Neten Dorji

Lhuentse – At 8 am, Kezang Tashi, 61, waits at Khoma in Lhuentse ready to accompany guests or pilgrims to Singye Dzong, a popular pilgrimage site in the snow-capped mountains.

Several other villagers, like Kezang Tashi in Relmoteng, rely on providing porter and pony service for pilgrims to Singye Dzong as their primary source of income, aside from livestock produce.

“It is my fifth day waiting for some local visitors. Now I have to return without any load or pilgrims,” said Kezang Tashi. During the pilgrimage season, which runs from June to November, he earns between Nu 50,000 and Nu 100,000.

Residents of Relmoteng and Tshango say there are fewer visitors now

Khoma village

Kezang Tashi said that their income has dropped from Nu 200,000 to Nu 20,000. He attributes this decline to the opening of the international border, resulting in a significant drop in the number of pilgrims, with about 400 Bhutanese visiting Singye Dzong during Covid-19 pandemic.

Porter services have been the primary livelihood for the 11-household community of Tsango and the four-household highlander community of Relmoteng. Tsango is a day’s walk from Khoma, while Relmoteng is close to Singye Dzong.

Singye Dzong is a three-day walk from Khoma village, and a pony charges between Nu 3,500 and Nu 4,500 for a one-day trip.

Tenzin Norbu, 25, from Tshango, said that each household owns between eight and 16 horses, and their income has fluctuated. “I earned around Nu 200,000 last year, but the income has dropped to Nu 50,000 since not many people visit this season.”

He said that he worries about the sustainability of the business.

Horse owners of Tsango and Relmoteng formed the Singye Dzong Horse Association last year, aiming to streamline and enhance the efficiency of their business.

Residents of Tsango said that after the association’s formation, every member received equal opportunities to earn money, as the horses are sent out on a rotation basis.

In the past year, their ponies remained idle, making it difficult for them to purchase feed and hay. A bolero trip of hay costs around Nu 5,000, and they buy feed from Jaray and Kurtoe. Managing expenses becomes challenging, because residents said that they cannot abandon the animals when there is no work.

The number of visitors spikes during events like drupchens at Singye Dzong. According to the Khoma gewog administration, at least 800 pilgrims have visited the nye so far this year.

Khoma Gup, Tshering Wangdi said that except for cultivating maize, the community has no other source of cash income.

“From the porter and pony services, each household earns between Nu 80,000 and Nu 100,000 during the pilgrim season. It has benefited both pilgrims and local people,” said the gup.

To ensure inclusivity within the chiwog, the community operates the business on a rotational basis. There are plans to connect Tshango village with a motorable road from Khoma.