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Along Bhutan’s River Valleys to Find Black-Necked Cranes

On his final field inspection with the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration (CRE), geographer Keith Clarke writes about his experience in Bhutan and reflects on his eight-year term with CRE. National Geographic President and CEO Gary Knell is leading the CRE on a tour of the Himalayan country to meet with grantees, listen to briefings from government officials and environment groups, and observe science, exploration, and conservation in the field. The Society has funded nearly two dozen grants in Bhutan, two of which are active.

A glimpse of one of the world's rarest birds, the white-bellied crane. Photograph by Keith Clarke.
A glimpse of one of the world’s rarest birds, the white-bellied crane. Photograph by Keith Clarke.

PHOBJIKA VALLEY, Bhutan–CRE field excursions are always a whirlwind of exhausting travel and rapid information-absorption, interspersed with lifelong memory experiences and unforgettable in-your-face lessons about world geography. Earlier this week was no exception. We rose far later than usual, as there was no dawn animal watch—the previous day we rose at 5 to catch a glimpse of the white-bellied heron (Ardea insignis). After a rousing breakfast presentation on the future of National Geographic from CEO and President Gary Knell, it was back to the buses for a 4-hour drive to the Phobjika Valley.

We drive in four buses, each named for one of the four dignities: Dragon, Tiger, Snow Lion, and our bus, Garuda. The Garuda is a fearless and daring mythical flying beast, which lives in northern Bhutan. It symbolizes freedom from hopes and fears, and is an antidote to negative spirits. Spending lots of time in the company of my busmates, plus our driver and guide, builds considerable friendship and not a little jocularity, much of it surrounding the Mad Monk cult, now undergoing revival in Bhutan.

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Photograph by Keith Clarke

 

Our trip started at a modest altitude of 1,000 meters, and again we passed along the western highway, really just a mountain track, clinging to the side of mountains, and looping into and out of side canyons, each exhibiting a new waterfall. Many of the falls have small stupas containing water-powered prayer wheels, sending their prayers upward at each rotation and earning their makers “white marbles” or positive credits in the flow of Bhuddist life. Each overhang or crevice in the rock surrounding these stupas is filled with tsa-tsas, small pyramids formed from clay mixed with the ashes of the cremated dead. These are brightly painted and placed in auspicious places to honor the deceased. As they discolor and then disintegrate, the ancestors slowly merge back into the beautiful landscape.

Photograph by Keith Clarke
Photograph by Keith Clarke
The view from my side of the bus, a sheer drop a few inches away. Photograph by Keith Clarke.
The view from my side of the bus, a sheer drop a few inches away. Photograph by Keith Clarke.

 

Once again I picked the wrong side of the bus. I am subject to vertigo, and the rare altitude is no help, but each new side canyon saw the bus within millimeters of the edge of precipitous 300-meter vertical drops, with the tops of the soaring pine trees growing just arm’s lengths away, level with one’s eyes. Freedom from hope and fear, I repeat to myself, and think positive thoughts.

We wind along narrow Himalayan river valleys, where slopes facing north versus south receive such differing amounts of sunlight that one side of the valley resembles a tropical rain forest, while the other seems like the dry Sierras. We see our first yak, just as we cross the last few switchbacks dotted with stunted trees covered in Spanish moss. At last we stop at the saddle, the pass where we cross into the glacial Phobjika valley at 3,300m. There we chant the ritual thanks to the mountain gods for our safe passage, and come together to stretch two huge trains of prayer flags across the road between two trees. We leave them flapping their prayers into the winds, and start the descent into the valley, almost immediately spotting a group of Himalayan vultures.

My Last CRE Trip

This is my last trip with the CRE. In my eight years of service, the field inspections have taken me to Egypt, Vietnam, Cambodia, Turkey, India, South Africa, and now Bhutan. I leave the committee with not a little sadness; I will be losing good friends, colleagues and regular contact with academic disciplines and subjects well beyond my own field of cartography. I find Bhutan to be steeped in history, culture, spectacular scenery and amazing people. The Bhutanese are intelligent, charming, strong, peaceful and largely content with life. Bhutan’s two natural resources are its people and its culture. There are many challenges to the status quo that reflect the ills of world societies, among them teen pregnancy, alcoholism and unemployment. Yet they have chosen a different path toward development and progress. Like the water-powered prayer wheel, I send them hope over fear, and ever-absent negative spirits.

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On the first morning in Phobjika there was a pre-dawn departure for the blinds to see the black-necked cranes, which we’d seen in the distance at the flat muddy base of the U-shaped valley. I told myself that if I looked hard enough into the first light of dusk, I’d see a Garuda. I’d given up hope of photographing a Yeti. Positive thoughts.

17710_160x120-cb1269872105A member of the Committee for Research and Exploration since 2006, Keith Clarke is a professor in the Department of Geography at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has been a member of the National Research Council’s Mapping Sciences Committee since 2003 and is the current chair.

Trained in scientific and quantitative geography, Dr. Clarke has worked on the integration of the computer into the methods and equipment used for analysis and exploration. Specializing in analytical cartography and geographic information systems, he has conducted fieldwork on disease mapping in Africa, Maya settlements in Central America, and glaciers in Lapland. While a Resident Fellow at the Explorers Club, Dr. Clarke led the mapping for a flag-bearing expedition to Hudson’s Bay, and climbed the Mexican volcano Popocatepetl. His research stretches from computer modeling of land use change to detailed mapping of terrain with LIDAR.

Dr. Clarke is the former North American editor of the International Journal of Geographical Information Systemsand is series editor for the Prentice Hall Series in Geographic Information Science. He is the author of three textbooks and more than a hundred articles and papers in the fields of cartography, remote sensing, and geographic information systems. In 2005 Dr. Clarke received the John Wesley Powell Award, the highest non-government award given by the United States Geological Survey. He spent the 2006-7 academic year in London as a Leverhulme Visiting Scholar and in Italy as a Fulbright Distinguished Fellow.