At the End of Tibet

Courtesy of Audubon

At the End of Tibet

A winter journey to a remote Himalayan valley in Bhutan, searching for the elusive black-necked crane.

By Peter Matthiessen
Published: 06/25/2014

This story originally appeared in the March-April 1994 issue.

Among all of the earth's far-flung cranes, the species most difficult to see is probably Grus nigricollis, the black-necked, or Tibetan, crane. Largely confined in breeding season to remote regions of the Tibetan Plateau, as high as 16,000 feet, it migrates in winter to high mountain valleys of remote southwestern China and Bhutan. These migrations are more altitudinal than geographical--the hardy birds descend an average of 5,000 feet. A very few breed across the Tibetan border in Indian Ladakh, where a mummified bird collected about 1805 by an early explorer still hangs in front of a religious painting in Lhyang Monastery. A few formerly wintered as far east as India's remote northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, from which the crane disappeared in the mid-1970s, when the last known pair, alighting near Hang village, were killed for the pot within an hour of their arrival.

Since all of these regions, until recent years, were closed to foreign travel, very little was known about this species--so little, in fact, that in 1984 it was estimated by one Indian authority that only about 100 birds survived in Tibet and Ladakh and that, barring immediate intervention, the black-necked crane would be extinct by 1985. Other authorities agreed that these Tibetan cranes--once common in a Buddhist country where wildlife was generally protected--had been mostly exterminated in the drastically increased human, industrial, and military activity that accompanied China's seizure of Tibet in the 1950s. Even the more optimistic feared that there might be only 700 left, making it the second-rarest crane species on earth, after the whooping crane of North America.

Following the general assault on wildlife that characterized the so-called Cultural Revolution, China reversed its policies in the 1980s in an effort to save what little wildlife it had left and created refuges throughout the country and in what the Chinese government calls the "autonomous region" of Tibet. Among the immediate beneficiaries were the several endangered Asian cranes, among them the black-necked crane, which had eight locations set aside for its protection on both wintering and breeding grounds in Tibet and China. Between 1990 and 1993, new surveys by an American researcher, ornithologist Mary Anne Bishop, indicated that the population estimates had been unduly pessimistic. Today the crane has an estimated population of 5,500 birds, though they remain as difficult to go see as ever. 

Meanwhile, the Royal Government of Bhutan decreed protection for the birds in the three known places where wintering black-necked cranes had been reported, including a remote glacial valley in the Black Mountains near a monastery known as Gantey. It was this flock that in January of last year we went to see.

Though less remote than China's mountainous western provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan, Bhutan remains some distance from the beaten track and somewhat difficult to enter. Its few towns are small--a country the size of Switzerland, it has a population of about 1 million. Not until 1962 did the first road connect this small country to the outside world--or, more specifically, connect Thimphu, the capital city (or small town, or large village, according to the eye of the beholder), to Phuntsholing, on the Indian border. For another 12 years the country remained virtually closed to foreigners; even today it has sensible restrictions against foreign writers and other troublemakers and limits its tourist visas to 3,000 per year. 

On this rare late-January day, on the flight from Delhi, the bright wall of the eastern Himalaya passed in review, from Mount Dhaulagiri and the Annapurna Cirque (the five-mile-high portals of the Kali Gandaki gorge, through which demoiselle cranes migrate on their way south from central Asia) to great Lachi Kang (Mount Everest) and Jhomolhari, the conical 24,000-foot peak that separates Bhutan from southeastern Tibet.

Bhutan, or Bhot Ant, is generally translated "Eastern Bhot" or "End of Bhot"--that is, End of Tibet, with which it shares much of its history and religion. In fact, the people of western Bhutan are known as Ngalong, or "First to Rise"--first, that is, to turn to Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. 

The Paro Valley, about 40 miles southwest of Thimphu, is the only one in western Bhutan that is wide enough and long enough to accommodate an airstrip. Even here the strip is disconcerting, being rather too sudden and too short even when not closed down entirely by the rivers of thick cloud that can fill the small dark valley. Thus the flight that arrives on auspicious days from Bangkok or Delhi is not one the visitor is likely to forget, since the aircraft operated by Druk (dragon) Air must curve around a mountainside on the way in as well as the way out. 

The town of Paro lies at about 7,000 feet, in what is known as the Inner Himalaya, and Thimphu is approximately 600 feet higher. This region, where most of the population is located, though somewhat higher than the Nepal midlands, is also wetter, and Paro therefore has orchards of apples, plums, and peaches, as well as asparagus and rice, which in Bhutan can be grown at elevations as high as 8,000 feet. There is also more snow than in most lands of the Buddhist Himalaya, and in consequence, the flat roofs--used for storage of fuel, fodder, and dried food--are fitted with steep, open-sided, peaked roofs of slates, shingles, or corrugated iron, held in place by heavy stones. 

Paro is a one-street town with willow trees that bend along the gray torrent of the Paro Chhu River. Along the river the next morning, the sharp eye of my traveling partner, Victor Emmanuel, finds the rare and beautiful shorebird known as the ibisbill. After the black-necked crane, which the Bhutanese know as cha trung trung ("bird with long legs"), it is the species that our wildlife group most wants to see. The ibisbill superficially resembles a pearl-gray curlew, with a black-and-white breast band and a bright-red, decurved bill. It is strong enough to breast swift glacial currents on its way across a shallow channel between islands.

Paro's 8th-century temple, Kyichu Lhakhang, is the oldest in Bhutan, and the national museum in the round guard tower of Paro Dzong contains superb Buddha figures and also thangkas, or religious paintings, cloth on silk. But since 1988 foreigners have been excluded from most of Bhutan's holy sites, not only to protect the ancient art from the thievish proclivities of strangers but also "to prevent any commercialization of the religion and to preserve the sanctity of its ceremonies"--both excellent reasons, as looted and trampled traditional societies throughout the Buddhist Himalaya can attest. 

High on the sheer cliff face of a mountain up the valley is Taktshang, or "Tiger's Nest," the famous monastery perched on a ledge where by all accounts the great Padma Sambhava, or Guru Rinpoche, arrived from Tibet in 747 A.D. and rode on the back of a tiger, the better to banish the old B'on religion and affirm the Buddhist faith. The Drukpa, or "Thunder Dragon," sect (thunder was once thought to be the dragon's roar) of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism was confirmed in the 12th century as the official religion of Bhutan, which is known to its own people as Druk Yul, "Land of the Thunder Dragon."

A fine walk up through mountain oak and rhododendron and andromeda, to the rush of waterfalls and the ring of bells struck by prayer wheels turned by steep streams, and the squall of nutcrackers and the song of laughing thrushes (mercifully, not in the least like laughter), with lavender primula in sheltered sun patches and red cotoneaster berries higher up, and everywhere the smell of cow dung, fire smoke, and spruce, brings one out at last on a ledge bedecked with prayer flags. Here three black mastiffs rush to meet me, and I stoop to pick up rocks. But Bhutanese mastiffs are smaller than their Tibetan kin and less eager to attack--another virtue of this country--and we make friends as I continue to the teahouse, from which a superb view of the white gonpa of Taktshang may be obtained. Below the monastery a flight of snow pigeons circles the black cliff face and settles like a sudden crop of strange white fruits in a dead tree. 

1. Our guide will be Ugyen Dorjee, and his assistant is called Karma. Like all Bhutanese men, both wear the traditional central Asian kho, or long formal robe, which can be hitched up with a belt for riding horses. Next day we head southeast to the Wang Chhu River and the main east-west road across the country. 

With its small population and ample rainfall, Bhutan is still 65 to 70 percent forested, yet the country is dedicated to sustained reforestation, a farsighted precaution that other Himalayan lands such as Pakistan and Nepal have failed to take. In a world spinning out of ecological balance, this country is as refreshing as an oasis in a desert, especially to travelers en route, as we are, from India to China, the two most populous and battered landscapes in the world. 

Simtokha Dzong, at the entrance to the Thimphu Valley, is the oldest monastery in the country and is now used as a Buddhist school. The huge fortress-monasteries, or dzongs, at towns and other likely places on these mountain rivers are one reason why throughout the centuries, despite small wars with Tibet and India and even Great Britain, Bhutan has stubbornly maintained its independence. In 1907, when Great Britain was meddling extensively in Tibet, Bhutan's traditional leader was replaced with a royal family. Since then, a hereditary king of the Wangchuk family (the incumbent is Jigme Singye Wangchuk) is the nation's Druk Gyalpo, or "Precious Ruler of the Dragon People. Monarchy or no, the country is roughly democratic, with no caste system as in India and Tibet and full women's rights. (It is, however, under increasing international criticism for human rights violations against the indigenous Nepalese population in the south.) 

From Simtokha Dzong the road climbs a pretty valley with brown winter-rice fields and the pale greens of winter wheat, arriving at last in the colorful main street of Thimphu, where the government buildings are located and the Druk Gyalpo has his residence.

That night it snowed, and it was still snowing when we departed the next morning, passing a village of Tibetan refugees and climbing slowly through hemlock, spruce, and fir to the Dochu La Pass, at 10,200 feet. On this cold, heavy winter day, the fine view of the northern peaks promised by our guide, Ugyen, cannot be seen. (On our return, however, the entire snow-peak border with Tibet lay in full view, from Jejekangphu Gang to Gangkar Punsum, otherwise known as White Glacier of the Three Spiritual Brothers. At 24,596 feet, it is the highest mountain in Bhutan, and climbing to its peak is not permitted.) 

Beyond Dochu La Pass the road descended from the conifers into the oak-rhododendron forest. Birds were numerous--finches, redstarts, and laughing thrushes of several species, the large, dark-blue whistling thrush, and the lovely gold-billed magpie. Here and there along the narrow winding road were primitive huts of Bangladeshi peasants brought in to maintain these mountain roads, which have a tendency to fall away into the gorges. Gradually, with the descent, the forest softened, a plantation of walnut trees appeared, and soon we were back in temperate forest at about 5,000 feet. 

In the village of Mesina, in the Punakha Valley, all manner of communal house building and wheat threshing and garden preparing were in progress. No nails are used in the skilled construction (which is why the roof slates are weighed down with heavy stones), and the walls are erected in wooden forms or molds into which clay is pounded by teams of singing, stamping girls using big pestles. 

According to Karma, one song they sang was called "The Flying of the Cranes," composed (if I understood him correctly) by the fifth Dalai Lama, who is said to have been something of a poet. A prisoner sentenced to death is enclosed in a box and thrown into the river, from where, through the slats, he espies two flying cranes and implores them to lend him the help of their wings. Asked if they did so, Karma shook his head in regret. "I suppose that prisoner was a romantic sort of fellow," he said. 

Our route turned off to the northeast, up the beautiful Dang Chhu tributary into the Black Mountains, climbing gradually along high cliffs above the river. In a ravine at about 6,500 feet, in the dense forest, we were witness to a wonderful outbreak of wildlife behavior. The small bus had stopped on the next incline for a striking bird not seen before--a spotted forktail, working a rivulet that came down through fern and moss off the steep mountain. Here dense forest climbed steeply to lost canopies above and fell away just as steeply from the downhill side of the road, so that the crown of a large red-fruited tree was just at eye level. This tree and lesser trees and vines and tangles all around had attracted an extraordinary array of brilliant birds. Both adjectives are used advisedly, and I'll list the general names just to give the feel of it: barbets, bulbuls, woodpeckers, laughing thrushes, sibias, yuhinas, sunbirds, fantails, and the shy, infrequently observed barred cuckoo dove.

The excited travelers were not the only ones drawn to the melee, for while we watched enraptured from the roadside, looking down into the trees instead of up in the usual neck-breaking birder way, I heard from behind a rush of air and leaned back in time to see the beak and folded wings and talons of a goshawk pass right over my head, aimed (I decided) at the bright green of a great barbet or the bright gold of a small yellow-naped woodpecker, both of which stood out prominently at the treetop. At the last second the accipiter flared off, no doubt taken aback by the brightly hued big mammals on the road, and kept on going down the mountainside; but where it had come from, up the ravine, a second goshawk passed between the trees, and there was some red where a flared pheasant, presumably a tragopan, careened into the hillside brush. 

At some point in this interlude there came a sharp cry from a woman in our party who had chosen this moment to slip behind a bush. A terrific fracas, filled with eerie squalling, had broken out in a tree over her head, and running down the road, I saw an otter-size animal out on the very tip of a bouncing branch, where it had been driven by two more that were snarling and spitting from nearby branches--tawny white-chinned animals, yellowish along the throat, set off at one end by a long black bushy tail and at the other by a glossy mask of purest black that looked as triangular as an adder's head when the beady eyes turned toward us. This creature was the yellow-throated marten, a very large arboreal weasel that is common enough--I had found its scat on the path down from Taktshang two days before--but infrequently seen, at least by me. In hundreds of miles of walking in the Himalaya I had never seen it, which caused me to add an enormous bellow of excitement to the general din. 

The martens far exceeded my expectations, not only in size but in speed and fierce demeanor. The attacking animals were aware of us and displeased by the distraction, racing up and down the tree and whisking back and forth among the rocks as if seeking reinforcements, only to swiftly reappear and race up to the attack again. So intent were they on their own business that we watched their acrobatics at close hand for several minutes, until finally a rough vehicle appeared and its driver, poking out his head, kindly offered to shoot them. "Make a nice hat," he said. The offer, translated, was spurned with loud cries that confused the martens, and the beleaguered one took advantage of the moment to shoot past the others and off the tree in a great leap toward the mountainside, up which his ill-wishers pursued him with those wild, ugly, tearing cries that seem peculiar to this evil-tempered family. 

As for the vehicle, it departed too, leaving a miasma of black fumes in the ravine. We followed slowly. Just up the hill a rhesus monkey, and shortly thereafter a small barking deer, peered out from the roadside. This bountiful region, Ugyen says, is the king's hunting preserve for both tiger and leopard, including the melanistic form called the black panther.  

At Pele La Pass, at 11,000 feet, it is already snowing, and the clouds have formed a beautiful frosty mist on the usnea lichens. From somewhere in the snow comes the chirr of nutcrackers and the rumble of a rockfall, caused by one of the skittish yak-cattle crossbreeds known as dzos, which wander everywhere through these steep forests. Our road--no more than a muddy track in this wet weather--must climb still higher, to Lawala Pass, in order to cross over into the Phobjika Valley, where the cha trung trung are said to be. The cheerful Ugyen has arranged for a four-wheel-drive pickup truck to haul us up in relays through the silent snow forest to the final pass, from which we can trek down into the valley. 

From the pass, Phobjika Valley looks strange and empty, with dark forest and rough pasture of coarse growth shrouded by snow. At these altitudes, the valley's inhabitants are seminomadic yak herders who spend most of their year in the black yak-hair tents that squat here and there like boulders. But gradually, as the road descends, scattered farmhouses appear in the valley mists below. 

In late-afternoon light, in a snow mist, I make out three large, pale shapes in the dark plowed corner of a field two miles away. Then Victor comes up with the second group, and we stand quietly on the mountain road, enjoying these black-necked cranes together, for the cha trung trung is the only one of the eight Asian cranes that neither of us has ever seen. We continue down the mountainside, locating a few more distant cranes along the way. 

It is nearly dark when we walk the almost empty street of the 15th-century village of Gantey (gang is "mountain," and tey is "summit"), passing the ancient monastery. Gantey Gonpa, founded in 1613, is the only monastery of the Nying-ma-pa (the "Old Sect") west of the Black Mountains, and it shelters 10 monks and 140 lay disciples of the high lama, Gantey Tulku Rinpoche, who according to Ugyen is on a spiritual retreat of three years, three months, and three days. In the dusk, the ancient roofed chorten, or Buddhist reliquary, in the village square seems full of mystery. Gantey is located on a ridge that sticks out like a narrow butte into the valley, and using flashlights, for the dark has come, we make our way downward on a rough and narrow footpath through the forest, meeting the road near a bridge that crosses the small Phobjika River. Beyond the bridge, on a low rise, is a guest house where we spend the night. On the colorful walls of the main room, where an excellent supper is prepared, is a collection of ancient weapons from 17th-century wars with Tibet.

The local people say that just 10 years ago, when perhaps 20 black-necked cranes were first reported from this valley, the birds were still being hunted, mostly by boys out practicing archery, Bhutan's national sport. Far from being revered, as they are in many countries, the native cranes were dismissed as "the thing with a bird's head and a sheep's body." Not until they were finally adopted by the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature did all hunting cease, mostly because the penalty for killing one is now life imprisonment. In recent years the winter population has increased to about 200 birds--the actual count for 1993 is 210--with another 100 birds or so in the Laool Valley, across the main ridge to the east, and another 100 in east Bhutan. In addition there are or were 4 birds that wintered near Bumthang--in short, perhaps 400-odd birds in the whole country.

Apparently the cranes roost each night at a place within sight of this guest house. Anxious to see and count them before the flock scattered for the day, I got up at six and walked out on the road, where I was soon joined by Victor. The dawn was cold, perhaps 20 degrees Fahrenheit, but clear and windless, and sure enough, the crane flock was in view, though far away across the wet frozen meadows of the Chhu Nap, a stream that winds down through the marshy valley.

Heads beneath their wings, the birds stood hunched on a swale at the foot of snow-misted pasture hills that rose to a forest of blue pine. Though we tried to move closer, it turned out the marsh was not hard-frozen after all, and both of us broke through and took ice water in over our boot tops before clambering free of the half-frozen mud and making our way back up to the road, with mud, pants, laces, and boots already frozen into one hard bond.  

By now a cold dawn light had appeared behind the hairline of black conifers on the eastern ridge. Even as we stamped and watched, the dark heads of the cranes started to come up, and one bird called, perhaps to the unsociable few that were hunched here and there farther down the valley. In the great silence, an occasional far-off dog or rooster could be heard. No smoke rose from the scattered farmhouses, which were as empty as Gantey itself, since most of the people at this time of year move away to make a rice crop in a lower valley.

A number of cranes were calling now, and from a distance the double call--aw-owk, followed by a two-note response--seemed less like the unison call of other cranes, more like duetting. But we were too far away to tell. After breakfast we crossed the bridge over the Chhu Nap and walked along the pinewood edge to a place where the marsh, with a few leaps, might be crossed dry-shod. On the far side the land rose again to a sort of grassy small plateau, at the end of which two cranes, heads raised, stood with their backs to each other, silhouetted against the mist in the warming valley, the early-morning silver light reflected from their backs. Three others took wing, only to alight by a grove of pines, but the rest were still on or near the roost, a piece of flat ground by the marsh edge, scarcely 200 yards from where we crouched to watch them. Over the shining marshland flew an upland buzzard and a pallid harrier.

In our strange company the cranes were restless, as they had not been when two local men walked past the flock scarcely 50 yards away, and Ugyen had warned us that they might fly off, alarmed by our bright colors. The Bhutanese are smaller than Westerners, and here in the mountain backlands their worn khos are of dull earth tones, by design or by attrition, and their walk, after many season here, and centuries too, is not so separated from the earth as the walk of strangers. Whatever the reason, there seemed to be no doubt that our presence on the bluff unsettled the birds, though we were careful to move slowly and sit quietly.

Through telescopes, the black-neckeds were so close that we could study the golden orb with the white spot behind, which makes the eye of this species look enormous, and the frontal red patch of bare skin, smaller than in most Grus--perhaps a cold-climate adaptation, like its legs and neck, which are noticeably shorter for its size than in other species. For the same reason, this crane is heavy, big, with less heat-losing surface for each pound of weight; its bustle, too, is large, perhaps to help warm its rear end. (The immature birds are dingier, and speckled on the back, with a brown bustle.)

Eventually the cranes forgot about us and went on about their preening and calling, their brief flurries of February dancing--leaping up, wing posturing, elevating their tertial bustles. But soon the calls and bugling grew louder, and one family group after another ran a little and danced into the air and moved out over the winter farmlands where the cranes forage. According to the local people, they also feed on roots and tubers of the coarse local tussock grass called mountain bamboo. 

The bright, clear mountain day was warming rapidly, and the conifers lost their white frosting of snow. With most of the cranes gone, we returned upriver to the bridge over Chhu Nap. The last crane I saw in the Gantey Valley had circled high over the ridges to at least 12,000 feet, calling and calling, as it will do later in February, as it gathers its flocks for the flight north to the Tibetan Plateau.

According to the Gantey villagers, the birds arrive in late December, always in the midday period when the sun is highest, and circle three times over Gantey Gonpa, crying out as if to win the lama's blessing before gliding slowly down into the valley. Only a few arrive each day, so that their arrival is spread out across a period of two or more weeks. The departure, when it comes, is much more urgent. The northbound birds fly off in groups of 40 or 50 at a time, so that they vanish within several days, but even then, despite the urgency of spring, they do not neglect to circle three times over the gonpa.

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