Posts tagged ‘Phobjikha Valley’

Bhutan: Photos From the Travelers

One last note from the Alumni Association’s trip to Bhutan:

Bhutan is a spectacularly photogenic country, from its lush mountains and valleys, to its friendly people, to its Buddhist-inspired architecture. Their ubiquitous stray dogs are pretty cute, too. I asked the trip participants if they’d be willing to share some of their photos with me, and below is a slide show of about 30 or so images they contributed.


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Tina Hay, editor

June 4, 2013 at 9:46 am Leave a comment

Birds of Bhutan


A common hoopoe, a very distinctive bird. (Click to enlarge)

Bhutan is said to be one of the most ecologically diverse nations in the world, and is a paradise for bird lovers, with something like 700 species. Our Alumni Association tour isn’t really focused on birding, but I’ve been keeping my eyes and ears open for birds when I get a chance.

My favorite bird so far, hands down, is a largish one that looks something like an exotic woodpecker with a plume on its head and a long bill. (See photo at right.) There were a pair of them pecking the ground for insects outside our hotel in the Phobjikha Valley, and I asked a few people if anyone knew what they were. At one point I struck up a conversation with a pair of travelers from Bangalore, and I asked: “Are you birders?” One of them said, “Of course,” as if everyone who visits Bhutan is a birder. I described the birds in the lawn and asked what they were, and they told me they’re common hoopoes. A great name, if you ask me, and a great-looking bird.

Otherwise, most of what I’ve seen is fairly similar to what we have back home. I’ve seen a few magpies (common in the western U.S.), a ton of crows and/or ravens, and a lot of sparrows that I can’t identify but that I suspect are not terribly exotic.

We also see a lot of some sort of grackle that’s black with white wings and a tail.

On our hike in the Phobjikha Valley, we heard a cuckoo calling loudly and repeatedly, but didn’t see it. I also heard but didn’t see a bird that, if I were back home, I’d say was a red-bellied woodpecker; they have a very distinctive chirring sound. The bird book at our hotel here in Paro says they have something called a rufous-bellied woodpecker over here, with a similar call, so who knows.

DSC_3032_med_crane_visitors_centerProbably the most famous bird in Bhutan is one that spends its winters here and the rest of the year in Tibet: the black-necked crane. It’s endangered—we watched a documentary that said only 800 of them remain, though I’ve since seen higher estimates. It’s also considered sacred to the Buddhists who make up most of Bhutan’s population. Supposedly the penalty for killing one is life in prison.

The cranes aren’t here right now, alas—their summer breeding grounds are north of here, on the Tibetan plateau in the Himalayas.

As evidence of their special standing among Buddhists, when the cranes fly south to Bhutan’s Phobjikha Valley in November, they circle over the roof of the Gangteng Monastery several times before landing in the valley. And they do the same on their way out of town in March. This isn’t some sort of apocryphal story—we saw some pretty cool documentary footage of them doing it.

There’s an organization here called the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature, an NGO that runs the information center we visited. A few of the Penn State travelers bought some handicrafts in the center’s gift shop, happy to know that a portion of the proceeds will benefit those beautiful cranes.

Tina Hay, editor

May 23, 2013 at 9:40 am Leave a comment

Driving, and Other Bhutanese Adventures


I knew going into the Bhutan trip that there would be a few drives of three hours or more—from Thimphu to Punakha, from Punakha to Gangtey, and so on. I pictured at least a two-lane highway, if not four, and I certainly assumed it would be paved. I figured I’d use those bus rides to knit, maybe edit photos on my laptop, or sleep.

Surprise! The “highway” is bumpy, winding, and narrow—practically a one-lane road by U.S. standards. Some sections are paved; others, not so much. The road is also not for the faint of heart: a few feet from our van window lies a precipitous drop-off to the valley below. The guardrails, when they were there, didn’t offer much reassurance—especially not the brief stretch of guardrails we saw that were made of bamboo. We passed signs announcing an “accident prone zone” and warning of “shooting rocks.”

If you could ignore the sheer cliffs below you, the views out the window were spectacular. Here’s just one example of the scenery through which we were driving:


According to the Altimeter app on my iPhone, we were at about 10,916 feet before we started our descent into the Phobjikha (pronounced roughly like “pope JEE kuh”) Valley. We saw lush green mountains and terraced hillsides, sometimes a white-water river way down below, and occasionally some snow-capped peaks in the distance. At one point on the way back from Phobjikha, we asked the driver to stop so we could get out and shoot photos of a herd of yaks.

I cranked up the ISO on my camera to about 1600 or 2000, so that I could get really fast shutter speeds—like 1/4000th of a second—which, I hoped, would negate the effect of the bouncing bus. I had just a small amount of open window to shoot out of, but eventually I figured out that I could just poke the camera out the window, point in the general direction of the vista, and fire off a few shots. I got a lot of junk, but also a few half-decent ones.


We constantly encountered cows along—and on—the highway in Bhutan.

I checked the speedometer several times and it was rarely higher than 20, which I assume is kilometers per hour, which translates to 12 miles an hour. And every time a vehicle approached from the other direction, we’d slow down or even stop, so the two vehicles could safely squeeze by each other. At that rate I can understand why it supposedly takes two days to get from one end of the country to the other—a distance of only a few hundred miles as the crow flies.

Incidentally, we’ve all been impressed with the politeness of the drivers. The etiquette seems to be that when you come up on a slower vehicle from behind, you honk your horn gently, then the other driver turns on his left turn signal, as if to say, “Go for it” (keep in mind that they drive on the left-hand side of the road over here and pass on the right). Once you pass them, you honk again to say, “Thank you.” (Or, as they say in Bhutan, kardenchae la.) Almost never do you hear drivers honk their horns out of frustration or anger—honking here is a nice thing to do.

Our driver, whose name I can pronounce (SEN-tcho) but not necessarily spell, was unbelievably adept at navigating the hairpin turns—and dodging the loose rocks, the potholes, and the seemingly oblivious cows that frequently stood directly in our path.

Apparently this road, bad as it is, is an improvement over what was there before 2008. (Carolyn Welden, one of the Penn State passengers, speculates that until then it was a yak path.) The road was widened for the coronation of the Fifth King at the Punakha Dzong in 2008. Nowadays the locals refer to it as a highway, without a trace of irony in their voices.

Tina Hay, editor

May 22, 2013 at 9:10 am 3 comments

A Valley at 9,600 Feet


During our nature hike, we encountered this stupa, a Buddhist monument.

We’re just back from two days in the Phobjikha (pronounced roughly like “pope JEE kah”) Valley of Bhutan, a valley that’s really more of a mountain valley: The altimeter app on my iPhone said we were above 9,600 feet. It was noticeably chillier there than any other place we’ve visited, with nighttime temperatures in the 40s, and it’s also where some of us first started to really feel the effects of the altitude. Most of us got a prescription for Diamox—a drug that accelerates your body’s adjustment to high altitudes—before we left home, and those who hadn’t already started taking it, including me, definitely started once we got to Phobjikha.

The base for our Penn State group for our two days in the “valley” was a lovely place called the Dewachen Hotel, which had the look and feel of a deluxe ski lodge, complete with the gentle smell of wood smoke in the air. Each of our rooms was heated by a small wood stove, and there was a big wood stove in the dining area. The place had electricity, too—off and on. It seemed to be available in our rooms early in the morning and after about 5 p.m. So if you had camera batteries, a laptop, or an iPhone to charge, you had to plan around the electricity schedule.

Incidentally, when you come to Bhutan, you have to bring several different kinds of adaptors. Some outlets require an Indian-style adaptor; others, the European kind.

This has also been the only hotel on the trip to have no wi-fi—though the wi-fi at some of the previous stops has been so pokey as to make me think the Comcast Slowsky turtles were in charge. Of course, one might argue that when in Bhutan, it might be a good opportunity to stay away from the Internet anyway and just enjoy being here. And for the past two days, we did just that.

DSC_2839_shoes_at_templeWhile in the Phobjikha Valley we visited the Gangteng Monastery—we’ve seen a lot of Bhuddist monasteries and temples on this trip, but this one is associated with a different sect, the Nyingmapa sect. This particular monastery doesn’t receive government funding, and you could tell: Its buildings seemed more run-down, less spiffy, than the others we had seen. But we still loved wandering around its courtyards, photographing the prayer wheels and the murals, asking the monks passing by if we could take their pictures, and visiting the very ornate temple, where the monks happened to be chanting a special prayer service.

(The photo here is of the entrance to the temple, where the monks and visitors must leave their shoes before entering.)

We took a hike of 4 kilometers—about 2.4 miles—through the valley, checking out the tiny wildflowers, noticing how odd it was to encounter cows in a pine forest, photographing the sweeping vistas, and (in my case anyway) gasping for breath at times in the mountain air.

In a few days we’re scheduled to hike to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, a long and steep trek that’s the highlight of any trip to Bhutan, and I sure hope I adjust to the altitude by then. At the very least, I hope to make it halfway up, to the cafeteria area, which I’m told affords some pretty sweet views of the iconic monastery clinging to the side of the mountain. But others in our group are fully intending to hike the whole way to the top.

Tina Hay, editor

May 21, 2013 at 7:58 am 1 comment

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