MAIN STORY: If you are trekking up to Laya, pray that you don’t have to buy any groceries, especially salt.
In Laya, a bottle of Chinese beer or a chunk of dairy product comes far cheaper than a kilogram of salt. For an outsider, the price of this essential item could go up to Nu 100.
That is because of the gewog’s altitude and the two-day treacherous trek one has to endure to get there from Gasa, the nearest road point. Layaps can make it to Laya in one day, but because of physical stress it puts on their horses, most prefer taking it slow.
And the pony charge could go up to Nu 1,500 a day. This traditional community yak products and incense traders have shifted to modern goods.
Most Layaps own horses. While they go to drop tourists’ luggage to Gasa, they return with essential items for their own consumption and a little more to sell at a small profit margin. Their horses would be returning empty otherwise.
So one in five houses in the gewog operates like a shop but unlicensed. Sometimes they trade one item for another. Laya has 250 houses in all.
Thinley Dema, 63, has two cartons of milk power to sell. She has sent word to teachers offering a Nu 50 discount on the local price of Nu 500.
“Soon we have to go down and, if I can’t sell them before that, I’ll have to carry them as excess luggage,” she said.
Civil servants in the gewog are the main customers for shopkeepers like Thinley. Layaps are kind people, said Thinley Dema, and they don’t mind parting with a few kilograms of vegetables for free once in a while. All crops grown in the gewog are organic.
“We don’t have to go to shops. When we need things we call them up and they bring them to us,” said a teacher.
Layaps said they do not charge more than how much they had to suffer transporting the goods. They don’t believe in making profits.
“Even if rats and vermin damage our money, we would still prefer to keep our money at home, not in a bank,” said Sangay Thinley, a guest house caretaker.
But the gewog could soon have a local bank.
Almost every house in Laya has huge stock of ration (mainly rice, wheat and barley), quilts and mattresses. They store the ration in bags made of yak wool. They are stacked neatly against the walls over the Chinese-made, lavishly-decorated boxes in the living room. And the weather is perfect to preserve the food items.
Should all access be blocked, locals said, they could easily sail through with the stock they have for at least two years.
Last winter, a bear got in to one of the houses and ransacked the alcohol stock.
“It drank the Black Mountain (whisky) and was sleeping on the bed with its head covered in a blanket,” a villager said. Bears usually move towards the villages in winter as most of the inhabitants, except for the elderly, leave for other warmer areas.
Men go to mandarin-growing areas with their horses to transport oranges for the three months in the winter.
Layaps give incense and yak produce as gifts to their (Nyep) hosts in Gasa and other places as they arrive there in winter. It’s in their tradition to give gifts to their hosts and the later return the same in terms of rice, tea leaves, salt and sugar, among others.
“It’s more of a tradition for us. We like to keep the relationship with our hosts despite all the developments that have come,” said Tshering Zam, a Layap.
Now, of course, gifts do not include yak meat. In the past, yak’s meat when bartered with rice could fetch them rice equivalent to 10 horse loads. Almost half the households in the gewog, most of whom have smaller herds, have sold their yaks to buyers in Lunana.
Yaks were also slaughtered for their annual rituals and during funeral rites.
Kinley Dorji and his wife have been shopkeepers of a different sort. They have been growing vegetables for the past two years and selling them to tourists and locals.
“Growing and selling vegetables sounded odd because we are just below snowline and nothing much grows here,” Kinley said. But her business is thriving with help of a poly house. Laya is situated 3,800 metres above the sea level, on a gentle slope that drops down to Mochu. The villagers enjoy the view of the majestic mountain, Gachen Tag.
The traders have broadened the scope of their business from yak produce and incense plants from the mountains to cordyceps, beverage and modern commodities, including furniture made in China. Change is all too visible.
Direct-to-home TV dishes are everywhere. Compound bows are ubiquitous, and children dance to modern music from imported Chinese tape recorders.
There is no point resisting change, say Layaps.
“Laya has changed by so much in my lifetime. The challenge is how we keep bad elements out of our small and close-knit community,” Dodo from Nyelo said. “We have succeeded so far.”
The community will get electricity and will be connected with motorable road in about a year.
By Tshering Palden, Laya