The Bhutan Odyssey - Travel to Phobjikha (Gangtey) Valley of black-necked cranes
Bhutan is one of the most beautiful countries packed with fascinating history, vibrant culture, gorgeous landscapes, Buddhist shrines, sleepy rural villages and lush mountains. It has something for every type of traveller. No matter how much time you have, you will never run out of things to do and places to see in Bhutan. Bhutanese people are friendly, kind and welcoming. In our previous blog, we wrote about 'Places to visit in Thimphu'. From Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan, we proceeded to Phobjikha valley/ Gangtey valley located in Central Bhutan. In this fourth blog of the series, we will write about the Phobjikha valley, the village, places to visit and things to do in Phobjikha and our home-stay experience in Phobjikha.
Read our previous blogs of the series - The Bhutan Odyssey, by clicking on the photos below:
4. Travel to Phobjikha or Gangtey Valley (This article)
Phobjikha Valley is an expansive bowl-shaped glacial valley, meaning a glacier flowed through the valley centuries ago giving it the present U-shape. It is also sometimes called as Gangtey valley after the name of a monastery that is located on a ridge of a mountain above the valley. Phobjikha/ Gangtey valley separates Western Bhutan from Central Bhutan. It is located at an altitude of 3000 metres above sea level and is surrounded by Black mountains towards the western part. The valley houses miles and miles of flat fields that are so picturesque that even a photographer will be confused about what to click and what not! Phobjikha is home to the rare black-necked cranes that migrate to the valley from Tibet every winter. Phobjikha/ Gangtey valley is still untouched by excessive tourism and is strictly a place for nature and trek lovers. One can witness the raw beauty of nature and the people while travelling through the valley.
Location of Phobjikha/ Gangtey Valley: Phobjikha/ Gangtey valley is located in Central Bhutan on the borders of Jigme Singye Wangchuk National Park. It is approximately 135 kilometres from Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan and 80 kilometres away from Punakha, the former capital town of Bhutan. Phobjikha valley is 13 kilometres off the Bumthang-Ura highway.
How to reach Phobjikha/ Gangtey Valley: No buses run to Phobjikha/ Gangtey valley. Hence, the best way to reach Phobjikha is by hiring a car. However, the buses running to Trongsa and Bumthang will stop at the de-tour point on the highway, from where Phobjikha is 13 kilometres. You can either hitchhike or walk from here if you wish to. However, this is not recommended as the road is pretty deserted. It takes around 6 hours to reach Phobjikha from Thimphu city. The journey is arduous and bumpy, especially towards the end.
Our journey from Thimphu to Phobjikha/ Gangtey Valley: We had hired a car for our entire trip through Bhutan. We started from Thimphu early in the morning and stopped for a bit at Dochula Pass (more about it in Punakha blog). We had our lunch on the highway near Punakha town and again resumed our journey towards Phobjikha/ Gangtey Valley after crossing the Punakha River. We felt the temperature drop by a few degrees as we drove the winding roads towards Phobjikha valley. The roadside hills were thickly forested with blue pine and other conifers, oak, magnolia and rows and rows of varied colours of rhododendrons. We drove parallel to Dang Chhu river for a very long time and admired the beautiful suspension bridges burdened with colourful Buddhist flags on the way. As we neared Phobjikha/ Gangtey valley, we spotted horses and yaks herding in the huge valleys of green grass.
We stopped at Lawa-La Pass after taking the right turn from the highway to Phobjikha/ Gangtey valley. The pass is at an altitude of 3360 metres and is marked with a whitewashed small stupa in the centre decorated with colourful Buddhist prayer flags surrounding it. The pass offered a beautiful view of forested hills on one side and huge green valleys on the other side. This was the most picturesque stretch of our journey and it is difficult to express the beauty of the valley in words. The valley was full of green pasture dotted with bright red rhododendrons. The green carpet was covered with dainty little Lilac primulas swarming the entire floor of the valley. The misty clouds and thick fog passed through us as we awed at the beauty of the valley which was completely deserted besides the herding yaks. After crossing the Lawa-La pass the winding road then descended to the Phobjikha valley.
Our Home-stay at Phobjikha/ Gangtey Valley: We opted for a home-stay at Phobjikha/ Gangtey valley as we wanted to understand the people and culture up-close. Our home-stay was located deep in the valley across many trees, meadows and rivulets. It was a traditional Bhutanese house with carved wooden lintels, small arched windows and multi-coloured window frames. Our rooms were on the first floor with a common hall in between. The rooms had cosy and comfortable mattresses sprawled on the floor and the windows opened to gorgeous views all around. A tandoor heater in the middle of the common hall provided us with a much-needed respite from the severe cold. The house belonged to the Chief of the village, still seemed simple and minimalistic. The home-stay had no TV, WiFi or any kind of modern amenity, making it a perfect place to relax and unwind. We sat beside the hot tandoor for long hours petting the house cat and catching up with everyone’s life.
The lady of the house did not understand Hindi or English and we tried conversing with her through sign language and the little Dzongkha that we knew. Be it sipping hot butter tea or gulping down glasses of warm water to keep our body warm, we enjoyed every moment in the wooden farmhouse. She prepared delicious meals for us that included red rice, ema datshi, and kewa datshi and we all savoured it together with her.
Our home-stay also had an outdoor hot stone bath arrangement. The traditional hot stone bath is believed to have medicinal powers and cures joint pains and helps in relaxing physically and mentally. The stones are generally collected from the riverbed and are rich in minerals and wood from an oak tree or pine tree is used to heat water. Medicinal herbs are added to the water before soaking.
The Phobjikha Village/ Gangtey Village: The village of Phobjikha/ Gangtey is under-developed and sparsely populated. The modern facilities are minimal and transportation, as well as communication facilities, are inadequate. The village is full of beautiful and colourful carved wooden houses. Each house has a beautiful front yard where they sow beautiful flowering plants and white flower laden apple trees. Owing to the fear that electric poles would harm the black-necked cranes that visit the valley each winter, the people in Phobjikha/ Gangtey valley did not prioritise having electricity, except for solar-generated electricity, solar heaters, solar powered cells or fuel-generators until recently. In 2009, the underground electricity project was started that led to the electrification of Phobjikha. The transmission lines that supply electricity is buried in the ground and no overhead lines are allowed in the valley. The rooms are heater with tandoor heaters. People in Phobjikha/ Gangtey valley live a semi-nomadic life. They are extremely welcoming and have red cheeks due to low oxygen level at this altitude. They migrate to lower places in winter to escape the cold taking their cattle along with them.
The residents of the Phobjikha/ Gangtey valley are mostly farmers with agriculture as their main occupation. There are two rivers that flow through Phobjikha valley – Nakay Chhu that represents a snake and Gay Chhu that represents a boar. There’s a folklore that once a racing competition was conducted between the snake and the boar under an agreement that if the snake wins the race, rice would be grown in the valley and if the boar wins, no rice will ever be grown in the valley. Eventually, the snake lost and till today rice is never cultivated in Phobjikha/ Gangtey valley. The valley has marshy land and is ideal for growing potatoes and turnips. Large potato fields can be found all across the valley. A special kind of dwarf bamboo plant grown in Phobjikha valley attracts the black-necked cranes to the valley upon which they feed.
We went for a stroll in the village, walking along the wooden planks that were placed to cross the small rivulets. We visited Phobjikha school where the students were practising dance moves that were to be performed on the upcoming Bhutanese Teacher’s Day. The school was pretty, had a big playground and Buddhist flags adorned all the surrounding poles.
We also visited a nearby temple located across a water stream where we saw a small building housing a big prayer wheel. The wheel was whirling constantly without anyone rotating it. It was also producing a ringing sound at constant intervals. We soon realised that the water from the stream diverted the prayer wheel to run.
Black-necked cranes of Phobjikha/ Gangtey valley: Phobjikha/ Gangtey valley is home to hundreds of rare migratory black-necked cranes every winter season from October to February. A well-designated centre named Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN) monitors activities and count of the migratory birds. The cranes fly from Tibet and come to regions like Bumdiling, Bumthang and Lhuentse but the highest number of cranes come to Phobjikha valley. The black-necked crane is whitish grey in colour with a black head as the name suggests. It has a red crown, black legs and white patch surrounding the eye. An adult crane is about 3-4 feet tall, weighs up to 5.5 kg and makes loud shrill noise. During the year 2018, 458 black-necked cranes made way to Phobjikha/ Gangtey valley.
It is said that while coming from Tibet in October and while leaving Phobjikha/ Gangtey valley in February, each crane encircles the Gangtey monastery situated on a hill above the valley three times in a clockwise direction. It is believed that this helps them to get rid of the negative energy. Some people believe that these cranes are reincarnations of the monks of the monastery, while some believe that their arrival promises a good harvest. The conservation efforts by the residents have been very successful in increasing the crane population in Phobjikha valley.
Places to Visit and Things to do in Phobjikha/ Gangtey Valley: 1. Visit the Royal Society of Protection of Nature (RSPN) or The Black-necked Crane visitor centre, Phobjikha/ Gangtey Valley: Our visit to Phobjikha/ Gangtey valley did not coincide with the black-necked crane migration, but a visit to the RSPN centre helped us gain a proper understanding of the bird’s behaviour, habitat and their conservation efforts. The centre, established in 1987, displays the detailed information about the birds, their migratory patterns and the valley. We also saw a short film at the centre about the cranes that visit Phobjikha valley and the night photos of other animals like leopards, red foxes, Himalayan black bears and wild pigs, that visit the valley and hunt the cranes. Powerful spotting telescopes are placed at the RSPN centre’s huge glass walls from where one can sit and view the activities of the cranes up-close.
The Royal Society of Protection of Nature centre also houses one female black-necked crane named Karma. Karma is a crane that was found injured in the valley in 2016. It is believed that she was injured by dog bites. The crane has recovered from its injuries under the protection of RSPN but is unable to fly due to its left wing being damaged; hence is looked up by the local protection centre.
Entry fees: Nu 100 for SAARC country tourists; Nu 120 for International tourists; and Nu 15 for local Bhutanese visitors Visiting Hours: 9 AM to 5 PM; open on all days
2. Visit the Gangtey Monastery, Phobjikha/ Gangtey Valley: The Gangtey monastery also known as Gangtey Gompa is situated on a hill-ridge overlooking the U-shaped glacial valley of Phobjikha/ Gangtey. The monastery was established in the 17th century. Recognised as one of the oldest monasteries in Bhutan, Gangtey monastery is the largest Nyingmaoa monastery in Bhutan. The head lama of the monastery is the ninth incarnation of Pema-Lingpa who was a 14th-century saint. The road that leads to the monastery is lined by wooden houses beautifully carved in exquisite designs and colours.
The monastery complex consists of central Gompa, monk quarters, a butter lamp house and a meditation centre. From inside, the monastery has colourful artistic sculptures and the monastery walls are painted with rich paintings with intricate details. The monastery also houses murals, relics and treasures of spiritual and religious significance. Photography is not allowed inside the monastery. The monastery is supported by large and intricately carved wooden pillars. The monks stay at the monastery during summer months.
The monastery hosts a festival during winter that celebrates the arrival of black-necked cranes. The annual festival (tsechu) is celebrated on the first day of the ninth month of the Bhutanese calendar. The Crane Festival is celebrated with great pomp and valour with masked dances. The children dress up in crane costumes imitating the loud noises made by cranes.
3. Stroll in the vast Phobjikha/ Gangtey Valley: Phobjikha/ Gangtey valley is filled with Lilac primulas and several other varieties of flowers. It is so vast that we felt like we were just a tiny little dot in the entire valley. It reminded us of the valleys of Switzerland. Horses, cows and yaks were grazing aside the streams flowing by the valley. We walked and walked, up the hills, down the slopes and crossed water streams till we were too tired and felt cold. We wanted to hike up and roll down the green hills and slopes but there were horse and cow poop everywhere. We were informed that the valley hibernates beneath a blanket of white snow each winter. That is when the cranes arrive. We promised ourselves that we will visit this valley again. While leaving we left our hearts to the green pastures, blue water, purple and yellow wildflowers, chirping birds and the utmost silence.
4. Trek the ‘Gangtey Nature Trail’, Phobjikha/ Gangtey valley: There are multiple trails that start from Phobjikha/ Gangtey valley and takes one through the thick pine forests. But Gangtey Nature Trail is amongst the most popular one. It takes you through remote villages and ancient temples and monasteries across the vast fields. It is a short trek that takes 2 hours in total. Phubja valley trek is another 3-day long trek that starts from the Phobjikha valley.
Best time to visit Phobjikha/ Gangtey Valley: Nature is at its best in Phobjikha/ Gangtey valley during the spring season with the beautiful flowers in full bloom and green meadows everywhere. However, Phobjikha valley is often visited by hundreds of tourists in the months of October to January when the black-necked cranes arrive. If you want to witness the Crane festival celebrated at Gangtey monastery, November is the best time to visit.
Whichever time you plan to visit Phobjikha/ Gangtey valley, your reason to visit should be to immerse in the astounding natural beauty and disconnect with the world. The incredible symbiotic relationship between the community and nature that we saw in Phobjikha valley and the integrity and harmony in the lives of the residents has taught us invaluable lessons. They have adapted to the comforts and convenience that modern technology has brought them, yet they have lost none of their capacity to enjoy the simple, pastoral pleasures of village life, or to take on its challenges.
Nature Tourism – Bhutan: We booked our customized trip to Bhutan with Nature Tourism – Bhutan who specialise in providing unforgettable journeys. Karma Jamtsho, the founder of Nature Tourism – Bhutan, believes that travelling, experiencing different cultures and getting close to nature is an essential part of human life. Phobjikha/ Gangtey was not a part of our itinerary when we planned our trip to Bhutan. It was Karma who suggested and insisted that we do not miss out on visiting this magical place and we are truly grateful to him for that. Our tour guide, Dorji, strived hard to make us cover major places and experience as many things as we can during our short 1-night trip to Phobjikha/ Gangtey valley. He even acted as a translator between us and the host of our homestay, with whom we conversed for so long. You can also book your trip with Nature Tourism – Bhutan through their website. We highly recommend their service and commitment.
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Have you ever visited a place where there is a deep respect for spiritual life, a close communion with nature and its elements and where strong ties of family and community survive and thrives? Let us know your experiences in the comment section below.