2001-Present> Bhutan: Birds, Buddhism and Byways
Our bus slammed to a halt. A flash of color disappeared over the lip of the heavily forested road. The driver whispered, “Blood Pheasant”. Motor off, he added, “He will return. There is no hunting in this country so they are not afraid.” Giddy with anticipation, eyes riveted on the open space before us, we waited. Very soon, a blood red head popped up, and he marched into full view. His white-flecked gray back was highlighted with splashes of red on his neck and tail. We adjusted our binoculars and studied the black mask that surrounded a patch of red flesh close to his eye. Several brown females with a gray crest and nape followed him up onto the road and waited for him to lead them onward. But they were in no hurry. For several minutes we absorbed every detail of the stunning birds.
|Art in an Inn|
The previous night, I had climbed into bed to the sound of pelting rain on the roof of our mountain lodge. My first night in Bhutan and I thought, Great. Birds don’t like rain any more than I do. They will hole up, so we will have to as well. A fine start. Garumph.
I was pumped anyway. But for my two sleeping pills, I would have dressed and undressed in my mind all night. When Richard, our guide, told us to put on all our warm clothes, I was ready. If I had spent half the time learning the birds rather than worrying about what clothing to bring, it would have served me better overall, but the next day would be the test of my fussing. Anyone can pack for the tropics, but birding in snow, rain and heat is the real test of a prepared birder.
Waking before my alarm, I arose in silence. No wind. No rain. Shimmering stars blanketed the sky dome out my window. A good day for birds.
I donned my layers: long underwear, field pants and rain pants, large shoes to accommodate the two pairs of socks, a T-shirt, light fleece shirt, heavy fleece jacket and rain jacket. With some trepidation, I left behind my flannel shirt. What if I fell in a bog? But I had to have something dry in reserve. My fleece hat and wind-breaking gloves completed my ensemble. And binoculars, don’t forget them. Exiting my room was a challenge due to my bulk, but I forgot my awkwardness when I inhaled the bracing mountain air.
My first mistake was putting on everything. My sleeping room was cool but the tea room had a mighty fire blazing. Before I suffocated, I un-donned half my clothes, counting them so I wouldn’t leave anything behind. Some of the others in my group were doing the same thing and jackets, scarves and hats covered what chairs we did not occupy at the long table. After tea and biscuits I carried the heap of discards to the bus and off we went into the still black morning.
Some people slept on the way to our first pass but I did not want to miss a thing. Tree shapes emerged in the first hint of dawn. The most eager of us arranged ourselves to catch what might appear in the headlights. It was too early for pheasants but night creatures were still out. As we ascended, light snow going slushy covered the road, but the careful driver downshifted for traction and continued.
At the 12,000 foot pass the headlights illuminated a fluttering checkered tablecloth. It covered a long table next to a white tent. After assuring myself my eyes were not playing tricks, I noticed brown faces with big grins poking around the tent flap. The support crew had spent the night at the pass so they could set up for our first meal on the road without delay. Our leader, Richard, stepped off the bus to greet them while we assembled ourselves for the crisp morning.
The Bhutanese crew of six emerged from their stove-heated refuge to greet Richard, who knew several of them from previous trips. The men were not warmly dressed, so after a quick reunion they dived back into the toasty tent. Now that we had arrived, they could start the cooking while we went to find some early birds in the dawn’s first light.
We stepped off into two inches of late spring snow. Swirling fog licked the forest of whipping prayer flags planted next to the road and obscured any view. Passes are choice spots for the skinny flag-covered poles, honoring the death of someone dear, or a special holiday. Until the prayer covered flags deteriorate, the wind sends their good wishes into the universe.
|Birding at Chele La|
Most birding occurs while standing. We moved at a slow stroll, listening for rustling, peeps or songs and watching the trees and brush for movement, stopping at promising signs to wait and watch. My blood doesn’t warm up at that pace, so it took more than even I had on that morning to keep really warm. One of my companions was shivering and my first impulse was to offer her one of my layers. But, no, why would I do that? She wasn’t complaining and I wasn’t any too warm myself. OK, I would let her be an adult and get on with the birding.
After half an hour, everyone was getting a bit icy and we’d seen the expected birds within a quarter mile of the summit, mostly smaller forest birds like the Coal Tit, which I first though was a chickadee with a crest, a Goldcrest, a yellowish warbler, and the Alpine Accentor, a rugged bird that thrives on open alpine slopes. The collared blackbird was among the easier ones to identify with a name that actually reflects what the bird looks like, contrary to many bird names.
Breakfast could wait while we drove back down the mountain a short way, hoping the dawn would have awakened some pheasants. On a loop of the road, we disembarked to scan an abandoned field below us. Richard spotted two Himalayan monals, our first pheasants, meandering in the snow. They pecked here and there unaware of us watching. The three spotting scopes were extracted from the bus and assembled for a closer view. I caught glimpses of the iridescent green, copper and purple of the male though I couldn’t say for certain that I saw the spatulate-tipped crest Richard described. The details of the drab females were more of a challenge, and I could not pick out their smaller crests either, difficult to see because their heads were usually down. What was important to me was that I did see the male pheasant well and the females well enough. It would not be enough for the hard core birders among us who had higher standards. One of them needed to see every field mark clearly. Another needs to feel he can identify the birds on his own. Every birder is free to construct their own standards for what constitutes a good enough view to count the bird among those seen for their life list. Most birders do keep a list even if it is not the focus of their trip. Others will spend enormous amounts of money and time to find a single bird they haven’t seen. Not me. I’m easy. Someone says that’s a particular bird, and I believe it.
My stomach grumbled and the others seemed to have had their fill of the monals. Ready for food, but still watching the road, it was on our return trip that we encountered the blood pheasant and his flock. So at ease. So at home. Not worried about our bus.
For the moment, I forgot the cold. I forgot my hunger.
Seeing that Blood Pheasant so close and so serene was a magnificent beginning to our first day in Bhutan.
Back at the dining tent we had a few minutes to look for a private bush before replenishing our liquids. In the entire three weeks in Bhutan we saw one restroom and it was locked, reserved for the king when he traveled. Since our road only led to the next valley and it was still early, few vehicles had passed. Most of the women chose to go around the corner from the tent, squat in the shallow drainage ditch and hope for the best. The risk was worth it. The view was eerie, tree tops shrouded with swirling clouds, touched by hints of sun. By the time we were done and dressed, our fingers were stiffening. The warm water that dribbled from the five gallon canister the crew had prepared for us for hand washing felt divine.
Since I knew I would not get my favorite cup of French press coffee, I got creative with the offerings of Nescafe, Milo, cocoa powder, sugar, tea and warmed or powdered milk. It didn’t matter as long as it was hot and sweet. We stamped our feet, clasped the cups for their heat and waited for our first roadside meal.
I was reluctant at first to sit at the table. It seemed so, well, decadent. Something I’d seen in movies showing members of the British Victorian upper class sitting at such a formally set table in a remote field, their staff ready to serve. Tablecloths, silverware, linen napkins and wine glasses. We did not quite rise to that level, no wine glasses, but it still was not my idea of how a picnic should be run. Besides, lovely table or not, I envied the crew in the warm tent.
|Breakfast on Day One|
While I hugged my rapidly cooling cup of brew, Pema, our cultural guide, set me straight on the British influence. British explorers had passed through Bhutan in the nineteenth century to gain access to Tibet, and did not linger. About that time, The British East India Company was instrumental in settling border disputes between outlying regions of India and their neighbors, but only to protect territory they felt was in their jurisdiction. Bhutan was able to maintain its independence and isolation for the most part until the Chinese took control of Tibet in 1959. The king began a process of planned development that would strengthen his country's ability to maintain its independence in the shadow of the Chinese threat. His son, Digme Dorji Wangchuck, who was still a student in England when his father died in 1972, continued the work. Bhutan was being modernized at a pace that would preserve the culture and traditions, an admirable and delicate undertaking.
The wind had almost died and the sun was burning off the fog. Breakfast was ready, so I put aside my reservations about class privilege and sat down with the others. When the fog finally lifted, the sun hit the snow covered mountain tops as numerous and jumbled as waves in a roiled ocean. I tuned out the friendly chatter and drank in the incredible scene.
A giant bowl of hot oatmeal arrived, and I dragged my attention from the mountains to stoke up for the day ahead. The crew served the hot cereal, juice, more coffee and tea. Inside the tent, the cook crouched next to the two-burner propane camping stove, stirring eggs in a giant skillet, his helper to one side turning the toasting bread. The men not occupied at the moment sat in the rear nursing their tea, while the others brought more food and cleared bowls and plates.
Birding is at its best in April in Bhutan. Because of the inaccessibility and relatively high cost, Bhutan is not overrun with tourists of any kind, but the work guiding birders provides good wages for the men who can get the jobs. Our crew would have six weeks hosting groups like ours and in the fall they load the same gear on horses and support the trekking parties that come after the rains and before the snow. The important positions were the cook, the driver and the camp boss. The other three helpers set up camp, broke it down and assisted where needed.
After breakfast, we left the men to finish their meal and bussed back down the mountain, stopping here and there at promising sites, shedding layers as the day warmed. Soon, the support truck rumbled by, all the equipment packed and tied down under a blue plastic tarp. Half the crew sat atop the load in their down jackets, singing and waving. Their boots, tied by the laces, hung from the side of the truck. It seems the men only used boots for the colder places and preferred flip-flops or running shoes most of the time.
At noon, we rounded a corner and there was our flapping table cloth again at a new scenic spot where we enjoyed another hot meal. Preparation was simpler because the hot dishes had been carried from the breakfast site in insulated containers. No tent was needed because the temperature was quite pleasant.
The afternoon was spent traversing the 53 kilometers from Paro, located on the western edge of Bhutan and site of the only airport for all Bhutan, to Thimphu, the capital. Much of the road clings to a steep canyon wall, and was being widened to two lanes in preparation for the coronation of the new king, slowing our progress considerably. We glimpsed only a few birds deep in the canyon, but the journey moved us further east toward the heart of Bhutan.
En route, we had time to question Pema on a range of subjects. What I wanted to know was, given the chilly temperatures at the pass that morning, why was he wearing only a short wrapped robe and knee socks? I knew he must have a secret since this was his country.
|Pema in His Gho|
Pema wore his gho (pronounced go), the traditional men’s robe, that day because it was required dress in Thimphu. The gho can be of any material and hangs to mid-calf unbelted. A wide woven sash is wound around the waist and the fabric is pulled up over it so the hem hangs to knee length. This forms a pocket above the sash, the only one, and we saw some men in Thimphu who carried so much stuff in the fold they looked pregnant.
When the king set in motion changes that would bring Bhutan into the modern world, his policies that would preserve the culture included having the people wear traditional clothing in prescribed situations. Men must wear a gho in the larger towns, for visits to official offices as well as to monasteries as a sign of respect and an indication of their rank. We learned later that a pair of quality knee-highs is a most appreciated gift for a Bhutanese man.
And the secret? Pema had worn long underwear under his gho that day but still rubbed his hands and quickly climbed back on the bus after stops. I wondered how such a dress had evolved in a country with weather as violent and cold as Bhutan’s.
Bhutan’s population is between 800,000 to two million, depending on who you ask, in a country half the size of Indiana. Recent changes have called for more administrators, and the population of Thimphu has swollen to 66,000 people. In the waning light, we set out to see a bit of the town. We had passed newer developments built to accommodate the influx of people but in the town center, the buildings were primarily of traditional construction, heavy wood beams and stucco accented with colorful decorations around the windows and doors and under the eaves. Rosy cheeked inhabitants spun the Buddhist prayer wheels placed in open spaces and protected by their own small roofs. We ducked into a few shops to see what the indigenous crafts there might be, but we were still getting acclimated to the high altitude and were feeling sluggish after our pre-dawn morning. An early night was in order.