A carnival at 13,000 feet

The two-day Royal Highland Festival, celebrated in the exotic hamlet of Laya at 4000 meters above sea level, is one of the most spectacular nomadic festivals in the planet

l Rinchen Dorji, Thimphu


The trail to Laya from Ponjothang, the last road-point, is dusty and demands all the spectacle that deserves of the common cliché ‘the-road-less-travelled.’ Yet, the picture perfect landscape and breathtaking Himalayan panorama makes the excursion a journey of a lifetime experience.

Located 4000 meters above sea level, Laya in Gasa Dzongkhag is one of the most exotic nomadic villages in the northern frontiers of the country. The 200-odd nomadic settlement, that is home to about less than a thousand inhabitants, makes up Laya—a village frozen in time and mystery.

“It’s is just about six-hour’s trek from here,” says Ap Tenzin, a Layap in his late fifties and our pony guy, while loading his horses at the start-point at Ponjothang. His rugged and wrinkled features bear a close resemblance to the jagged and harsh mountain realities that is core to Laya culture and geography.

The six-hour trek across the gushing Mochhu soon stretches to seven, and then eight, as we traverse across vertiginous cliffs and meads of rhododendrons and giant oaks and cedars. It was dark when we reached Laya.

As it dawns across the Laya valley, the morning sun rips across a distant snow-capped peak unraveling a cluster of stone, mud and wooden structures that spreads across the lap of a gentle hill surrounded by giant peaks averaging 7000 meters, and which stand like sentinels guarding the mythical village. The school, located in the lower reaches, soon bustles with life as little children gather for their morning prayers.

“I hope you have had a good night’s sleep. It is pretty cold in here,” says 56-year-old Gao, our host clutching a tray of steaming sujas. The tea tastes a bit rancid but gives us the much needed booster to kick-start the day.

Laya is a cluster of houses with patches of fields in between, which are barren during this time of the year, where they grow wheat, barley, millets, radish and turnips. “We tried cultivating potatoes but the frost kills the plants,” adds Gao.

Of recent, the Layaps have become a prosperous bunch of nomads, thanks to the government legalizing the harvest of cordyceps. The sheer size of their houses, which is well stocked with rations, numerous woolen blankets, tsuktu, and kitchen utensils that is displayed like in a China shop makes up the Layap home. Satellite dishes, big television screens, US-made compound bows and smart phones are the latest craze.

Its celebration time! His Majesty the King, who had arrived the day before, graces the event. About a thousand people, the natives of Laya and Lunana, the press nitizens, expats and a few dozen tourists had gathered at the celebration ground located at the top of the village, about 20 minute’s hike from the village temple.

The popular highland song Yak lekpai lhadar gawo resonates into the azure Layan landscape as a caravan of horses and yaks, gathered from the nine highland dzongkhags, parade through the grounds. A couple of tourists flick their cameras while young children run amid the crowds leaving a trail of dust and a feeling of warmth and gaiety.

From the convoy of Yaks and horses, giggling highland beauties to horse races and yak tent stalls, the entire day’s episode replicates that of a picture-perfect frame from a classical movie scene. “It is alluring,” says Stephen, 46, from Hamburg in Germany, and who had made a stop over for the festivals after his Lunana trek.

Like Stephen, 52-year-old Cathay from Texas in the United States says that the highland festival was completely out of the book. “I am so glad that my trek coincided with the festival, I wish to make it again.” Cathay was travelling with a group of six others and they had hiked till the Jomolhari base came across the Gasa-Lunana trek.

The frosty breeze and the mountain chill hid behind the numerous yak tents as spectators gathered to give a boisterous applause to the runners of the Laya Run, a 25-KM marathon and side event of the festivals. The jesters and characteristic Laya songs and dances made the event even more enchanting.

The Royal Highland Festival, celebrated to commemorate the ancient Laya festival of Aowley, is a two-day event that portrays the unique life and culture of the nomads of Laya and seven other highland districts including the nomads of Merak and Sakteng in the distant east.

It is the only carnival in the planet celebrated at 13,000 feet where the Indian ambassador, Mr Jaideep Sarkar, belts out a classical Hindi song celebrating love and life and an Australian expat enthralls the crowd with his am all shook up moves.

Welcome to the Royal Highland Festival, Laya!


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