Bhutan: On The Wings of the Peaceful Dragon ( Days)

Much of the pristine forest in the Eastern Himalayas, which is still intact, lies in the sparsely populated Kingdom of Bhutan. Here, the people are mostly Buddhists, and therefore pacifists. Killing of birds and other game is almost non-existent. It means that they tend not to disappear at the first sight of humans, as is common in most other parts of Northeast India. So, I badgered my friend Sumit Sen to come up with a strategy. Each day was carefully planned — with maps and target birds appended.

All we had to do was arrive. We also roped in Ramki Srinivasan and his wife Swarna to bring some youth and sanity to the group and to prevent Sumit and me from murdering each other. Other than the birds, it was the countrywide concept of wealth here — not measured by filthy lucre but by ‘Gross National Happiness’ — that had me hooked. I was further intrigued by their then King, who married three sisters in one day, and a fourth when she came of age.

Rumours persist that a fifth diplomatically declined. So, on a sunny day in November, the quartet were at the Druk Airways counter in Kolkata’s International Airport. Bhutan’s national airline (the only one which flies into the country) is notorious for postponing and cancelling their flights at short notice, and after several false starts we were finally on the plane and air-bound, quivering with anticipation. While flying to Paro, it is advisable that you grab the seats on the left of the plane because on a clear day you can see the high peaks of Ganesh Himal, Cho Oyu, Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Kangchenjunga and Jomolhari.

The landing in Paro is considered to be one of the most perilous in the world and there are only a handful of pilots who are licensed to perform this feat. It lived up to its hair-raising reputation and when we landed, the entire plane burst into spontaneous applause. Paro is a small town of about 30,000 people and is set at an altitude of about 7,000 ft. The drive from the airport to town gives you the first taste of Bhutan and whets your appetite for more.

The fast-flowing Paro Chu river, emanating from the glacial waters of Mt Jomolhari, rushes furiously over boulders, while the majestic Paro Dzong looms large with the Ta Dzong (now the National Museum) nestling above it. To the uninitiated, a Dzong is a distinctive kind of fortress in Bhutan Up at 3 am, we were out by four in the morning with all the bags in the car, and so began the first of our serious birding expeditions to the Chele La (La means ‘mountain pass’), the highest motorable road in Bhutan. It was bitterly cold and though we were all clad in warm clothing, the chill still crept into our bones.

From prior research I had learnt that every Bhutanese emits the cry ‘lea-gey lu’ (victory to the gods) when he crosses this pass, and I had every intention to follow suit. The vegetation here was mostly dwarf rhododendron and alpine meadows. Our guide, Tashi, had such an inscrutable face that it was difficult to figure out what he was thinking and at the top of pass, in a deadpan voice, declared “the Blood Pheasants are coming”. I thought he said something innocuous like ‘shall we have a cup of tea?’ In any case, the effect was electric as we rushed to where he was standing and, lo and behold, a train of Blood Pheasants began to emerge.

One by one they trooped out of the undergrowth like soldiers marching in a parade. For someone who had only seen these beauties in wistful dreams, this sight was unbelievable. Sumit and I moved down the road when there was a slight movement in the undergrowth, below the road — three Himalayan Monals were on the move. The bird that is omnipresent here, and indeed everywhere on our travels, was the Spotted Nutcracker. Another highlight was sighting and photographing a beautiful male Red Crossbill. Returning to Paro, we drove down along the river Paro Chu, where our attempts to find the Long-billed Plover came to naught.

But, low and behold the river, it was full of Ibisbill. This enigmatic winter visitor is so difficult to see in India, but here, every few yards or so, was a pair pretending to be a small boulder. All of this along a major road, with large noisy SUVs hurtling down it. We moved onto Thimpu and managed to photograph a Fire-tailed Myzornis from point-blank range. At the base of the Tango Goemba, is a circular path, which is more or less flat and we decided to walk along it disturbing a party of Olive-backed Pipits.

Other than a troop of Langur monkeys, the only other creatures of interest were Ashy Drongo, Yellow-bellied Fantail, a Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush, diminutive Yellow-browed Tits and Rufousfronted Tits. We collected our inner-line permits, changed our money and were on our way to Punakha. We had heard that Wallcreepers frequented the retaining walls around the corner from the hotel. As soon as we arrived, a splendid specimen put up an uninterrupted show for us.

We photographed it for over an hour and finally abandoned it to look for lunch. The national dish of Bhutan is called Emma Datshi, a combination of red and green chilies and local cheese, which we had endured. My North Indian palate yearned for kali dal and chicken tikka. What happened next will be revealed next fortnight.

Source: Ahmedabad Mirror