Not Quite Stranded in Bhutan

Posted on May 18, 2017

The warmth of sub-tropical Punakha, Bhutan evaporates in a few hours on the drive to the 9000’ Phobjikha Valley. Left behind are the palm and orange trees, swapped for coniferous forest and meadows of dwarf bamboo. Imagine the drive from Florida to Maine compressed into 4 hours and fifty miles. The road meanders through vertiginous landscape on precipitous ledges, provoking gasps from first timers. The scenery is everywhere mountains, clad in virgin forest, with a few tiny villages and snowcapped peaks in the distance. That a road could even be constructed here seems to defy engineering logic. The Phobjikha Valley is broad for a Bhutanese valley most of which are V-shaped; here imagine the letter U with its bottom stretched wide. Bhutanese will tell you it’s their most lovely valley, but in a nation with so much natural grandeur, visitors often fail to discern the gradations of beauty. It’s breathtaking too, not a cliché at 9,000’ but a fact, the thin air requires a slower pace to avoid discomfort. The valley floor of meadow and marsh is dotted with traditional Bhutanese style homes, built of stone and incorporating many timbers, lending them a vague Tudor like appearance in this decidedly un-Tudor like landscape. The roofs are yard long wood shingles, over which large stones are placed, as no screws or nails are used in traditional construction, the stones keep the shingles in place. Most everyone in the valley is a farmer, their square and rectangular shaped fields are surrounded by stonewalls, lending a quilt like appearance to much of the area. The walls keep the large free roaming cattle away from crops. Stands of mature conifers pierce the blue sky towards the edge of the valley, their density increasing to become forest on the hillsides. November sees the added attraction of several hundred black-necked cranes, these 5.5’ white birds (with black necks and black wings) arrive from breeding grounds in Tibet, and can be easily observed as they stalk the meadows searching for food.


Not long after arriving at our lodge we learn the cranes left last week, earlier than any year in recent memory. I feel relief that I did not hype the cranes as a must see, and that none on this trip came especially to see them. My clients and I take a late afternoon walk through small villages, the dirt road filled with school kids who shout “hello, how are you?” and “good afternoon” to us, then we return to the hotel for their signature Dragon Warmer cocktails (hot rum, cinnamon, apple juice, and honey) and dinner.  Our morning plan calls for a hike, so following dinner we head off to our rooms where the staff have lit fires in the bukharis (wood stoves) and placed hot water bottles in the beds.


I awake to a blizzard of howling wind and six inches of snow. This is the first time I’ve encountered snow in Bhutan. Snow is rare, and the king proclaims a holiday for the first snow fall each year, Bhutanese expected there would be no such holiday this year, as mid-March is late for snow. I go in search of coffee and encounter Dorji our guide, who proclaimed we had to leave soon as we finished breakfast, lest we get stranded. The other guides had said the same thing to their charges, lending the air of the dining room something akin to that of the Titanic after the passengers had heard the ship had struck an iceberg, but before learning it was soon to sink. Not real panic, though a noticeably changed atmosphere, far from the casualness of the dragon warmer sipping of the night before.  As Dorji is unflappable, the urgency in voice is slightly worrying. I break it to the clients that we have to leave, though soft peddle the ‘get stranded in the valley’ part of it. Were this actually to occur, it would not be of Donner Party type consequences; but would certainly mess up our carefully laid plans.


We finish breakfast, pack our gear, and jump into the van. None of the vehicles have snow tires, chains, or 4-wheel drive and the drivers have scant snow driving experience. We are in a slow moving convoy of vehicles inching along the valley floor, which becomes a slower moving procession of vehicles getting stuck and slipping as we begin to climb to the pass, the only way out. While stuck behind a stuck vehicle, our driver Raj innocently remarks, “only my second time driving in snow.” The moment this phrase left his mouth I knew it was a mistake, no one would misinterpret the looks on my clients faces as anything but anxiety. His efforts to inch forward only lead to spinning tires, and the air of unease in the van deepened. If I were the sort of tour operator to carry Valium with me, this would be the ideal moment to dole it out. Reaching the pass and driving back to Punakha seems impossible, Dorji whispers.


We’re 2 miles from the village of Gangtey, the site of a luxury lodge, and my friend Ninzy is the reservations manager. I phone to ask if there is any room at the inn.  Yes, she says. Our options are two; hike 4 miles back through the blizzard to the hotel we recently vacated, or walk 2 miles to the lodge. Attempting to drive to Punakha is probably suicide.  Hiking through the blizzard back to the place we just left seems like professional suicide; clients are not going to easily forget I made them do such a thing. Handing over my credit card to the pricey lodge seems the best idea. Maybe money can buy happiness; this seems the ideal time to find out. Certainly it will buy peace of mind, and plenty of comfort.


Dorji commandeers the only 4-wheel drive jeep in the snarl of vehicles,  and we swiftly toss ourselves and luggage into the vehicle, which bucks up the slope. We’re met at the door by Mark the manager, while the snow swirls around us, he quickly leads into a large rectangular room, 3 stone walls, the other glass, carved timbers soar to the 20 foot ceiling, as puddles form around our feet on the polished wood floor.  Two fireplaces are built into the glass wall, and both blaze with flames. Mark leads us to the balcony, as staff appears to drape blankets over our shoulders and heated coiled neck warmers that smell of cedar on our necks. We are handed chocolate chip cookies and mugs of coffee, and watch the storm over the valley from our lovely perch.  Mark has not left our side; his demeanor that of an old friend welcoming us into his home. We have landed in the lap of luxury, and I hear only praise, music to a tour operators ears. I reveal that only an hour ago it seemed we faced a hike back to the other lodge, if not for vacancy at this lodge we’d still be trudging through the blizzard.  My clients are delighted with their new digs; money it seems can buy happiness.


The next morning, the sky is blue, the ground white and the snow fast melting. We drive up and over the pass and by afternoon we’re sipping tea and inhaling the scent of orange blossoms.