Our third stop in Bhutan was in the Phobjikha Valley in Central Bhutan at an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet above sea level. So far, at least, it’s been my favorite stop in Bhutan.
The first thing we noticed on arriving here is just how remote we were, probably the most remote place we’ve been since we spent three days in a ger in Mongolia just over two years ago. It’s a solid two-hour drive from here to anything that would remotely be called a town with shopping and all that. And in all this isolation our lodge sits on a hill overlooking the huge valley with the sounds of wind, birds, and cows, just a very short walk to some of the villagers’ houses. We could only wonder what these farmers must think of a luxury lodge in their midst.Remote? The primary cash crop is potatoes, and in most fields we walked past you could see the tent or shack where someone sleeps every night, with a dog nearby, to fight off the wild pigs that would otherwise destroy the crop. While hiking down a mountain after a great hike one day, our guide pointed out the shack on the slope where the yak herders sleep to protect the herds from the leopards that would otherwise eat them. Houses are constructed of pounded dirt walls, and all day you could see teams of women – always women, we were told – standing on top of walls at construction sites pounding, pounding, pounding.
The Phobjikha Valley is perhaps best known as a winter feeding ground for the black necked crane, a threatened, legally protected bird with a wingspan of nearly eight feet that summers up in the Tibetan plateau. Because the valley is such an important feature of the crane’s ecosystem, power lines throughout the valley have all been buried below ground, adding immeasurably to the beauty of the area. Unfortunately, the cranes don’t arrive until October and then leave in February, so we have to come back in a few years to see them.
The other major feature of the valley is the Gangte Monastery, a 17th century Buddhist monastery currently let by the 9th reincarnation of somebody-or-other. That whole “Xth reincarnation of …” is surprisingly common here. The chef at the lodge in Bumthang explained with all seriousness that his older brother is both the uncle of the current queen – entirely plausible – and the 11th reincarnation of some Buddhist master he just assumed we’d recognize. Less plausible, from my perspective at least. At any rate we hiked one day from our lodge up to the monastery, with fabulous views, and then around the valley for a total of nine miles. Probably shouldn’t have done that given Mark’s ongoing knee problems, but it was a beautiful hike.
So, remote valley, beautiful views, great hikes, exhausting bike rides (with Bhutan’s top mountain racer, I remind you), and all the solitude and quiet and peace you could ever want. And at the end of the day we’d have a nice cocktail and great Bhutanese food that we’re continually impressed by. Not bad.