Soon after the poll day, Kinley Zam and her husband from Lunana left for Koina, the point where the road to Laya ends.

They reached Koina in three days. Others take at least seven days on foot. The next day, they ran to Laya, as participants of the Laya Run, a gruesome 25-kms run through trails, which see more horses than man. A snowfall the earlier night had worsened the trail.

But for Kinlay Zam who was visiting Laya for the first time, the weather and the condition of route was not an issue. The dzongdag had encouraged the people of Lunana to participate. So she did.

On Tuesday, as the fog parted for the third royal highland festival to begin, Langothang, located 3,800 meters above sea level in Laya, came alive. Some 1,800 people had gathered at the festival’s venue, which is surrounded, by majestic snow mountains. Horses and yaks, the livelihood of the highland communities grazed on the yellowing grass while their owners arrived in their finest. Young men adorned factory woven ghos, almost a replica of hand woven materials, available easily in the shops while women were clad in their traditional attire and ornaments. Visitors and tourists ambled around with their heavy cameras and jackets.

These visitors cheered on Kinlay Zam when she finished the run in two hours, 39 minutes and 50 seconds, the first among the 19 women participants. “I never thought I would win. The route was muddy and I didn’t even know the way. I followed the men,” the mother of two said after the race. “I didn’t eat anything in the morning and after sometime, my stomach was hurting.”   

“I had a little bit of koka noodles before I started running,” said Chimi, 25, from Laya who finished second. The two had met at the tent pitched for the participants of the run. “I would have finished first had it not been for the cramps,” she said. Chimi won the race last year. “She (Kinlay Zam) overtook me at the gate”

Among the 35 men, a physical instructor of military training centre in Tencholing, Sangay Wangchuk, finished the run first in two hours, seven minutes and 45 seconds.

The 35 year old said he didn’t face any problem until Taktshimakha, 10 km before arriving at the finish point in Langothang. He said his stomach was aching and he had vomited several time after crossing Taktshimakha because of the cold. This is his second win in the Laya Run. He came fourth last year.

Kinley Gyeltshen, 33, a soldier from Damthang, Haa came second.

The Laya run is one of the highlights of the royal highland festival, which is held to celebrate the country’s nomadic culture and lifestyle. The fest brings together the nomadic communities of 10 dzongkhags – Gasa, Wangdue, Bumthang, Trongsa, Lhuentse, Haa, Thimphu, Punakha, Trashigang and Trashiyangtse. This year, the two eastern dzongkhags of Trashigang and Trashiyangtse could not attend the festival, because of the limited time after the elections.

Gasa dzongdag Dorji Dhradhul, said about 500 of the 1,800 people who have gathered at the festival were from outside Gasa. “The main event is the livestock show and this time, we have a team offering HIV testing services,” he said. “We are working on improving the festival every year and the royal highland festival has now made it to the 10 bucket list of the Lufthansa Airlines Inflight Magazine.”

The festival has this year also set up stalls for hairdressing by Ugyen Deepak, nail care by Bhutan Nail Spa and makeup by members from the film industry.

The hairdressing stall saw some 25 people on the first day of the fest while the nail spa, 15 people. The little utopia, as one of the tourists, an Australian, Bryce described Laya, is changing.

The community is connected until Koina with road and during the recent elections, both candidates had promised to connect Laya with Gasa with a road. It is connected with electricity and with it has come smart phones 3G network, washing machines and electric cooking appliances, When a visitor to the festival asked a homestay host if they wanted some medicines from Thimphu, they asked for a fairness face cream.

“We wear our traditional dress only during occasions,” Pema Lhaden, 26, said. “Unlike in the past, children live separately and each sibling has their own house.”

The young mother, who studied until class XII in a private school in Thimphu said families are becoming nuclear because of cordyceps business. “Life is better here in the village,” she said. “Even the income is better here.”

Yangdon, 15, who dropped out of school from class nine after an illness believes people in Laya marry young, as early as 15. Parents are not encouraging their children to continue education because of the lucrative cordyceps business. 

The highland festival while celebrating the lives of the highlanders embraces the change that the nomadic communities are confronted with today. It appreciates their culture and tradition and encourages the communities to preserve the culture of living with nature.

“Through festivals like this, we get an opportunity to experience the nomadic culture and the pastoral way of living,” chief advisor of the interim government, Chief Justice Tshering Wangchuk, who flew to Laya in a chopper, said at the festival’s opening. “The festival is also expected to provide new economic opportunities to the highlanders by increasing and developing homestay facilities.”

A Laya resident, Tshering, 65, said the festival brings nomadic communities together to celebrate and showcase their rich culture and traditions to the rest of the country and foreigners. “We have been eagerly waiting for this festival and for His Majesty The King to grace the occasion as he did in the last two editions,” he said. “We hope and pray that this festival would continue every year with the blessing of His Majesty.”

Zam, 50, and a mother of three, said the festival helps highlanders to enhance their income through homestay facilities. “People from different parts of the country come to Laya and stay in our homes. They also buy our products and spend money.” Some families earn about Nu 50,000 during the festival.

Zam said that her family was looking forward to seeing His Majesty at the festival. “We feel something is missing this time without His Majesty’s presence.”

Sonam Pelden | Laya