Benji & The Black-Necked Cranes
Breakfast conversation is dominated by wet bed stories. As the only one whose hot-water bottle didn’t leak, I feel rather left out.
My Bhutanese host and guide has been up for some time doing crossword puzzles, to which he’s addicted. Dasho Benji (‘call me Benji’) is what one might call a larger than life figure. A colourful character. He’s the King’s cousin, and, over a period of 30 years, has held positions of power in Bhutan from Home Affairs to Chief Justice to Minister of the Environment. No longer a member of the government, he uses his considerable influence to pursue the environmental causes that are his first love. He also likes to go to Calcutta for golf and horse racing and is generous with his drink.
He makes no apologies for enjoying the fast life, but now, at the age of 60, he’s having to move into the middle lane as his body registers the toll of many happily misspent years. His broad, ruddy face is dominated by a pair of deep-set, ever so slightly bloodshot eyes, which seem naturally attuned to merriment and give little indication of the hard times he has known. His father, who was Prime Minister of Bhutan, was assassinated while in office.
Today, though, he is in impatient mood. He wants to show me something of which he’s intensely proud. A colony of black-necked cranes, one of the world’s rarest birds, winters in this valley.
The black-necked crane was first identified in 1876, by one of the great explorers of the Tibetan plateau, Count Nikolai Przhewalski of the Imperial Russian Army. Of the 16 species of crane, it was the last to be found.
Before 1990 the general estimate was that there were only 800 black-necked cranes in the world. Since China opened up and began to share information that estimate has risen to between 3000 and 5000. They fly down from Tibet and Ladakh every winter and gather here, attracted by the marshy wetland of the valley floor. But there is a complication. The Gantey valley recently discovered a potentially lucrative source of income from the raising of seed potatoes. The soil and air here are free of all the most common diseases from which potatoes suffer, so the seeds are much in demand, especially in India. Plans were afoot to drain the valley and build more farms. Benji fought to prevent the destruction of a unique habitat.
‘The government said that, you know, we cannot stop the development of the country for 20 birds. But we found 80 of them.’
He gives a smile of satisfaction.
‘And today there are 270.’
He is certain that his close relationship with the King helped. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, educated in Britain, succeeded to the throne after the death of his father in 1972. He was 27. Before that, I get the impression that he and Benji had some pretty good times together, a sort of Falstaff-Prince Hal relationship. As Benji puts it to me.
‘I was his court jester. I used to make him laugh.’
‘So saving the cranes was a payback for the times you’ve cheered him up?’
Benji nods.’I believe that. I believe that very strongly.’
We aren’t far from the village when we have our first sight of them. In the brilliant morning sun, some 30 or 40 birds are pecking around for grain and insects in a recently ploughed field. They stand about three feet tall (1m) and look to me like a cross between a goose and a heron, with slender, pale grey bodies, black tails and, of course, black necks. The only splash of colour is a tiny red cap. They aren’t arrestingly beautiful by any means, and I suppose I’m a little disappointed that rare doesn’t necessarily mean resplendent. Indeed, Benji, in his red and green check kho with black, knee-length stockings and pristine white trainers, is a lot more exotic than the birds we’ve come so far to see. But their rarity has won them respect and the black-necked crane is thought to have great religious significance, proven by the fact that when they first arrive in the valley they always circle the monastery on the hill three times.
Benji takes me up a lane past timbered houses, fenced green paddocks and piles of fresh-cut wood, which looks like Switzerland in old photographs. He points out darting finches and snow pigeons with fawn backs and black and white tails, which, he says, are usually to be found much higher up.
At the end of the lane, beside a tumbling stream, is a modern, well-equipped, decagonal building, which houses the Black-Necked Crane Information Centre. Here I learn a little more about these celebrated creatures. Like the shelducks of the Brahmaputra, they mate for life (which adds to religious status, I’m told). They can live for 30 or 40 years.
Two or three mounted telescopes are trained on the swampy valley floor below us. A river dawdles through it, full of brown trout that are never fished, it being against the Buddhist religion to take life. A number of black-necked cranes are already gathered, and more fly in, until there must be 150 birds down there. J-P and Nigel become very excited and discreetly move the camera into a closer position. It’s very hard to catch the birds in flight and it’s not until Peter walks right round the far side of them (ruining a pair of trousers in the process) that they take, languidly, elegantly and prematurely, to the air.
‘I didn’t see you do that’ says Benji in his capacity as founder of the Black-Necked Crane Preservation Programme.
In the afternoon we ride a pair of small and very truculent horses up the hill to get a wider view of the valley. Last night’s snow lies crisp and even up here, and we unpack our lunch and make a fire.
Benji, once again, didn’t see us do this. So strict are the environmental laws in Bhutan’s national parks that timber and branches must be left where they fall, and cannot be moved by anyone without special permission. As 28 per cent of Bhutan is designated national park, there’s a lot of firewood going begging.
Benji points above us, to the hanging lichens that cover the trees like dust sheets in a shuttered-up house, ‘This is an indicator of good-quality air, you know. Shows the air is very good up here.’
We return the horses to the park-keeper and walk back through the village. The houses are good-looking, rectangular in plan and usually of two storeys, the lower one for livestock, the upper for the family, with an open loggia below the roof, not for cocktails or deck chairs at sunset, but for drying crops and storing wood and cattle fodder.
As in Tibet, decoration of the houses is of great importance. In Bhutan an added refinement are the finely drawn paintings on the white, half-timbered walls, some of which are not for the prudish.
I counted about half a dozen painted penises in Gantey village, erect and beribboned, and often emitting a thin trail of cosmic sperm. They seem to be as unremarkable here as a box hedge in Dorking. Françoise Pommaret’s Odyssey Guide to Bhutan explains that they were inspired by the teachings of one of the country’s most popular religious figures, Drupka Kunley, who lived around the turn of the 16th century and was known as the ‘divine madman’. He was from a distinguished family and, though he refused to take holy orders, he wandered the country with his own brand of Buddhism, which put the sexual act at the centre of religious experience, and from what we know, he practised what he preached. The fact that his phallocentric ideas are still celebrated says a lot for Bhutan’s relaxed attitudes to sex. If you painted a penis on your house in Dorking, you’d probably be arrested.
Benji’s enthusiasm for the rural way of life – and over 80 per cent of Bhutanese still work on the land – seems to be greater than his powers of mobility, but he insists in clambering up steps cut out of a tree trunk to show me the interior of one of the village houses.
A bright girl called Dawa Zangma, which means ‘moon’, lives here and helps the family income by weaving. She can make a kira, with all its complicated colours and patterns, in eight days.
Dawa Zangma is 13, apple cheeked with straight, thick, dark hair. She’s about to leave the home and the loom to go to boarding school.
She lays aside her work and helps her mother prepare butter tea, which we drink sitting cross-legged on a small carpet, which is rolled out specially for us. There are, as far as I can see, no chairs in the house, which she shares with her mother, father and two sisters. Benji confirms that in a traditional Bhutanese house where there is little money around life is lived on the floor (which is why they move with much more agility than myself). There is no cutlery and no glass in the windows, which are covered at night by sliding bamboo shutters. Everyone eats or sleeps in the one big room, dominated by the stove at its centre.
The attractive appearance of the houses belies the condition of the villagers. We are still in the Bhutanese winter and those inhabitants who can afford it will have packed up everything and moved to lower slopes with their livestock. Those who stay on may be employed in the reconstruction work at the monastery, but that’s about it. A woman, well wrapped up, sits behind the counter of the single local store. On display is a pretty meagre selection of chillies (the sine qua non of Bhutanese cuisine), cabbage, cauliflower, beans, potatoes and dried fish from Bangladesh. Though they seem to enjoy eating meat and fish, the Buddhist prohibition on taking life means that it all has to be killed by designated butchers within the country or brought in from outside.
As night falls and the warm sun is replaced by steadily falling snow, we sit around the stove, eating red rice and yak stew and a fierce plateful of what must be one of the oddest national dishes in the world, hemadatsi, chillies in a cheese sauce.
Bhutan, which has only had a king since 1907, must now rank as one of the most successful monarchies in the world. The current ruler is a widely respected, modest man who prefers to live, not in his palace, but in a log cabin in the grounds.
He tours the country regularly, consulting local people and hosting big meals at which he himself serves the food.
‘He’s not a king who goes on European holidays,’ says Benji.
He is, nevertheless, an absolute ruler. Though he himself is working on a constitution that will limit his power, King Jigme, is to all intents and purposes, free to do as he likes. Benji sees no problem with this.
‘It’s very important to have an absolute monarch, a guy who cares for the country, who knows where he’s taking us. Left to ourselves…we’d be squabbling.’