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In Chilean Patagonia, following a track to the end of the world

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The hiking trail leading to the Moradadel Diablo volcano (the Devil’s Dwelling) crossed a field of blackened lava, congealed during the last ice age. Black lizards covered with white speckles, known as lagartijas Magallanicas, skittered across the ground, and the desiccated corpse of a guanaco, a wild grazer related to the llama, baked beneath the sun. A puma had probably killed it, my Chilean companion, Alvaro Soto, said.

I picked my way across the crust, pocked by holes just large enough to twist an ankle. After a mile, we climbed over a heap of rocks that slid beneath our feet and emerged at the summit of the crater.

A volcano field at the Pali Aike National Park in southern Chile.
A volcano field at the Pali Aike National Park in southern Chile.  (TOMAS MUNITA / The New York Times)

Soto and I gazed across the maw at a scene of otherworldly bleakness: A curving wall, tinted green, splattered with bird feces, or whitewash, and riven with crevices, formed the volcano’s lip. Steep slopes of scree and soil laden with red-tinted hematite fell away into the abyss. The cries of buff-necked ibises, large rodent eaters with cream-and-russet throats and curving grey bills, echoed off the canyon. A peregrine falcon rose, plummeted into the crater, circled back up and disappeared inside a crevice.

We were deep inside Pali Aike National Park, one of the least visited yet most dramatic reserves in Chile, 175 kilometres north of Punta Arenas. The Tehuelche hunter-gatherers who once dwelled here called this moonscape both “the place of desolation” and “the devil’s country” and believed that evil spirits possessed it. It’s not hard to see why. The area is studded with volcanoes, formed during the Jurassic era 100 million years ago, by the collision of the Chile Rise and the Peru-Chile oceanic trench.

Three eruptions — the first taking place 3.8 million years ago, the most recent 15,000 years ago — covered the steppe with spills of black lava and pillars, columns and parapets of basalt, which glow yellow, red and greenish-gray in the harsh desert sunlight. Half a dozen craters and collapsed cones loom over the terrain like broken teeth.

An obscure stop on the route of parks

Despite the bleakness, this 31-square-mile reserve, established by the Chilean government in 1970, teems with wildlife: hares, tuco-tucos (molelike rodents), skunks, armadillos, grey foxes, pumas, guanacos, lizards and dozens of species of birds unique to Patagonia. Chilean flamingos, splashes of pink and orange in a charred landscape, gather in the park’s soda lakes. Buff-necked ibises build nests high in trees or inside the extinct volcanoes, sharing the ledges with peregrines — a symbiotic relationship rare among birds of prey.

Pali Aike is among the most obscure attractions on Chile’s new Route of Parks, a 1,740-mile wilderness trail that was unveiled earlier this year. The route was the culmination of a yearlong process that began in April 2017, when Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, the widow of the North Face founder, Douglas Tompkins, donated to the Chilean government 1 million acres of Patagonian wilderness through Tompkins Conservation, the non-profit umbrella group of conservation initiatives that she co-founded and now leads. Out of that land, Chile carved two new reserves, Pumalín National Park Douglas Tompkins and Patagonia National Park Chile.

As part of the deal, the government set aside an additional 9 million acres to enhance the country’s national park network. A total of 17 national parks have now been linked by the Route of Parks, a hiking trail that winds past mountains, glaciers, volcanoes, forests and arid steppe, and roughly follows the Carretera Austral, the country’s storied Southern Highway (also known as Route 7) through Patagonia.

Travellers who want an unmitigated dose of Chile’s wilderness can now travel from Alerce Andino National Park, near the city of Puerto Montt, to Cabo de Hornos National Park at the southern tip of the country. The new route reflects the Chilean government’s growing commitment to preserving Patagonia’s pristine landscapes — and its unparalleled bird life.

Caiqu�n (also known as Magellan or Upland) geese in the Pali Aike National Park in southern Chile.
Caiqu�n (also known as Magellan or Upland) geese in the Pali Aike National Park in southern Chile.  (TOMAS MUNITA)

The birds were mainly what I had come to see. While doing research on an ornithological-related book over the past 18 months, I’ve travelled around the world, exploring bird-rich countryside in Scotland, the Rhondda Valley of southern Wales, and MatoboNational Park in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe. None of those regions, however, compares with Patagonia, home not only to the pallid peregrine — a rare, white-breasted morph of the southern peregrine — but also to passerines, waders and carrion-eaters found only at the bottom of South America.

I made my forays from Punta Arenas, a windswept city of about 125,000 on the Strait of Magellan. Navigated by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1520, the strait remained one of only three options, along with the Drake Passage and Beagle Channel, to sail between the Atlantic and Pacific until the Panama Canal opened in 1914.

I stayed at the Hotel Plaza, a gaudy French neoclassical villa built by a family of cattle barons in the early 1920s, adjacent to the Plaza de Armas, otherwise known as the Plaza Muñoz Gamero, a leafy square in the city centre. There I met Soto, a young photographer, bird-watcher and son of the local representative of the Servicio Agrícola y Ganadera (Department of Agriculture and Livestock), the government agency responsible for protecting Chile’s wildlife. He had agreed to be my guide for the trip. We rented a pickup truck and set out on a chilly spring morning at the height of nesting season through the Patagonian Steppe on the two-lane highway known as La Ruta del Fin del Mundo (The Highway at the End of the World).

Lesser rheas, known locally as ñandús, grey flightless birds that resemble ostriches, scurried away from our pickup truck amid clouds of dust. (Charles Darwin heard about them during the Beagle expedition of 1831-36, and after searching fruitlessly for months, realized that he had been served one for a post-New Year’s Day meal; he preserved the head, legs and a wing for study and classification back in England.)

Guanacos, with brown coats and creamy white bellies, placidly munched the hardy yellow grass known as coirón. A few panic-stricken beasts leapt over the fences of cattle ranches along the road. “Some of them get snagged and can’t extricate themselves,” Soto said. They become easy prey for the pumas that prowl the pampas at dawn and dusk.

The less-traveled route

The caldera of the volcano Morada del Diablo, (the Devil's Dwelling) in the Pali Aike National Park in southern Chile.
The caldera of the volcano Morada del Diablo, (the Devil’s Dwelling) in the Pali Aike National Park in southern Chile.  (TOMAS MUNITA)

A fork in the road presented two options. One branch bore left toward Puerto Natales, the gateway to Torres del Paine, a 700-square-mile expanse of glaciers, lakes and mountains, and one of the most popular parks in Patagonia. The less-traveled route, which we took, bore to the right in the direction of Pali Aike, and farther north, the Argentine town of Río Gallégos. The asphalt soon ran out, and a gravel track dipped and rose through bush-covered hills for about 24 kilometres. Then we arrived at a one-room ranger hut and a sign for the national park. I paid the gatekeeper 3,000 Chilean pesos (about $4.50), while Soto, as a Chilean citizen, paid nothing.

“You’re the first visitors in the park today,” the gatekeeper told us. It was 1 p.m. According to Chile’s National Forest Corp., which administers the park, Pali Aike received just 2,537 visitors in 2016, half of whom were foreigners. That works out to seven people a day.

“This isn’t a park for everybody,” the gatekeeper said, adding that many visitors have a particular interest in volcanic geology or the fauna of Patagonia. He said he had started working at Pali Aike only two weeks earlier, after spending most of his life as a gaucho in southern Patagonia. Now in his 60s, he had decided he wanted a more sedentary existence. He invited us inside the hut to share a mate — the caffeine-rich drink consumed everywhere on the pampas — and served it the traditional way, repeatedly pouring boiling water into a mug stuffed with leaves, and inviting us to sip through a metal straw.

“Gracias,” I said, after the first sip. Then, when I asked for more, he gave me a lesson in mate-drinking etiquette. “We only say ‘gracias’ when we’re finished,” he said.

We spent an hour inside the caldera of the Morada del Diablo, perched behind a guardrail at the edge of the drop-off. Huge, encrusted pillars of basaltic lava loomed behind us, and the green, fissure-ridden lip of the collapsed volcano rose before us across the abyss. Savoring the silences, we watched three breeding pairs of buff-necked ibises cavorting in the cloudless sky. An inspection through binoculars of the lone peregrine falcon revealed the greyish underparts of the common cassini, and not the rarer pallid morph. Then we returned to the dirt lot where we had left our car, drove down the road, and hiked up a second extinct volcano, reaching the summit by a winding ascent up a dirt path.

In the late afternoon, the sun cast the elongated shadows of Pali Aike’s pyramidal hills and asymmetrical volcanic mounds on the desiccated grass. The rising trail skirted a caveonce used by the Tehuelche, otherwise known as the Aónikenk, hunters who migrated here after the glaciers receded 10,000 years ago. Drawn to Pali Aike because of its abundant game, they were also fearful of it, seeing in the blackened ground and dead volcanoes the ubiquitous presence of el diablo.

On the yellow plain now far below us, a long line of guanacos — the Tehuelche’s sole source of protein, clothing and shelter — headed toward a pocket of water. Soto, armed with a guidebook to the birds of Chile, silently pointed to a small passerine with a brilliant red breast that had settled atop a lichen-covered lava tower beside us: It was a long-tailed meadowlark, a rare species found only in southern Patagonia and the Falkland Islands. A least seedsnipe, a small gray-and-brown bird, one of Patagonia’s most common, swooped down beside it.

As a late-afternoon chill set in, we drove across the plain to Laguna Ana, a salt lagoon near the park entrance. I walked along the soggy shore, drawn by a blur of orange at the other end of the lake. Sinking to my shins in the ooze, I extracted my legs with an unpleasant sucking sound, briefly panicking at the thought that I had stumbled into a pool of quicksand. Veering onto firmer ground, I peered through binoculars at what now revealed itself to be a flock of Chilean flamingos — slightly pinker than their North American cousins, with greyish legs, red joints and a mostly black bill — at the water’s edge. Driving outside the park near sunset, Soto pointed out Southern caracaras, also called carrion hawks — imposing, vaguely menacing birds of prey with black crests, scarlet faces and sleek, black-and-gray feathers — perched on a dozen fence posts along the road.

We spent the night in Punta Delgada, a ramshackle settlement in a saddle between bare hills, near the narrowest crossing between the Chilean mainland, El Continente, and Tierra del Fuego. At the family-owned Hostal San Gregorio, we ate a hearty meal of noodles and roasted chicken, and received directions from the aged owners to the best spot in the area for seeing the rare peregrina pallida. I thanked the hostess for her hospitality the next morning, blurting out that I was not expecting to find such comfortable accommodations at the end of the world. She shrugged. “For us it’s not the end of the world, but for you we understand.”

An avian spectacle

A Magellanic snipe in Bahia Posesi�n, near the Pali Aike National Park in southern Chile.
A Magellanic snipe in Bahia Posesi�n, near the Pali Aike National Park in southern Chile.  (TOMAS MUNITA)

Soto and I drove down a dirt road toward Bahía Posesíon, Possession Bay, an inlet of the Strait of Magellan, sandwiched between the mainland and Isla Grande, the largest of Tierra del Fuego’s islands. Sixty-foot sandstone cliffs, perfect falcon-nesting territory, run for miles along a deserted beach here. “This is not a tourist area,” Soto said.

Descending to the shore via a steep trail cut into the cliff, we approached a plywood shanty sheltered behind boulders. “I saw a pair of pallidos flying above the cliffs this morning,” the occupant, a fisherman in a black gaucho hat, told us. “Just head down the beach and you’ll find them.”

We hiked along a shoreline carpeted with mussel shells while scanning the cliffs — some bare, some blanketed in scrub and dwarf pine — for the aerie. Waves lapped over the shoal just off shore. Magellanic oystercatchers, black-and-white birds with elongated orange beaks, the better for plucking the meat from the bivalves’ shells, peeped hysterically over our heads. Southern giant petrels, big black seabirds also called Antarctic giant petrels, giant fulmars, stinkers and stinkpots, flew in formation. Soto pointed out southern lapwings, cinnamon-bellied ground tyrants, and Austral negritos. The pallidos, alas, remained well concealed.

As we headed back toward Punta Arenas, one more avian spectacle awaited us. On a stretch of dirt road through the pampas, running parallel to the Bahía Posesíon, Soto motioned for me to pull over. Here, not marked on any map, lay a nondescript puddle, just a few dozen yards across, that seemed to have attracted every species of water bird in Patagonia. Thumbing through his guidebook, Soto identified red-gartered coots, white-tufted grebes, four varieties of ducks, blue-winged teals, silver teals, oystercatchers, upland and crested geese, tawny-throated dotterels, Magellanic snipe and, on hard ground yards past the pond, another cluster of flamingos.

We lingered for an hour, alone on the pampa, fascinated by the variety of avian life squeezed into such a small space. Our disappointment over missing the elusive pallid peregrine had receded. Soto tossed his bird book in the back seat, and we continued down the dirt track toward the Ruta del Fin del Mundo.

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Travel & Escape

6 Places To Visit In Italy That Aren’t Rome

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Rome is often touted as the place to go in Italy, which is well-deserved thanks to its rich history and mouthwatering food. But there are several other spots throughout the country that give travelers a look at Italy’s dynamic culture.

To gear up for 2019, several travel-focused sites rounded up the best places to go for the year, and quite a few Italian spots that weren’t the typical locations of Rome, Venice and Florence made the cut.

Below, check out the cities and regions they recommended that are a bit under the radar for the average traveler.

Matera

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The Sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera are a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The European Commission named Matera this year’s European Capital of Culture (alongside Plovdiv in Bulgaria). The city also earned a spot on multiple 2019 travel lists, including Travel and Leisure’s “50 Best Places to Travel in 2019,” National Geographic’s “Best Trips 2019” and Architectural Digest’s “Top 20 Places to Travel in 2019.” It’s home to the Sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches, a system of cave structures UNESCO collectively named a World Heritage site in 1993.

Ischia

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Ischia is a volcanic island in the Gulf of Naples. 

Ischia, a volcanic island in the Gulf of Naples, is one of 50 places on Travel and Leisure’s “50 Best Places to Travel in 2019” list. Its stunning beaches attract many tourists looking for a day in the sun, while the Aragonese Castle brings sightseers and history buffs. But if you’re looking for a real view, Mount Epomeo offers a look from the highest peak on the island.

Piedmont

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Italy’s region of Piedmont, which features the Mole Antonelliana landmark building in Turin, ranked at the very top of Lonely Planet’s “Top Regions” list this year.

Lonely Planet’s team named Piedmont 2019′s No. 1 region to visit. Bordering France and Switzerland, it boasts several ski resorts and gorgeous views of the Alps. Turin, the region’s capital, is home to the National Automobile Museum as well as the former Lingotto Fiat factory, which featured a test track on the roof. Ivrea also has a massive food fight every year, if that’s more your thing.

Puglia

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Lecce, a city in Italy’s Puglia region, has been called the country’s “Florence of the South.”

Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot formation, made Fodor’s “Go List 2019” as well as The New York Times’ “52 Places to Go in 2019.” The region features Alberobello’s limestone homes known as “trulli,” one of several locations in Italy that have earned a spot on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Last year, GQ described Puglia as “Italy’s most overlooked food destination.” It also offers several gorgeous beaches as well as the Baroque city of Lecce, a popular tourist destination in the region.

Emilia-Romagna

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Emilia-Romagna is an Italian region that houses Bologna, which Vogue called the spot for the “ultimate Italian foodie tour.”

The Emilia-Romagna region of Italy made The New York Times’ “52 Places to Go” list for 2018, and this year, a few of its cities made an appearance on 2019 travel recommendations from Mic and Forbes. Italy as a whole is arguably one of the best countries for food lovers, and this region in particular ― with its signature prosciutto di Parma and tagliatelle Bolognese ― definitely makes the case. Lonely Planet called it the country’s “gastronomic paradise,” and Vogue described Bologna, the region’s capital, as the spot for the “ultimate Italian foodie tour.”

Palermo

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Piazza Pretoria in Palermo features a gorgeous fountain and several statues.

The capital of Sicily, Palermo made Condé Nast Traveler’s list of “The 19 Best Places to Go in 2019.” The Cathedral of Palermo, which features royal tombs, is often a pull for tourists visiting Sicily, as are the Norman Palace and the Palatine Chapel. For more of a local look, travelers can head to the Ballarò Street Market. And if you’re looking for an envy-inducing view, Mount Pellegrino offers a photo-worthy look over the city.

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15 State Parks You Can Visit During The Government Shutdown

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It’s day 25 of the partial government shutdown ― the longest in U.S. history. The shutdown has affected the U.S. travel industry in many ways, from TSA checkpoint closures to vandalism in national parks.

Unfortunately, a large number of national parks have been forced to close during the shutdown. But if you’re a fan of the great outdoors, you can turn to the many state-run options. With this in mind, the travel site Atlas Obscura put together a list of “wondrous state parks,” drawn from its user-generated database of destinations.

“The news is inundated with how our national parks are being affected by the partial government shutdown, and this inspired us to look at what our users have submitted for state parks across the country and encourage our audience to explore those instead,” assistant places editor Kerry Wolfe told HuffPost.

“State parks are particularly great because of their hidden historical aspects, proximity to home (no extensive travel needed!), and they’re often filled with unexpected flora and fauna and intriguing natural environments,” Wolfe added. “For example, New York’s Green Lakes State Park contains meromictic lakes, which are rare geologic features only found in a few places across the United States.”

Without further ado, here’s a sample of 15 beautiful state parks you can visit during the government shutdown, with descriptions from Atlas Obscura. Check out Atlas Obscura’s list of 70 parks for more.

ʻAkaka Falls State Park, Hawaii (Big Island)

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“These picturesque Hawaiian falls are home to a rare species of fish that uses a special sucker to climb up cliffs.”

Medicine Rocks State Park, Montana

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“This beautiful ancient site dotted with unusual perforated sandstone pillars was considered sacred by American Indian tribes.”

Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park, Nevada

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“These huge stone ovens in the desert fueled the Nevada silver boom, and may have also been a hideout for outlaws.”

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, California

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“This Big Sur waterfall drops 80 feet directly into the Pacific Ocean, and inspired the hillside house up top.”

Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, Florida

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“Located within a historic park, the [Cape Florida Lighthouse] is the oldest standing structure in Miami.”

Caddo Lake State Park, Texas

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“Foragers once flocked to this big beautiful bayou to hunt for pearls.”

Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire

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“Even Henry David Thoreau found this glacial pothole [The Basin] irresistible.”

Kodachrome Basin State Park, Utah

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“This quiet park’s strange sedimentary spires were named after Kodak’s color film.”

Natural Bridge State Park, Virginia

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“A sacred site for Native Americans surveyed by George Washington and owned by both King George III and Thomas Jefferson.”

Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, Minnesota

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“This picturesque cliffside beacon no longer calls to sailors but shines once a year in honor of a famous shipwreck.”

Totem Bight State Historical Park, Alaska

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“This historic collection of Native Alaskan artifacts was resurrected through a partnership between the WPA and tribal artisans.”

Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, Kentucky

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“Moonbows over Kentucky.”

Providence Canyon State Outdoor Recreation Area, Georgia

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“Providence Canyon, affectionately known as ‘Georgia’s Little Grand Canyon,’ is one of Georgia’s most treasured locations.”

Ecola State Park, Oregon

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“Hidden behind two regal viewing points, Crescent Beach offers a private, misty retreat into prehistory in the heart of Oregon’s bustling Ecola State Park.”

Baxter State Park, Maine

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“The highest point in Maine is a grand gift to the state’s citizens that also happens to be one end of the Appalachian Trail.”

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In Bhutan, prayer flags and birds from heaven

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Practical tips

That mandatory fee

The Great Buddha Dordenma statue overlooking Thimphu.
The Great Buddha Dordenma statue overlooking Thimphu.  (JADA YUAN / The New York Times)

Bhutan’s constitutional monarchy tightly regulates tourism and visitors can expect to pay between $200 (U.S.) and $290 per day, depending on the season and whether you’re in a group or travelling solo, which is more expensive. That fee covers a set $65 that goes to the government for social projects; the salaries of your mandatory local guides and drivers (I used Bridge to Bhutan; independent travel is not permitted); a night at a three-star hotel; and meals. Think of it as a contribution to Bhutan’s concept of gross national happiness, which emphasizes preservation of culture — the high cost keeps the country from being overrun with tourists. The environment is also key to gross national happiness. Bhutan doesn’t export lumber and it is carbon negative, with an estimated 71 per cent of its land under forest cover. (I had a hacking cough that cleared up after a day in Bhutan.)

Connection

Don’t count on your hotel’s Wi-Fi working. Use the downtime to go to the Thimphu Post Office, get stamps made with your face on them, and send post cards to your friends.

Stay

Standard hotels covered by your daily fee usually have incredible traditional architecture and decor (one of mine had a throne), and rarely have central heat; the Bhutanese historically migrated to warmer valleys in winter, so insulation isn’t standard. I loved my cosy, wood-burning stove at Hotel Dewachen in Phobjikha.

If you choose to stay at a five-star hotel, you will be charged the full cost of your room, plus the standard Bhutan daily rate, with no discount for not staying at the standard hotel. I had one luxury stay, at Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary, and relished the nonfreezing bathroom floors. Be aware, most five-star hotels are partly or fully foreign-owned — though employ many locals. If you want to keep your money with the Bhutanese, Zhiwa Ling Hotels is one good option.

Eat

My guides had warned me that Bhutan is not where tourists go for a great culinary experience and that I might want to bring my own snacks. (In 2004, Ruth Reichl, then-editor of Gourmet magazine, declared it “the world’s worst cuisine.”) That’s because most hotels serve buffets catering to western palettes (read: can’t handle spice), which means a lot of offerings resembling mediocre Chinese takeout.

Eat like a local, though, and you’ll have an amazing time. My first night, my guides took me to Kalden, a tiny pink-walled restaurant in Thimphu, where I got my first taste of ema datsi, or chili cheese, which featured dried red chiles rehydrated with a thin soup made from fresh yak cheese and butter. I made a point to eat its endless varieties every day.

Don’t forget to try Druk 1100, the standard beer, with 8 per cent alcohol, and ara, a grain liquor that tastes like moonshine. Tradition dictates that you have to eat the caterpillar fungus at the bottom. It’s a ghost moth larvae that has been mummified by the fungus, and is an aphrodisiac as well as the most expensive mushroom in the world.

Sacred valley

The valley was unspeakably beautiful: honey-coloured hills flanked by mountains covered in pine trees. Dark shrubs dotted the expanse, as did wandering cows, temples and clusters of 108 white Buddhist prayer flags. Relatives of the dead plant the flags — thin strips of fabric that run the length of tall poles — during the 49 days it takes to guide and protect the soul as it moves toward the next life.

Prayer wheels at the ancient Jowo Temple of Kyichu in Paro, Bhutan.
Prayer wheels at the ancient Jowo Temple of Kyichu in Paro, Bhutan.  (JADA YUAN)

Every time I’d see those flutterings of white, I thought of the effort and devotion that had gone into covering this landscape in so many acts of love.

My energy levels were close to empty when I arrived in Bhutan’s Phobjikha Valley, far enough east from the only international airport in this lush, underdeveloped Himalayan kingdom that it had taken many, many hours of driving to get to.

I had thrown Phobjikha onto my itinerary after meeting a woman on my plane who was going there to see the black-necked cranes who make the valley their winter home. Classified as vulnerable, there are only some 6,600 left in the wilds of South Asia. Around 500 of those make the long journey south from Tibet to Phobjikha’s high-altitude wetlands each November.

Protecting these cranes isn’t simply an environmental issue. In Bhutanese culture, Phobjikha is a sacred valley and the cranes are birds from heaven.

“Local people believe their arrival will bring them good harvest for the coming year,” said Phuntso Dorji, one of my two guides from the local tourism company Bridge to Bhutan. They’ll even wait to plant their winter wheat until the first crane has touched down.

A black-necked crane, classified as vulnerable, in Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan.
A black-necked crane, classified as vulnerable, in Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan.  (JADA YUAN)

The cranes seem to time their arrival and departure to auspicious dates on the Buddhist calendar, according to Phuntso, circling the sky three times above the valley’s 17th-century Gangteng Monastery. There’s video evidence of it at the Crane Information Center run by the Royal Society for Protection of Nature overlooking the protected wetlands. Every November, the monastery hosts a crane festival featuring dancers dressed as deities of the forest, or imitating the cranes’ bowing, jumping, wing-flapping mating dance known as the thrung thrung karm.

To visit Phobjikha is to feel as if you’ve reached some inner sanctum of the earth. We drove there on Bhutan’s single east-west highway, which twists along vertiginous cliffs, cresting passes 10,000 feet high. Wind-bowed trees clung to the mountainside as if by sheer force of will. No guardrails stood between our van and 1,000-foot drops. At times, we’d come across a bite mark of pavement that had tumbled down the slope, a mudslide of toppled trees, and large rocks we had to drive around. Another time, the highway turned to dirt, with a lone mountain biker huffing through the dust.

And this was the good road, the national highway.

We made a sharp right turn and drove an hour more on a dirt road lined with yaks. You can’t understand what cranes mean to this valley without going to Gangteng Monastery on a hill overlooking the valley floor. Its whitewashed stucco was crumbling and the lack of other outsiders seemed to allow room for more sacred energy. Monks were in the courtyard practicing choreography for an upcoming festival in which they would dance with masks depicting the wrathful form of Padmasambhava, or the Lotus Born, who is credited with bringing Buddhism to Bhutan in the eighth century.

“Watch out for the landmine!” Phuntso joked, as we dodged cow manure on our hike through the forests above the wetlands. The cranes were white dots on the valley floor, black necks bent down as they feasted on dwarf bamboo, their main sustenance. We couldn’t get much closer because of park regulations; the cranes don’t interact well with humans. But all day and all night, their unsteady, high-pitched calls echoed across the valley as if on a loudspeaker.

It wasn’t until I’d been there for hours that I realized what was really different about this place: the total lack of aboveground wires. In 2008 when the government proposed a plan to bring electricity to the valley, the Royal Society for Protection of Nature stepped in to pay for solar panelling and convinced the government to do all of the wiring underground, to guard against the cranes running into electric poles.

Threats still abound, though, from predators like foxes, leopards and feral dogs. One of them attacked a juvenile crane, rendering his left wing unmovable and keeping him grounded, unable to fly back to Tibet in summer. The Royal Society named him Karma. He has spent the last four years in a protected enclosure at the crane centre and is the only crane you can see up close.

A farmer and her child on the road to Punakha Dzong, Bhutan.
A farmer and her child on the road to Punakha Dzong, Bhutan.  (JADA YUAN)

More pernicious, of course, are the human threats, particularly from farmers illegally encroaching on the cranes’ habitat to grow more potatoes, the area’s cash crop. The worry is that someday the people are going to want more than sporadic underground electricity. For now the Royal Society is working hard to convince residents that it’s in their interest to keep Phobjikha a place where cranes will come. Schoolchildren help with scientific fieldwork. The government also encourages certain locals to earn income by offering home stays to tourists. I went to one called Aum Passang Zam Farm House for a delicious dinner and a bath in a wooden shed, heated with stones straight from a campfire.

Previous lives

One valley west of Phobjikha is the city of Punakha, famous for a temple dedicated to the worship of a Buddhist leader known as the Divine Madman, or Lama Drupka Kunley, who had a magic phallus he used to fight off evil spirits. Penis imagery is everywhere: Painted on walls in great detail, sometimes wearing a sash. More subtle versions include the giant wooden penis that graced my hotel room mantle, and the red-painted wooden penises with airplane wings that hung off each corner of the hotel roof as a form of spiritual protection.

But I had come to Punakha not just for penis imagery, but also to visit what Phuntso and my other guide and driver, Kinga Tenzin, said was the best dzong, or fortress in all of Bhutan. It’s a vast complex with both administrative offices and monastic spaces, including temples that tell the story of Buddha’s life. The week I was there, it was hosting the Moenlam Chhenmo (The King of Aspirational Prayers), an annual festival for the faithful in which the Chief Abbott, the top religious officer in Bhutan, recited blessings and prayers for world peace over a loudspeaker.

For miles heading to the dzong, the road was lined with pilgrims: men in traditional gho outfits (a knee-length robe tied at the waist, with a coloured sash across the chest to show societal rank) and women in their brightest silk jackets and ankle-length wrap skirts called kiras. When we arrived, a field was filled with thousands of devotees, along with tents where they’d sleep for up to two weeks. Some were taking a break to see the country’s longest suspension bridge nearby. They’d travelled days from other parts of Bhutan, and had never seen this part of the country.

That night, I stayed in the Pamtsho Lodge guest house in Thimphu, the capital, and ate dinner with the owner, Tsewang Nidup, whom everyone calls Uncle. Both of my guides agreed that he had so much wisdom that it seemed to emanate from his pores. I told him about my day at the Punakha Dzong and how I had looked around and hadn’t seen another Westerner in that sea of Buddhists.

“You must have accumulated enough merit in a previous life to be part of the event,” he said. “Or maybe you are already associated with it in your previous life, so now it’s a continuity.” People who’d seen me there, he said, likely thought the same thing, which is why no one seemed to give me a second glance.

“We are Bhutanese-born here and still we did not get the opportunity to see the blessings,” he went on, “and you did.”

Tiger's Nest Monastery resides in Bhutan's Phobjikha Valley, which is far from the only international airport in the lush, underdeveloped Himalayan kingdom.
Tiger’s Nest Monastery resides in Bhutan’s Phobjikha Valley, which is far from the only international airport in the lush, underdeveloped Himalayan kingdom.  (JADA YUAN)

Had I arrived at Bhutan any earlier in my 52 Places trip, I’m not sure I would have been as grateful as I am now, so close to the end of my journey. I spent so many months stressed out about logistics or finances or work. I don’t know if it’s because of the exhaustion that set in when I was in China and hasn’t lifted, or the asceticism of living out of a suitcase for a year, but the Buddhists stories my guides told me all seemed to make sense.

My trip had begun with a visit to the recently completed giant golden Buddha statue, known as Great Buddha Dordenma, who overlooks Thimphu and is filled with 125,000 smaller Buddhas. There I learned to point with an open hand, and to prostrate myself as I thought of the teachers who have helped to get me to this moment. My last morning, we went to the ancient Jowo Temple of Kyichu in the western city of Paro. Oranges grow in the courtyard, even though the climate prevents them from growing anywhere else in the valley. Circling the grounds clockwise were half a dozen frail and elderly Bhutanese, some with hunched backs and canes, chanting the six perfections that lead to enlightenment: generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation and wisdom.

Phuntso said the elderly come here and do this all day, every day. “They are preparing for the afterlife.”

I even began to believe the story about Padmasambhava riding on the back of a tigress to fight a demon on the high cliff of one of Bhutan’s most popular tourist attractions, the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. It takes more than four punishing hours to hike there, round trip, and was, by far, the most crowded tourism spot I visited. Yet mysticism still drenched the air.

On the way back, Phuntso and I saw a figure drop from a tree that turned out to be a grey langur monkey. We had seen grey langurs once before on our trip, and Kinga had stressed what good luck they are. Phuntso said that on all his many trips to Tiger’s Nest, he had never seen one on this trail.

Grey langur monkeys near Phobjikha, Bhutan.
Grey langur monkeys near Phobjikha, Bhutan.  (JADA YUAN)

As we left, we pointed the monkey out to a Bhutanese family. The father agreed with Phuntso that spotting one here was of great portent.

“He must be a disciple of Buddha,” he said, matter-of-factly, and walked off, down the trail.

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