1. A Unique and Gentle Country

Himalayan Mountains

Blazing white, snow-covered peaks of the legendary Himalayan Mountains spread in every direction below our plane. Our destination, Bhutan, is situated on the edge of this massive mountain range, the natural border that separates the Tibetan Plateau from the Indian subcontinent.

After two days of travel from Portland, Oregon, and one day for me to acclimate in New Delhi, my next stop was Bhutan, a remote country that had called to me for years. Our tour guide, Richard Webster, had taken nine of us birders from various parts of the United States on a half-day birding jaunt near New Delhi that whetted our appetites for the long-awaited tour to Bhutan. At last, we were on the final leg of our trip, high above the Himalayan Mountains.

Though I had no idea if April was the right time of year for bird migrations, I scanned the clouds below us looking for moving dots that might be birds. I had read in Audubon, the National Audubon Society’s magazine, that mountain climbers in the Himalayas have found the bodies of Bar-Headed Geese at very high altitudes. This is proof that they fly through the Himalayan Range while migrating between India and their nesting grounds in Tibet. One theory posits that they usually fly at night. Still, I hoped. Maybe they didn’t all fly by night and maybe this is the right season, I mused, as I peered downward.

Paro Airport

After our three-hour flight, we descended into Paro International Airport located in a deep valley just above 7,300 feet in altitude. The plane bucked and jerked in the rough air that funneled down between the surrounding mountains, some as high as 18,000 feet. We flew so close to local houses that I thought we might be landing in their fields! My heart pounded as we approached the small airport, which may possibly be the most challenging in the world. Later, I read that as of 2011 only eight pilots had been certified to fly into Paro. That, in itself, would have made this trip exciting. I couldn’t help but think, What if all eight of the pilots got the flu at the same time?

We landed safely and I was grateful to finally set foot in remote Bhutan. I grinned at the others and did a little celebratory wiggle. At last our birding adventure begins!

 

Off to a Great Start

Pema our guide, dressed to visit a dzong.

The country requires a Bhutanese cultural guide to accompany all groups visiting Bhutan, so our official Bhutanese guide, Pema, met us at the airport. He would turn out to be a great resource during the long drives when we plied him with questions about Bhutan, its people, and the culture. I am sensitive about asking questions that could be culturally offensive, but I soon learned that Pema almost always gave us informed and polite answers. I even learned that his name, Pema, is a gender-neutral name in Bhutan. My uninformed impression of Bhutan as an isolated country ruled by a monarchy forever, soon changed dramatically, thanks to Pema.

That first night we check into the Dechen Hill Resort in Paro and I climbed into my soft bed and pulled the comforter up to my chin. The gentle patter of rain on the tin roof was relaxing after the long trip. With a long exhale and sigh, I welcomed myself to Bhutan and fell into a deep sleep. But for my two sleeping pills, I would have dressed and undressed in my mind all night long.

A hammering downpour on the tin roof woke me from my happy slumber a few hours later. My first night in Bhutan, I thought. Oh dear, birds don’t like rain any more than I do. They’ll probably hole up, so we’ll have to as well—a fine start. Garumph!

Despite the rain, I was pumped and ready to explore Bhutan. At dinner the night before, Richard told us to put on all our warm clothes in the morning. “It will be cold on the mountain pass in the pre-dawn hours,” explained Richard. “Before daylight we will drive up to Chele La at 12,000 feet. ‘La’ means ‘pass’ in Dzongkha. The target birds to see at Chele La will be two spectacular pheasants.”

Richard’s description of the pheasants defied belief. I couldn’t wait!

From experience, I knew that I would not be able to warm myself by walking since birdwatching is often a static sport. Bhutan was my first test of packing lightly for a three-week trip while still having enough warm clothing for cold weather. If I had spent half the time learning about the birds rather than worrying about what clothing to bring, it would have served me better overall. As I lay awake in the middle of the night, once again I reviewed my clothing; I figured the next day would test my fussing. Anyone can pack for the tropics, but birding in snow, rain, and heat is the real challenge. Still new to international birding, I had yet to experience both extremes on the same trip. Eventually, I did fall back to sleep.

In the morning, I awoke before my 5 o’clock alarm. I heard no wind or rain. When I pulled back the curtains in my room, shimmering stars blanketed the sky dome. I thought, Ahhh, a good day for birds.

I donned my layers: long underwear, field pants, rain pants, large shoes to accommodate the two pairs of warm socks, a T-shirt, light fleece shirt, heavy fleece jacket, and a rain jacket. A fleece hat and wind-breaking gloves completed my ensemble. Fat as the Michelin tire man, I grabbed my binoculars and headed out the door to my new adventure. Once outside, I inhaled the bracing mountain air. It was definitely cold!

We all met in the lodge for an early morning snack of coffee, tea, and biscuits. Immediately, I realized I shouldn’t have put on all my clothes. To avoid suffocating, I peeled off half my layers, counting them so I wouldn’t leave anything behind when we headed to the bus. I wasn’t alone in my miscalculation. Jackets, scarves, and hats covered the empty chairs around our long table. After tea and biscuits, I grabbed my heap of clothing and headed to the bus with the others, and then off we drove into the still, black morning.

Some people snoozed on the way to our first high altitude pass, but I didn’t want to miss a thing. Silhouettes of evergreen trees emerged as the stars melted into the sky with the first hint of dawn. In time, the sleepers awakened and as the bus ground up the steep and curvy road, we all slowly and eagerly arranged ourselves to peer out the bus’s front window. We wanted to catch whatever might appear in the headlights: bats, night birds, or nocturnal mammals.

As we ascended the mountain, a light snow covered the paved road and turned to slush under the bus’s tires. Fortunately, we had a careful driver who downshifted for traction and continued chugging upward. Richard murmured, “This chill will give us better birding than usual. The birds will drop down the mountains to escape the cold higher up.”

Oh, boy. Lucky me.

Then the surprise!

 

Birding at 12,000 Feet

The bus slammed to a halt as a flash of red disappeared over the lip of the heavily forested road. The driver whispered, “Blood Pheasant.” Motor off, he added, “He will return. There is no hunting in this country, so they are not afraid.”

Giddy with anticipation, eyes riveted on the edge of the road, all ten wide-awake birders silently waited. Suddenly, a deep red bird’s head popped into view and looked around. Then, a stunning bird marched into full view—a male pheasant in glorious breeding plumage. Washes of crimson flowed down his creamy chest and under his long tail. A black frame surrounded his solid red face and the soft grey of his back had creamy speckles. What a gorgeous bird!

The haughty blood pheasant looked us over as he considered his next move. A brown female with a grey crest and nape followed him onto the road. Two more females joined them. They waited for his lead, but they were in no hurry. So, for several minutes we took in every detail of these breathtaking birds. This was one of those experiences that I wanted to last forever. I forgot to breathe. A few minutes later, he turned and disappeared off the edge of the road and the magic passed.

It was only the first day of our birding adventure and I already knew this would be a great trip. The spectacular scenery we saw as we flew into Bhutan, along with observing this magnificent bird, was a fabulous beginning to our birding tour in Bhutan. Wow! What next?

Che Le La road sign

I savored my view of the blood pheasants as the bus resumed its climb along the fog-shrouded road. Approaching Chele La, the headlights illuminated a fluttering, red-and-blue checkered tablecloth covering a long table. A blue tent stood next to the table on the right side of the road. After reassuring myself that my eyes were not playing tricks, I realized that the brown faces split by big grins and peeking around the flap of the tent were our support crew. They had spent the night at the pass so they could set up our first breakfast without delay. Boot prints in the inch-thick layer of late spring snow showed they had already been busy.

Richard stepped off the bus while the rest of us stayed warm inside for a few more minutes as we prepared ourselves for the crisp morning. The Bhutanese crew of six emerged from their cook-stove-heated refuge to greet Richard, familiar to them from previous trips. The men were not warmly dressed, so after a quick reunion they dove back into the toasty tent to prepare our breakfast while we looked for early birds in the dawn’s first light.

Behind the cook tent white clouds obscured any possible view. A chorus of snapping from across the road drew my attention. The stiff wind pushed swirls of fog up from the valley, making strings of Buddhist prayer flags stand out straight. Mountain passes in Bhutan are choice spots for small forests of the skinny, flag-covered poles, honoring the death of someone dear, or marking a special holiday. Until the prayer flags deteriorate, the wind sends their good wishes into the universe. Many of the flags were only rags, but they continued to release their messages.

We began our search for birds that thrive high in the rugged mountains. All of us moved at a slow stroll, listening for rustling, cheeps, or songs, and watching for the flash of body parts—maybe a tail or an eye. The birds became more active as the light grew stronger.

Birding was slow going in the cold of 12,000 feet and we hoped we would see more birds down the hillside. Despite my many layers of clothing, I had a difficult time keeping warm. One of my companions who wore less than I did, seemed to shiver, but she never complained, so I just put any whiny thoughts out of my head.

After half an hour, everyone was getting a bit icy and we’d seen the expected birds within a quarter mile of the summit, mostly smaller forest birds like the Coal Tit, which I first thought was a chickadee with a crest. It is a common resident of Bhutan and likes the Bhutan Fir and Himalayan Hemlock trees. We saw a Goldcrest, a yellowish warbler, and the Alpine Accentor, a rugged bird that thrives on open alpine slopes. The Collared Blackbird was among the easier ones to identify with a name that actually reflects what the bird looks like, contrary to many bird names.

Breakfast had to wait while we returned to the bus and drove back down the mountain a short way, hoping the full light of day would reveal more pheasants. On a loop of the road, we disembarked to scan an abandoned field below us. Richard spotted two Himalayan Pheasants meandering in the snow, relatives of the blood pheasants we saw on the way up. They pecked here and there, finding seeds or bugs, or bits of lichen, their favorite food.

Richard and two other birders, who had brought their spotting telescopes, assembled them to give us a closer view. When it was my turn at a telescope, I caught glimpses of the iridescent green, copper, and purple of the male Himalayan pheasant, but I couldn’t say for certain that I saw the spatulate-tipped crest that Richard described. The details of the drab females were more of a challenge and I could not pick out their smaller crests because their heads were usually down. However, I was satisfied because I did get a good look at the male pheasant and a sufficient look at the females. Of course, the hardcore birders among us had higher standards and wanted to see much more of the bird. One of them wanted to see every field mark clearly. Another birder wanted to verify that he could identify the birds on his own. I wondered how many birds this birder had seen on trips that he refused to count.

Every birder is free to construct his or her own standards for what constitutes a “good enough view” in order to count the bird among those seen for a personal life list. Most birders do keep a list of birds they have observed, even if it is not the focus of their trip. Others will spend enormous amounts of money and time to find a single bird they haven’t seen. Not me. I’m easy. Someone says that’s a particular bird, I believe it, and I enjoy the sight.

My stomach grumbled and the others seemed to have had their fill of the magnificent pheasants for the moment—if that was possible.

 

Breakfast in the Mountains

Returning to Chele La, we had a few minutes to look for a private bush before breakfast. In the entire three weeks in Bhutan, we would only see one public

toilet (locked)

restroom and it was locked, reserved for the king when he traveled. It was still early in the morning and no vehicles had passed, so the women chose to go down the road a way and around the corner from the tent. I followed. We squatted in the shallow drainage ditch and hoped for privacy. The eerie view made the risk worthwhile. Hints of sun kissed the fog-shrouded treetops. By the time we headed back up the road to the camp, the clouds seemed to be lifting. While the temperature may not have been below freezing, the brisk wind increased the wind chill and the cold had stiffened our fingers. Back at the tent, the crew had filled a five-gallon canister with heated water for hand washing. The warm water dribbling on my chilly fingers felt divine.

Since I knew I would not get my favorite cup of French press coffee, I got creative with the hot drink options: There was a mix of choices, including Nescafé, Milo, a chocolate and malt powder mix, plus additional cocoa powder, sugar, tea, and warmed or powdered milk. It didn’t matter to me what I had in my cup as long as it was hot and sweet, just what my chilled body needed. Clasping our hot cups to keep our hands warm, we all anxiously waited for our first roadside meal. We stamped our feet to the rattle of the prayer flags, trying to return a bit of feeling to our frozen toes.

breakfast at Che Le La

At first, I was reluctant to sit at the beautifully set table, complete with a tablecloth. It seemed so decadent. The scene reminded me of something I’d seen in movies where members of the Victorian British upper class sat at a formally set table in a remote field, their staff ready to serve. I couldn’t help but think, Tablecloths, cutlery, linen napkins, and wine glasses at a 12,000-foot mountain pass?

Well, we did not quite rise to the level of British royalty—no wine glasses or formal dress—but it still was far from being a rugged picnic. Lovely table or not, I envied the crew staying warm inside the cook tent.

Our Bhutanese guide, Pema, wore a short-wrapped robe and knee socks that morning, a bit like a Scottish bagpipe player. His outfit seemed rather skimpy at that high altitude with the wind blowing, especially since Pema had worn Western clothes, pants and a shirt, the day before. Until I knew him better, I didn’t feel comfortable asking him about the difference in his attire that day.

In the meantime, we talked about the British influence in Bhutan. I was curious because when I lived in East Africa, the colonial British influence surrounded us and not always in a positive way. Many programs had been instituted to help the Africans by building schools, clinics, and infrastructure. I noticed the arrogance of a few whites who had lived in Africa for years. They believed Africans were “lazy, dishonest, and stupid,” and would say so. However, that was not my experience. The African girls I taught were bright, curious, and lively, making my Peace Corps experience a delight.

Pema told us that British explorers had passed through Bhutan in the 19th century to gain access to Tibet, but did not linger. About that time, The British East India Company, which had become influential in India, had been instrumental in settling border disputes between outlying regions of India and their neighbors, including Bhutan, at least temporarily, to protect what they considered their territory.

With effort, Bhutan maintained its independence until the Chinese invaded neighboring Tibet in 1950. The shadow of the growing Chinese threat motivated Third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck to reach out to other nations in order to strengthen his country’s ability to maintain its independence. His son, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, a student in England at the time his father died in 1972, returned home and continued his father’s work as king. Fourth King Wangchuck developed and modernized Bhutan at a pace that would preserve the country’s culture and traditions. Pema explained the careful development of Bhutan’s resources and I found it to be an admirable and thoughtful undertaking.

The men in the cook tent had pulled back the tent flap and inside, the cook crouched at the two-burner, propane camp stove, stirring eggs in a giant skillet. His helper turned the toasting bread while other workers waited to serve food and later, clear the dishes. While they waited, they sat in the rear of the warm cook tent, nursing their tea.

 

Rare Opportunities

Most birding trips to Bhutan occur in the spring because the wildflowers are in bloom and the birds are in breeding plumage and are more approachable. Much of the snow had melted by the time we arrived for our April trip. Summer monsoons in June, July, and August make travel in Bhutan even more difficult than usual for any travel. The all-male crew that worked with our tour group regularly hosts birding groups for six weeks in the spring. In the fall, they load the same camping gear on horses to support the trekking parties that come after the rains and before the snow. Key positions on the crew were the cook, the driver, and the camp boss. The other three helpers set up camp, broke it down, and assisted where needed.

Because of the country’s inaccessibility and the relatively high tour cost that includes a mandatory government fee of $250 per person, per day, Bhutan is not overrun with tourists at any time of year. However, the Bhutanese who can get jobs working as guides for visiting birders, earn good wages relative to that of most workers in Bhutan.

The sun burned off the last of the fog and the wind died to a gentle zephyr when we sat down for breakfast. I put aside my imperialist reservations about eating in such high style on a mountain pass, and listened to my growing appetite. Bright sunlight sparkled from the snow-covered mountaintops as numerous and jumbled as waves in a roiled ocean. I tuned out the friendly chatter and drank in the breathtaking beauty surrounding me. In the midst of my reverie, a huge bowl of hot oatmeal appeared in front of me.

It was just the beginning of our first full day in Bhutan, and already I was thrilled beyond my greatest imaginings. After breakfast, we climbed on our bus sated and ready for the day to unfold.