Phobjikha aaand Gangtey Goenpa
About 500 cranes winter in Bhutan each year, mostly in Phobjikha, the kingdom’s largest wetland and most important black-necked crane habitat. They come to feed on the residue of the autumn harvest in the local agricultural fields, as well as on dwarf bamboos that grow in the valley’s wetlands, which they supplement with seeds, earthworms, beetles and snails. In recognition of Phobjikha’s importance to the birds, a conservation area was established in the valley in 2003.
The conservation festival takes place in November, when the cranes return to Bhutan from Tibet for the winter. Its aim is partly to promote ecotourism to provide the valley’s farmers with an alternative income, in order to reduce the pressure on the birds’ habitat.
While livelihoods are important, the festival isn’t just about helping people to make money. It’s also aimed at strengthening traditional celebrations to help increase villagers’ awareness of the birds’ importance – and the threats to their existence.
Known as thrung thrung karm, the cranes symbolize longevity to the Bhutanese and are deemed holy. Locals believe that the circling of the cranes as they come in to land confers a special blessing, and the winter wheat isn’t sown until after the fields have been blessed by the arriving cranes.
Hiking in the Phobjikha Valley
For a full day hike around Phobjikha valley you can start walking from your hotel to the Black-Necked Crane Information Centre, which has a lot of information on the valley and its famous migrating Black Necked Cranes. From the Crane Centre hike towards Beta Village to visit local children in a tiny community school. Continue walking to Gangtey Gompa (one of Bhutan’s oldest monasteries and recently extensively renovated), past Semchubara village, through forests of blue pine covered with lichen (known as old man’s beard) to watch the cranes courting their mates. Continue on from the end of the nature trail to Kingathang village and via Yusa village back to your hotel.
Or take a day hiking the Shasila trail. The people of Sha Ngawang and Chitokha use this trail to migrate between their summer and winter homes in Gangtey. It takes approximately 6 hours on the hike for casual trekkers to reach Kheylaykha from Phobjikha. This trail is particularly recommended for bird lovers
For fit hikers who want a tougher challenge, take a day walk in the valley known as the Khotokha trail. It takes approximately 4 hours walk for casual trekkers to reach Khotokha from Phobjikha. You will be walking through forest and will get the chance to see some birds. In Khotokha you can visit the monastery, which has around 100 monks, and you are welcome to visit some farmhouses in the village.