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Bhutan: Do Not Disturb… The Animals

Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Blog

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Published on November 29, 2009 with No Comments

With Lotay

With Lotay

Lotay can be shy and reserved, but when he runs into a foreigner, he becomes a social butterfly. His voice is warm and soft—except when he gets excited about a song during long drives and sings along with me. Every time he sees a foreigner, he introduces himself, asks them where they are from, and talks to them.

For the past two days, we have been running into an Italian tourist who is traveling around Asia by bike, and two other tourists from Japan and Denmark who are traveling together. The flamboyant Japanese man—always wearing clothes that don’t match but that certainly stand out—had a serious face and looked miserable most of the time; the Danish woman who accompanied him seemed bored to death.

Lotay had talked to them or their guide. “They met in Nepal,” he told me. “I think they were looking for a companion for traveling to Bhutan, and that’s why they are together. Maybe they don’t like each other.”

“That’s why I always travel alone. I don’t want to be stuck with someone I don’t enjoy,” I responded.

At dinner, the Italian was alone at his table. The Japanese man and the Danish woman were mute. Lotay and I talked, ate, and laughed.

This morning, we ran into the same three travelers at breakfast. They all looked miserable again. This is the Land of Gross National Happiness—what was going on with them??? I, on the other hand, can’t get rid of my big smile.

“Have a good day!” said Lotay warmly to the lonely Japanese man. We had finished breakfast, and we were about to leave. So was he.

He quickly introduced himself and asked me where I was from.

“Oh, Venezuela, I have been there,” he said. “In 2002, chocolate, Maracaibo . . .” The Japanese man was suddenly talking non-stop, giggling and smiling. He was glowing! I didn’t understand what he was saying exactly about Venezuela, but he seemed to love my country. Soon, he became another person I was trying to leave—but he kept talking on and on!

“Wow, so he smiles, Lotay!” I said when we had left. “I am happy I made his day; he has been looking so miserable every time we run into him.”

Lotay wondered what the man’s reaction would be if he was traveling in the car with us, where we were always singing.

We were back on the road. It would take a couple hours to get to Phobjikha Valley, one of the most important wildlife preserves in Bhutan. Lotay wanted to show me the rare and endangered black-necked cranes. Every autumn these birds come to Bhutan, escaping the cold Tibetan winter.

View of the Himalayas

View of the Himalayas


The road was narrow and curvy, but we had great views of the mountains covered with forest and farmlands. We randomly spotted huge Bhutanese houses and fortresses high in the mountains and surrounded by trees, making access to them difficult. As we drove higher, it was like going deep into the rainforest, all greenery and waterfalls. We even saw monkeys. Cows hung out on the road, totally undisturbed by the presence of cars, trucks, or people. Driving higher yet, the weather got colder, and the trees once again showed their autumn colors.

“We will be there soon,” said Lotay.

Yaks appeared on the side of the road, also seeming unperturbed by our presence as they grazed from the dry grass.

A large, beautiful valley unfolded behind the mountains. At 9,500 feet in elevation, this flat land is not only home to the Bhutanese, but also the “winter home” of the black-necked cranes, whom the locals treated as special guests.

Valley of the cranes

Valley of the cranes


“There is no electricity here because the wires may scare the cranes. People here use solar panels instead. Every year, they wait with excitement for the arrival of the black-necked cranes. If the birds don’t come, people feel sad because they look at it as if something is wrong,” explained Lotay.

Bhutan holds a Black-Necked Cranes Festival every year on November 12th. They welcome the birds with dance and music.

“When the cranes are in the valley, people only walk on the roads so they don’t disturb or scare the birds off,” said Lotay.

We visited the Black-Necked Crane Center, where we watched the birds in the fields through scopes. There were only about a dozen of them, but a board in the center reported the arrival of 250 cranes so far this season.

I asked Lotay how the locals knew how many cranes were in the valley if they couldn’t even get close to them.

“When a crane arrives, the others make a lot of noise and dance to welcome it,” said Lotay.

When we had been driving on the road, I could hardly see the birds in the distance—they just looked like white, moving spots in a vast, brownish field. Although it is hard to see them, it is very easy to hear them. It was like a loud scream! In fact, the cranes are famous for their colorful mating ritual, which is a combination of a strange dance and loud, sharp “singing.”

We left the valley. We had a long way to go to Thimphu. I asked Lotay to stop every time I saw scenery that I wanted to photograph. Lotay always honored my requests, and he even suggested viewpoints a couple times.

Bhutanese dance

Bhutanese dance


“There is an archery tournament. Do you see the women dancing?” He stopped on the side of the road.

I jumped out of the car and gazed down at the tournament. “Do you mind if I go down to get closer?” I asked.

“Not at all—but be careful with the arrows!”

I walked down a steep, muddy hill. Women in colorful kiras danced in a circle and sang. Men dressed in the traditional gho, knee socks, and formal shoes carried their bows and arrows.

After Lotay assured me it was safe, I ran across the archery field to where the Bhutanese women danced. They continued to dance, but giggled when they noticed me.

The Bhutanese are easy to win over. They first look at you with curiosity, but once you smile at them, they warm up, smile back, and stare with a combination of excitement and shyness.

All it takes is a formal “Cususampo-la” (the Bhutanese greeting), and they are all smiles.

“Ay, Lotay, I’ll try not to stop so much. I promise we will make it to Thimphu today!” I said.

“It is okay,” Lotay replied. “Are you hungry? We can eat here, but I want to take you to a place with a view. Do you mind lunch at 2:30 pm?”

On the road

On the road


I have never eaten so much on a trip. All the meals in Bhutan are huge, and the locals insist on making you eat as much as your stomach can handle.

“No, not at all. That’s perfect.” I was still full from dinner the night before and breakfast this morning.

Lunch was worth the wait. The buffet was almost all vegetarian, and the view was truly spectacular. The restaurant was located on a hill next to the Dochula Pass, facing the Himalayan range. I was in ecstasy.

Then, we were back in the car for another hour to Thimphu.

When we arrived, we drove straight to the Takin Reserve. The takin is the national animal of Bhutan, and it is quite an ugly creature—a strange combination of a yak, a goat, a cow, and something else that cannot even be compared to another animal. No one truly knows its origins, but legend says the Divine Mad Man created it! In the story, locals ask the outrageous lama to perform a miracle in front of their eyes. He asks people to bring him a cow and a goat for lunch. He devours the animals, then puts the head of the goat onto the bones of the cow. The takin comes alive and runs into the wild, to the astonishment of the devotees.

Tha takin

Tha takin

The takins used to be in a zoo, but the king closed the zoo down because he thought it was cruel and against Buddhist beliefs. All the animals were set free, but the takins wandered around the streets or didn’t move at all, so they were placed on this special reserve.

The more time I spend in Bhutan, the more amazed I am by how much the Bhutanese care about their environment, their animals, and their traditions. They could wear Western clothes, yet most people wear the traditional garments with pride. Everywhere you go, you see signs reminding people about the importance of preserving nature from pollution. Animals and plants are respected and protected. Bhutan has such strong values, which they don’t compromise for money or anything else. This may be a small, third-world country still in the process of modernization, but their way of life and the way they think and act is quite advanced.

I have only one day left in Bhutan. Tomorrow I will visit the most important landmark in the country: The Tiger’s Nest.

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