As Bhutan gets ready for the Third Royal Highland Festival and the Laya Run next month, both anticipation and excitement is high. The mountain highland setting for both these events is as stunning as it is awe-inspiring. The Royal Highland Festival highlights the richness and spirituality of highland culture and traditions, while allowing visitors to get a glimpse of the awesome yet harsh high-altitude landscapes that Layaps call their home. The festival also draws together many highlanders from across the country, who walk days to Laya to participate and showcase their culture. The heart of the festival celebrates highlanders’ unique and beautiful clothing, dance, music, handicrafts, food, and intangible forms of culture. The most exciting part of the festival, besides the fun-filled games and sports events, is the competition of livestock showcasing the colourfully adorned majestic yaks of the region, and my favourite, the beautiful and noble Bhutanese mastiffs.
The highland region of Bhutan is home to Layaps, as well as pastoralist and nomadic communities from Lunana, Merak-Sakteng (Trashigang), Trashyangtse, Paro, Lhuentse, Haa and Sephu (Wangdue). Events such as the Royal Highland Festival help highlight that such communities around the world are under great threat, as climate change and sedentary-oriented development places pressure on their nomadic, semi-nomadic and unique ways of life. Given the fragile arid and semi-arid ecosystems that pastoralists normally live in, nomadic and semi-nomadic herding makes sense, as it distributes pressure on the land in an environmentally sustainable manner. Most importantly, such a unique way of life is inductive to a unique set of cultural practices, which are also under threat as GDP-centric development and mass globalization make inroads. However, efforts are underway to help preserve cultural practices, in ways that allows highland communities to thrive in rapidly changing contexts. The Royal Highland Festival, the Laya Run and the Snowman Run all highlight and exemplify the importance of Gross National Happiness, with their special emphasis on culture preservation and environment conservation.
If you have not visited Laya or the Highlands of Bhutan yet, this is a great opportunity to do so. In Part 1 of this article, the first two years of the Royal Highland Festival were described in detail, while Part 2 focused on the epic Laya Run and its evolution to a much-loved staple on the Bhutanese calendar. This third part of the Laya series focuses on epic highland racing that this special region of Bhutan is now renowned for. Both the Laya Run and the Snowman Run follow along the epic Snowman Trail. While the Laya Run is a hard yet fun-filled one-day race that almost anyone can take part in, the Snowman Run is intended for hard-core, high-endurance runners, and is likely to draw global attention from adventure racers from around the world.
Coming Soon: The Epic Snowman Run
The first, second and third Laya Runs are the pilot and precursor for the epic Snowman Run, which is expected to be scheduled soon. Slated to be one of the most challenging and gruelling ultra-endurance high-altitude race in the world, it will likely cover a distance of approximately 230 kilometers. Although the route has not been finalized yet, at the time of writing, a preliminary routing has been drawn up. To get an idea of what one might expect, a possible route indicates an extreme elevation gain of approximately 13,140 meters covering five passes over 5,000 meters (the highest is 5,264 meters), 7 passes over 4,400 meters, and many steep ascents and descents. The trail that will eventually be covered by the run has been referred to by some international trekkers as “the world’s worst trail” due to its difficult and rugged nature. Far from “glamping”, runners will likely run all day and night, resting when they want to, and are expected to carry all their own gear. All of this in extremely remote areas with no mobile coverage, motorable roads, and very little civilization save a few remote yak herder villages and yak enclosures. Although a self-sufficient race, it is expected that less than half a dozen stations will be set up to provide food, tented shelters and rations of water for those who choose to avail of it.
Most importantly, this prestigious and challenging race is not only expected to epitomize the toughest high-altitude endurance racing in the world, but will also champion the important cause of combatting climate change for the future of our planet, and its fragile mountain regions which provide water and other natural resources to sustain life and all sentient beings. Possibly the most anticipated ultra-endurance, high-altitude race in the world, the Snowman Run will ultimately showcase highland culture, a unique way of life and the threats it faces from climate change, development and tourism.
Run for a Cause, and Tread Lightly: Mindful and Ethical Tourism
The famous saying “take only memories, leave no footprints” aptly describes the spirit of the Royal Highland Festival, Laya Run and the Snowman Run. The intention is naturally to have fun, push your limits within the setting of competitive racing, and challenge yourself. Having run both the first and second Laya Runs, I pushed my own limits of running, not being a long-distance racer per se, but had tremendous fun and a sense of accomplishment doing so. Beyond racing, both runs and the Royal Highland Festival mean much, much more.
The Laya Run and the Royal Highland Festival, in the majestic setting of Laya, has begun to draw attention to unique, special and less frequented locales in Bhutan. With the ability to visit such fragile, culturally preserved communities comes great weight and responsibility. Whether visitor, tourist, traveller, observer or runner, it is critically important to tread softly and gently, while being mindful and respectful of the highlanders who generously open their communities and homes to visitors every year as the festival becomes a much-anticipated annual event.
Travel ethically, tread lightly, and be respectful of local people, culture, customs, traditions, ecologies and spiritual practices in this remote corner of Bhutan. Some Bhutanese travellers express a slight amount of what they describe as culture shock, as they come across and learn for the first time about different aspects of unique nomadic cultures. Foreign tourists revel in the high-altitude landscapes framed by the majestic snow-capped mountains, and the colourful culture of the highlanders that are on display in full celebration. The same way lowlanders and midlanders do not want to be objectified by visitors, the highlanders deserve the same respect. Many cultural practices of the highlanders may be different, from marriage to funerals, and these should be treated with wonder, respect and tolerance, rather than external judgement and objectification. Most travellers show the utmost respect towards the highlanders, which epitomizes the best of ethical and mindful travel and tourism. However, I have observed a few minor exceptions which are worth mentioning as examples of behaviours to avoid: disrespectfully aiming cameras at local highlanders without their consent and permission, pulling hats off the heads of Layap women for photo opportunities, obtrusive filming on the performance area of the festival grounds by professional bloggers within meters of the festival performers, and tour companies filming footage for commercial purposes without the necessary permits and prior clearances required. Local tour operators play a key role in ensuring that tourists and visitors are briefed about the ecological and cultural fragility of highland areas. Together, we can help to ensure that tourism is ethical, respectful, and most importantly, about the importance of mindfully observing and learning about highland culture with an expansive mind and open heart in this unique and fragile area of Bhutan.
The Third Royal Highland and Laya Run Next Month
The Royal Highland Festival will take place in Laya this year on October 23 and 24. If the first two years of the festival are any indication, this year will be likely be even more enchanting and action-packed. The festival always happens in conjunction with the much sought-after Laya Run. The third edition of the Laya Run will take place on October 23 from Panjothong to Laya. Covering a total of 25 kilometers over one day, it is considered one of the most scenic high-altitude runs in the world. For queries about the Royal Highland Festival or the Laya Run visit www.gasa.gov.bt or facebook\royalhighlandfestival or contact 16288181, 16288134, 16288127, 16288100 (RHF) and 16288124/16288115 (Laya Run).
Dr Ritu Verma
Senior researcher and strategic adviser for the Tarayana Centre for Social Research and Development, and associate professor College of Language and Culture Studies, Royal University of Bhutan. Parts of this article were previously published in Tashi Delek, the inflight magazine of Drukair, Royal Bhutan Airlines.