winter home of the black-neck cranes, an IUCN vulnerable species, and a species that the Bhutanese see as heavenly. The birds arrive each year in late October. Allegedly, they circumambulate Gangteng Monastery three times (an auspicious amount of times!) when they arrive and when they leave. When we left Paro, no cranes had yet arrived in Phobjikha.
We were also headed to Phobjikha Valley for two-day homestays. The valley is quite poor. Most people there have been farmers; now, the farmers are mainly potato farmers because potatoes make them the most money. However, the preservation of the wetland in the valley as a Ramsar site, and the draw of the cranes, has made Phobjikha a tourist destination as well, and in addition to some hotels, many families have begun to host tourists as an extra source of money. We were split into groups for our homestays, and on Friday evening, we arrived at our respective homes. I stayed with a woman named Am, a monk who was perhaps her brother or some other relation of hers, her 5-year-old daughter (Sangye), and her 3-year-old son (Zamso). I won’t be able to say much about Am, because I speak only a few words of Dzonkha, and Am speaks only a little English. The monk, it seemed, speaks no English at all, and the kids speak only a little. Am probably didn’t receive a formal education (I am guessing this because she does not speak English). Still, we had such a comfortable stay.
On Friday night, Am cooked rice, potatoes with parsley and onions, turnips, cabbage, and ema datshi. On Saturday and Sunday, she made meals with most of the same main ingredients, but different recipes. Everything she made was full of flavor. She became less shy with us as time went on, as did Sangye. Am was able to communicate with us through gestures, and Sangye was able to communicate with us in a kid way, running around and making faces. We taught Sangye how to play the card game “war” before she started continually throwing the cards in the air and making us pick them up! We made a sign for Am, that said “Am Wangchuck Homestay, etc…” with an arrow pointing toward her home. She wasn’t able to write out a sign, and her house is up a side-road, so it could be that people had been having a hard time finding her home. Am and Sangey would eat the same food as us, in the same room, at the same time, which was unusual from what I have seen so far in Bhutan. A hierarchy is evident in the way people handle meals, although I don’t have the ins and outs of the hierarchy figured out. In any case, I was glad that they ate with us. The kitchen/dining room/living room was the warmest room, with a wood stove; I was glad they didn’t leave the warmth. Am’s presence at meals also made us aware of how precious the food that she made was, and that we should leave food for her and her daughter.
On Saturday morning, we went in groups to interview people with different livelihoods in the valley. The farmer who my group was meant to interview was in a big hurry, so we asked him only a few questions before he hopped in a car to go to town. Then, we just sat in his beautiful yard in the sun, waiting for other groups to return. I was glad to have time to just look out at the valley, and the meadowed, furrowed, mountains. It was so, so quiet.
Later on Saturday, after doing a “biophysical assessment” of part of the wetland, the first three cranes arrived from the north. We went to the crane center, managed for the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature, where they had scopes trained on the three cranes (a family with one adolescent). We were incredibly lucky to see these early birds!
On Sunday, at least seven more cranes arrived. We saw some of these cranes with our bare eyes, as we hiked down from Ganteng Monastery, which we visited in the morning. We spent the rest of the day with Kuenga. Although Kuenga teaches PSEDE at SFS, her passion is archaeology, and we have discovered that she has a powerful role in Bhutan and specifically in Bhutan’s archaeology. She showed us the site of a project that she would like to embark on. There are three large mounds near a monastery in the valley which Kuenga believes are burial mounds, perhaps connected to the nearby monastery. She pointed out some places where she can see signs of a structure beneath the dirt of the mounds.
Then, we went inside the monastery, the first monastery we have visited that is a nunnery. This monastery had incredibly large windows, and it was particularly bright and beautiful. We had a facilitated discussion there with Kuenga about gender and gender’s connection to nature. The nuns sat by us as we talked, but did not add in at all. I’m not sure that they spoke any English.
Finally, on Monday, today, we drove back to Paro. We stopped in Thimphu for lunch and shopping, and I spent an hour and a half walking through the stalls at the colorful handicraft market.