After a very long lockdown of about three years, Howman Wong and Berry Sin were finally in Bhutan. However, as I lay awake in my sleeping bag listening to the rain pummeling the thin roof of the government guesthouse assigned to us for the evening, I became worried. Not about the floods that had recently swept away the famous Gasa hot springs, just a few metres below where we slept, but about the somewhat arduous hike that awaited us tomorrow.
The next morning, with only two hours’ of sleep and no rice for breakfast, my mood and the weather did not look any more promising than it had the last evening.
We drove through the rain and some fog, and more worryingly, across landslides along the newly cleared road from Gasa to Koina – our base and the trailhead for the hike to Laya. The safety and wellbeing of the guests weighed heavily on my mind; I was uncertain whether we would even make it to the base.
Howman, ever the adventurous explorer, went missing for a few seconds before all of us realized he was happily making a video of one of the oncoming landslides. One of our Bhutanese team later recounted that he was terrified at the thought of trying to explain how the Royal guest got injured due to our carelessness.
With a lot of prayers being muttered under our breaths, our trek and stay at Laya turned out to be beautifully sunny and dry, despite Google informing me that we were to expect thunderstorms that whole week.
As we hiked up, the village of Laya was not visible until we actually entered it and climbed to the top of the hillock. We were taken aback, not by the stunning view of the valley, but by the evident prosperity of the homes of the people of Laya. Newly constructed cottages and homes had sprouted everywhere, all beautifully painted and adorned with the best decoratively carved awnings and beams – a luxury even in our capital town of Thimphu! Only a handful of dark and plain traditional stone homes stood starkly against the otherwise new colourful houses that dotted the valley below and the hills above us.
Our temporary home was at the equally prosperous looking house of the parents of the Laya gup (village headman). Traditionally, the best room in any home is the altar room, and therefore it was understood that Howman would stay there. But being two hours behind, I discovered when I arrived that Howman had gotten the hosts to lay out my bed there instead! Our second-floor bedroom windows had an amazing view of the mountains that were interspersed by the sound of tinkling bells of the pack horses travelling to and fro to Lingzhi – another 3 to 4 days trek from Laya.
The Layapa were originally from Tibet. They were the individuals or groups that were sent out as outcastes in accordance with the annual Bon ritual during the New Year to remove bad luck. Usually, dough effigies of persons are made, however in this case, actual persons were cast out. They were not welcomed by the already settled communities in Bhutan, and therefore these communities resettled at the borders, which are now known as Laya, Lunana and Lingzhi in Bhutan, creating their own unique communities.
Their traditional diet consisted of buckwheat dough or flour, buttered chilies with a dash of yogurt, and some fermented radishes, an example of a unique blend of flavours and dishes from both Tibet and Bhutan.
With the introduction of Cordyceps caterpillar-fungus harvesting, as well as the sale of highly prized incense dust and illegal trade across the Bhutan-China borders; we find the people now eating a more modern diet of the highly prized (and expensive) local red rice, Chinese beer and a variety of fresh vegetables and chilies. Rice sacks and blankets (including the expensive and hard to find tsuptra, a Tibetan sheep blanket) are piled high against their walls, working both as insulation against the cold as well as a way to flaunt their wealth. I am amused that they now feed their former diet of buckwheat to their horses and mules.
Prosperity and contentment aside, the people express their various concerns of how “things are not as they used to be.” Climate Change is a transformation felt most notably in these highland communities. They speak of Cordyceps being found at higher and higher altitudes each year and glacial lakes and snowfall being less visible over time. And they say that chance meetings with mythical animals such as the famous Yetis and chhurails (Qirin), which were once an almost weekly occurrence, are now a rare occurrence amongst the community members. And with the introduction of electricity and a mobile network, Tik Tok is as prevalent amongst the youth of Laya as it is in the cities of the world globally.
Seventeen-year-old Sangay Choden, daughter of the gup and an avid fan of TikTok, is also a shaman woman from a long line of pamos (warrior shaman women) through her maternal family’s side. She talks to me of the future;
“I will live and die here in Laya. I am proud of my heritage and wish to continue. But with the change in climate and lifestyle, I do not know if we can.”