Black Crane Festival

Embracing Culture: Bhutan's Black Crane Festival

 Day 01: Welcome to Kathmandu, Nepal’s vibrant and bustling capital, where ancient history meets the majestic Himalayas. Upon landing, a 30-minute drive takes you to our hotel, with no scheduled activities, allowing you the freedom to explore upon arrival. For airport transfers, land at Tribhuvan International Airport (KTM). Early arrivals can enter the city centre, just a 15-minute walk from our hotel. Our adventure officially begins in Paro on day two, but a local guide will greet you at the hotel for an initial briefing and possibly a group dinner. Missed briefings will be compensated with information left at the hotel reception, ensuring you’re up to speed for the next day’s gathering. This evening, seize the opportunity to savour Nepalese cuisine, from momos, delicious dumplings filled with meat or vegetables, to the traditional dal bhat, a lentil soup accompanied by rice and vegetable curry, immerse yourself in the colourful and diverse flavours of the region.

 Day 02: Departing from Kathmandu, our journey takes us to the scenic Paro in Western Bhutan, nestled in forested valleys by the Paro Chu River. This area is renowned for its expansive terraced fields. It hosts some of Bhutan’s most significant and ancient dzongs, which are central to the country’s political, religious, and military life. Our local guide will welcome and escort us to our hotel upon landing. Time permitting, we’ll explore Paro with a quick tour, including a visit to the iconic Rimpung Dzong.

 Day 03: Leaving Paro, we embark eastward on mountain paths, traversing the stunning Black Mountains and the elevated Dochu La Pass (3200m). Our route unfolds across landscapes adorned with rice terraces and quaint villages, ascending towards Dochu La amidst vibrant prayer flags. On clear days, this winding path reveals the Bhutan Himalayas and the majestic Gangkhar Punsum (7541m), Bhutan’s tallest peak. As we descend into the enchanting Punakha Valley, the scenery shifts from dense forests to a more tropical setting, with cacti, oranges, and bamboo flourishing in Punakha’s warm climate. This lush valley is an agricultural and pastoral haven nourished by the Phochu and Mochu Rivers. Our exploration includes visiting the Chimmi Lhakhang Monastery, founded in the late 15th century by Lama Drukpa Kuenley. Known as the “Mad Monk,” his unconventional approach and teachings challenged the strict Buddhist doctrines of his time, aiming to bridge the gap between clergy and laypeople with his eccentric methods and provocative messages.

Day 04: Today, we explore the grand Punakha Dzong, a 17th-century fortress majestically poised at the junction of two rivers. Once the epicentre of Bhutan’s governance, it now serves as the winter haven for the revered Je Khenpo, Bhutan’s chief abbot. Renowned for its intricate Bhutanese architecture, this dzong has withstood the test of time, preserving its magnificent halls, courtyards, and golden spires despite natural calamities. Later, we embark on a 2-hour hike to Khamsum Yuley Chorten, meandering through a picturesque valley adorned with farms and homes. Along the way, we’ll visit a traditional farmhouse to sample yak butter tea and gain insights into the daily lives of Bhutanese families.

Day 05: Today, we embark on a scenic journey through Phobjika Valley’s icy terrains, a haven for the elusive black-necked cranes migrating from the Tibetan Plateau to feast from October to March. This region also shelters sambars, red foxes, Himalayan black bears, and muntjaks. Our journey includes a stop at the renowned Gangtey Monastery, established in the 17th century by Tenzing Legpai Dhendup, Pema Ligpa’s second reincarnation. Known for its expansive Tibetan-style prayer hall, this monastery remains a bustling centre for Buddhist education, offering a nine-year program in Buddhist studies. Following our visit, we’ll explore the valley’s beauty on foot, returning to Phobjika village to visit the black-necked crane information centre, deepening our understanding of this fascinating species.

Day 06: Today, we partake in the vibrant festivities of the Black Neck Crane Festival alongside the local community. Held annually in Gantey Gompa’s courtyard, this festival rejoices in the winter arrival of the Black Neck Cranes to Phobjika Valley. It features cultural performances, including dances and songs inspired by the cranes adorned with Bhutan’s traditional wooden masks. Conservation of the cranes and their habitat is a significant theme throughout the event.

Day 07: Setting off at dawn, we’ll head towards Thimpu, Bhutan’s capital, nestled on the western forest-clad banks of the Wang Chhu. Our route meanders through rice terraces and apple orchards, past pine forests and quaint villages adorned with Tashi Tagye, the eight auspicious symbols of Himalayan Buddhism. Should time permit, we’ll explore the vibrant streets of Thimpu, a capital distinctive for its absence of traffic lights, immersing ourselves in its unique essence. Our total travel time, including breaks, is estimated at 8 hours.

Day 08: In the capital, a day brims with exploration. We’ll start at the King Jigme Dorij Wangchuk memorial, a Tibetan-style chorten honouring the third king. Then, we’ll explore the Tashicho Dzong, a 17th-century fortress serving as Bhutan’s religious and governmental hub. Our itinerary includes visiting the Takin Enclosure and options like a thangka painting workshop or a paper-making factory tour. Don’t miss the chance to browse the traditional handicrafts market for unique keepsakes. The city’s charm extends to its architecture, all adorned with Buddhist motifs. Fun fact: even the traffic light once stood within a chorten.

Day 09: We leave Thimpu and return to Paro to visit the magnificent Taktsang Monastery, 900m above the Paro Valley. Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche arrived here on a tiger’s back to meditate, founding the monastery. The challenging 3km hike takes 4 to 5 hours and offers stunning views. En route back to the city, we’ll also stop by Kyichu Lhakhang, one of Bhutan’s holiest temples, built in 659 AD to tame a local demoness.

Day 10: Today, we embark on our journey back to Nepal, accompanied by a local guide for an exploration-filled day. Our morning begins with a captivating tour of Durbar Square, a testament to centuries of royal legacy under the Malla, Shah, and Rana dynasties. Here, we’ll marvel at the grandeur of ornate palaces, courtyards, and temples that narrate Nepal’s rich history. Our itinerary also includes visits to Asan Bazaar and Kumari Ghar, the dwelling of Kumari Devi—a revered living goddess in Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Later, we’ll venture to the sacred Temple of Pashupatinath, situated by the Bagmati River and revered as one of the holiest sites dedicated to Lord Shiva globally. This area holds significance as a cremation site, where ashes are scattered into the sacred waters, eventually merging with the Ganges. As we return to the city, we’ll pause to admire the towering Bodnath Stupa, a majestic symbol of Buddhist reverence adorned with vibrant prayer flags and frequented by monks and pilgrims, all beneath the watchful eyes of the Buddha. Please note that cremations may be ongoing during our visit to Pashupatinath, an open-air ritual integral to local customs.

Day 11: Today offers a chance to explore Kathmandu and its surroundings freely. Consider visiting Bhaktapur, a beautifully preserved Newari town in the Kathmandu Valley. Known as the City of the Devotees, it transports you to medieval times with its temples, palaces, and monasteries lining the ancient streets. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a treasure trove of culture, where artisans ply their trades as they have for centuries. Or, venture to Swayambunath, the ‘Monkey Temple’, perched on a hilltop with its iconic Buddha eyes overseeing the valley. Beware of the mischievous monkeys who may attempt to snatch your belongings!

Day 12: Your journey concludes with a morning meal at our Kathmandu hotel. Enjoy the day at your leisure, with the flexibility to leave whenever suits you. For those with late flights, our hotel offers luggage storage. Remember to depart from Tribhuvan International Airport (KTM) if you require airport transportation.

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