Previous Post: Day 10 – Limithang To Laya
Date: October 8, 2019.
- I used a Sony RX100 III to capture most of the images you’ll see below; a fellow trekker’s Huawei P30 captured the others. (Thanks again for letting me post them, O!)
A free day in Laya Village! It is a settlement of about 1100 inhabitants, who are known as Layaps (a Dzongkha term and not theirs). They make up an ethnic/cultural group that migrated from Tibet about 500 years ago. Layaps apparently call their place a beyul, one of the hidden valleys of Himalayan Buddhist myth mentioned by the Vajrayana Buddha – Padmasambhava/Guru Rinpoche – as a sacred refuge in times of trouble.
The village faces south and is built on a gently sloped mountainside at about 3800 meters. That makes it the highest all-year-round settlement in Bhutan. It was also the biggest single settlement that we visited on our Snowman Trek. All the others are smaller and many – like Chozo and Thanza – are abandoned in the winter as people move down to less severe weather.
Interactive Google Earth Satellite view of Laya area – see here
The traditional culture remained intact relatively undisturbed until about thirty years ago and the arrival of the first of many western visitors, most often trekkers on a route from Drugyel Dzong past Jomolhari and then up to their village. (It is this trek that my ten previous posts describe. Profound changes have taken place over the past generation or two. Electricity arrived in 2017.
Road construction north from Gasa means that what was once a fairly isolated and difficult-to-get-to village is now a four-hour walk to the current end of the gravel road at Koina. While this might make it less alluring to trekkers, the locals are liking it! A Kuensel article from 2017 included these comments –
A villager, Rinchen, said although the incomplete farm road remains blocked during the monsoon, it helps them in the winter. “Most Layaps migrate to Punakha and Wangdue in winter and we transport all necessary goods to last a year when we return home. Farm roads have helped us immensely.”
Another villager, Pem Zam, 21, said the farm road would not only benefit Layaps but also visitors to the locality. “Even our horses were spared from carrying huge loads for days,” said Pema.
Residents said the farm road would help in reducing the inflation rate in Laya. See here for the article in Kuensel.
The economy has been supercharged by the presence of a medicinal fungus known as cordyceps which has high demand in China as traditional medicine. These days it goes for $10,000-$50,000 US a kilogram. It is Bhutanese gold and those who mine it get incredibly rich! The village of Laya is one of the centers of its gathering.
More traditional forms of wealth are the ownership of yaks and horses. In his guidebook on trekking in Bhutan, Bart Jordans provides numbers for each in Laya – “yaks (2706 in 2015) and horses (1107 in 2015)” and notes that their numbers are growing.
Given other ways to make a living, as well as reduced reliance on pack animals by traders to move goods thanks to the roads getting ever closer to the village, I do wonder about the value of yet more yaks. Even the yak fibre to make traditional Layap clothing has been replaced by readily available and cheaper textiles like the fleece jacket our Layap woman is wearing in the photo above.
Google the term Layap and guess what comes up! See here! Why is it always those comical hats? And – where do the men fit into the picture?
The tourist brochures and the Bhutan Tourist Council still promote a Laya that does not exist anymore. In one TCB posting, I read -“this village will mesmerize you with their unique culture“. Unless it refers specifically to those conical hats, I must have missed it! And those conical hats worn by women probably just come out those days when they perform traditional dances for foreign trekkers or greet visiting politicians from Thimphu who had helicoptered in for the morning for some school ceremony (as happened the next morning when we left Laya).
Foreign travel agencies also still promote a once-upon-a-time Laya as a remote settlement where age-old traditions still hold. This promo image from the UK’s KE Aventure is typical –
No mention of roads within a four-hour walk of the village – or of the fact that those hats only come out for tourists or politicians from down the valley in Thimphu! Given the mostly clouded-over and rainy conditions we had during the ten days of our trek from Shana to Laya, the mist in the background seems appropriate!
Things To Do On Our Free Day in Laya!
It was our first day off since Jomolhari and I was looking forward to it! Time to –
- ramble around the village for photo ops.
- find some supplementary food to take along for the second half of the trek
- wash at least socks and put them out to dry in the sun,
- sign up for five minutes in the shower tent set up by the kitchen crew
- make use of my inReach Explorer+ to send some emails to the folks back home
- recharge my iPhone, iPad, camera batteries, and my 26,800 Mh Anker battery pack
I had lots of stuff to do that did not involve adding to my cardio load!
Unfortunately, the weather was more of the same! It had rained overnight! It was raining at 7:00 a.m. as I crawled out of the tent for the dining room and breakfast. It started raining again just before noon; luckily we had just come back from a little ramble around the village.
Intermittent rain in the afternoon meant I did not bother with those socks! I did get my five minutes in the shower, the first in a week. It felt great to stand underneath the stream of hot water provided by our kitchen guys, Karma and Kinley. I also sent out some emails and got those devices recharged!
Thanks to all the rain, main street Laya was a total mess. That is it in the image below!
A Walk Up To the Jigme Dorje Park Office
We went for a walk to the east side of Laya; there is a nice vantage point overlooking the village from near the Park Office. Along the way, we got the following shots –
A Visit To The Laya Gompa
The outside gate to the gompa was open so we wandered in. No one was around and most of the buildings seemed to be abandoned.
When we got to the Park Office, some of us turned back while the others continued on to a plateau just above the village accessed by a trail behind the Office. What they saw were locals – mostly women – doing some work in preparation for the Fourth Annual Royal Highlander Festival later in October.
My somewhat skeptical take on it is the Bhutan Tourist Council trying to create a two -day tourist attraction out of something that does not really exist anymore. However, here is a more effusive account of the event – Livin’ It Up In Laya At the 2017 Royal Highlander Festival. The writer also describes her trek up to Laya from Gasa.
In mid-afternoon, I set off with one of the guides for a small shop to buy some Made In India packages of spiced peanuts. Purpose: To add to the bland twice-daily servings of rice and make it more enticing! I ended up buying sixteen packages; I hoped that would be enough for the rest of the trek! There would be no more shops until Chozo, six days away.
Back At Our Laya Camp Spot:
Their job was done. Our horse handlers, who had been with us since Jomolhari Base Camp seven days before, were going to be turning back the next day. A brief tip-giving and thank-you ceremony during a rain-free part of the afternoon was our goodbye. Already arranged were the services of a Laya team of horses that would take us the next six days to Chozo, deep in Lunana country to the east.
We spent a fair bit of time in the second-floor dining room of the lodge we tented behind. The shoes-off policy meant for cold – but unmuddied! – feet. The room had electric lighting; it also had a couple of wall plugs where we could recharge our devices. Those plugs were going all day as people brought in their smartphones and iPads and cameras. And not just the trekkers – but the support staff too. I often saw the horse handlers – the young ones for sure – with phones in their hands as they guided their horses along the trail. It really brought home the seismic shift in culture that Steve jobs ushered in with the first iPhone in 2007! Bhutan has not been immune.
The royal family – the Wangchuk Dynasty that started in 1905 – remains very popular in Bhutan – or at least in the western part of Bhutan that we were in. I cannot speak for their popularity in the south or the east of the country where people other than Ngalops live.
Behind the lodge was an impressive collection of empty glass beer bottles! Welcome to the modern world!
Before the day ended, the kitchen crew had gathered the food supplies for the rest of the trek – i.e. twelve days. The supplies they are checking here came up the road from Punakha to Gasa to the end of the road at Koina. From there horses were used. Another visitor – a Yangphel higher-up from the head office in Thimphu had also arrived in Laya. He was there to deal with another group – apparently a group of army guys who were doing a preliminary test of a Snowman Trek Run. However, he had somehow managed to bring all the way from Thimphu a celebratory German-style chocolate cake for us!
The Road Coming Up To Laya:
In the old days – before the construction of the 76-kilometer farm road from Punakha to Gasa – it took residents of Laya five days to make the journey down to Punakha. Over the years the road surface from Punakha up to Gasa has been upgraded; it is now blacktopped. These days, after the Layap traveler walks down to Gasa, the trip to Punakha takes as little as three or four hours. [In 2018 a taxi ride from Punakha to Gasa cost Nu 600 (US$8.). though that price is undoubtedly not for “high value, low impact” foreigners.]
The actual length of the trip still depends, of course, on rood conditions. Blockages are not uncommon, thanks to monsoon-related unstable terrain, landslides, and washed-away bridges. One of the members of our group had to leave us at Laya for health reasons; it took her two full days to get down to Punakha, partly by foot and the rest by vehicle. She said that road work on numerous stretch of the road meant long waits
Since 2017 the stretch from Gasa to Laya has been worked on and when we were there in October 2019 the road had apparently reached up to Koina. I was told that it takes a villager about four hours to get to the road at Koina or Tongchudra (Tongshida). So, if the conditions are ideal and transport available, Laya to Punakha can be done in a day!
The final 28-kilometer stretch of road to Laya is scheduled to be finished in 2022. Less than five years after the hydro poles and electricity entered the village, locals – and trekkers on what they thought was a visit to a remote section of the Himalayas – will have to get used to vehicles parked in front of Laya lodges.[ See this Kuensel article – Road is reaching Laya and that means change is coming – for more details.]
It will take some time for travel brochures to make the shift from extolling the exotic local culture of the Layaps to presenting the reality of the completed road and its impact on Laya. By 2022 Chebisa may also be connected to Gasa with the completion of another road project. It will mark the end of the first half of the traditional Snowman Trek. the second half, the section we were setting off on the next morning, is safe – at least until a planned road reaches deep into Lunana.
Bhutan has come a long way in the past fifty years. Contrast today’s road system with the one which existed in 1969, when it was still a kingdom, and when the entire northern half of the country was without even rough gravel roads.
Here is a Youtube video from the 2019 Highlander Festival –
Next Post: Day 12 – Laya To Rodophu
And here is a graph illustrating altitudes at the remaining seven high passes and eleven campsites. no high passes on Day 12 – just 600 meters down and then 1000 back up!