For decades, the warmer valleys of Punakha and Wangdue had been the winter homes for highlanders from Laya and Lunana.
Every winter, to escape the harsh cold and to stock up rations, they move down to warmer places. There, they spend about two months, in tents pitched in open fields belonging to the rich landowners of Punakha, mostly trading. Goods traded then were yak meat, cheese, hardened cheese (chugo), home made incense (sangzey) and a few yak hair made products.
A lot has changed. If Lunana is only about 30 minutes helicopter ride from Thangzona, the makeshift landing ground of the Bhutan Helicopter service, not many Lunaps (people of Lunana) stay back throughout the year.
For about a dozen Lunaps, they have found a second home in Punakha, once their winter home.
About eight Lunaps have settled in Gum Kamo, a village located opposite the Khuruthang town. They have bought land, built houses or rebuilt houses they bought from the villagers. Another five are scattered around Chang, near the Punakha dzong.
Gum Kamu tshogpa, Tenzin Wangchuk said that about 10 more own land but haven’t built a house. “It was about seven years ago that the Lunaps bought the houses here,” he said.
Gum Kamu today has about 35 households.
Until few years ago, Gum Kamu faced acute drinking and irrigation water shortage and many sold their land. A resident of Gum Kamu, Kinley, 42, said that with lack of drinking and irrigation water, vegetables or paddy cultivation was difficult. “Even today, we have to take turns to fill our drinking water tanks. In the past, many sold their lands for their children’s education and for cash income.”
Most buyers were Lunpas whose newfound wealth, Cordyceps, has allowed them to save money and invest. People in Gum Kamu are also choosing to invest in new homes.
They are different from the exisitng traditional two-storied house in Gum Kamu. Many are designed to accomodate tenants.
Kinley said that the new houses provided better and larger space for the family and also helped generate income. “Alot of the employees of the nearby resort stay in these newly built houses.”
Lunana gup Kaka said that of about 190 households in Lunana, only about 10 percent owned land and houses in the lower lands. “We know that about 40 percent of Lunaps want to own and build their house in Punakha. But it is expensive and it isn’t easy.”
A decimal of land at Gum Kamu today costs around Nu 70,000. When some early birds bought about five years ago, a two-storied traditional house cost about Nu 1.8 million.
Pema Gyelpo, 57, owns a small portion of wetland and a traditional building at Gum Kamu. He said he bought the house because it was now a neccissity to have property in Punakha. “We would have to ask someone for a place to stay or otherwise rent a place for about two months,” he said.
Today almost every Gum Kamu local has a Lunap neighbor. “We don’t get to see our neighbors often because they aren’t here for long and during their stay, they are busy shopping,” Kinley said.
But more than convenience of having a house in Punakha, it is the huge amount of income Lunaps are making from Cordyceps. At an average, a family earns about Nu100,000 from Cordyceps every year. Some make about Nu 1.2M in about five years.
Punakha is not the only place. Three Lunaps have bought land and constructed house in Olakha, in the Thimphu thromde. Another eight had bought land in Yulsuna, Paro.
In Wangdue, it is the highlanders from Nuell village that are looking for greener pastures in the lowlying areas.
About 30 highlanders from Nuell village called the Baeldos have resettled in Baelangdra. Located at about 5 hours walking distance from Baelangdra, the village today has about 53 households.
Within five years’ span the Baeldos have bought and built about 30 houses in Baelangdra.
Kinley Penjor from Baeldo said that although new houses were built in Baelangdra, almost all still reside in Nuell herding yaks. “The new houses are built by the children who move out of their parent’s house. Others are still home.”
Yaks and cordyceps are a main source of income for Baeldos.
Baelangdra today has about 70 households. Thirty are owned by Baeldos.
Lingkhipji Tshogpa Kinley Gyeltshen said that although large number of residents are Baeldos, lack of cooperation was a major concern in the village today.
He added that the Baeldos received facilities such as water, seeds from the agriculture sector and healthcare. “But when it comes to collective work such as waste collection, they don’t take part in it.”
Unlike Lunaps in Gum Kamu, Baeldos are at Baelangdra for 10 months. They leave for cordycep collection in April and May.
Kinley Penjor,57, said that the Baeldos cultivated chillies and potatoes like farmers in Baelangdra. “They are here for a long time and only leave for about two months.”
Phurpa Lhamo | Wangdue