Choki Wangmo | Khoma
Thinley Penjor has been a horseman all his life. Soft-spoken, reserved, and polite to outsiders, he appears a typical shy village person with a big heart on iron limbs.
His carefully-thatched stable has 12 well-built packhorses. Thinley Penjor, 36, wants to keep adding to the herd because it has become a lucrative business in the far-flung region devoid of road connectivity.
Thinley Penjor, affectionately known as Yesheyla is from Denkchung in Lhuentse. With more pilgrims visiting the renowned Singye Dzong in recent years, his passion for horses has paid off handsomely.
The change in fortune came years ago, when the dzongkhag administration gave Denkchung and Khomagang, the only two villages within Khoma gewog, exclusive rights to cater pony services to Singye Dzong.
The 13 households, self-sufficient in maize, millet and vegetables, were considered for the service, given their proximity to the holy site. They are semi-nomadic and rear yaks and sheep.
Each household gets the opportunity twice a month. The more the number of horses one has, the greater the advantage.
In the past, horsemen with good communication skills and connections were said to have taken most of the clients. Without a fixed rate, they charged exorbitant rates exploiting the visitors by charging more than Nu 5,000 per horse.
In the new system, instituted since last year, a pack horse fetches Nu 3,500. Although the coordination has brought benefits to everyone, horsemen said that they were still at a loss at the current rate. They proposed for increment to the Dzongkhag Tshogdu and are awaiting positive decisions as of now.
For those from Khomagang like Wangduela, it takes a day to get the visitors from Khoma, which is the nearest road point. He said that within the six-day journey, two days are lost in travelling. “If we calculate the daily wage, it is Nu 700 a day. It’s a loss considering the hardship and threats to our horses from wild animals on the way,” he said.
In the past, people in these villages requested for road till Tshikhang which would reduce the journey by one day, but it never came for reasons unknown to the villagers.
The maintenance of footpaths have eased their journey and reduced threat to their pack animals. The paths were usually narrow with countless stream crossings on the way.
Between June and mid November, a horseman earns about Nu 150,000. But business in these areas is as uncertain as the weather in the snow-clad mountains.
“We can easily earn about Nu 40,000 within a few weeks but there were times when even earning Nu 30,000 in a year was difficult,” Yesheyla said. Rules for horsemen say a horse can carry only upto 40 kilogrammes.
“The visiting seasons are also short,” he added, saying that it cuts short their opportunities to earn.
However, most often expenses are greater than income.
Yesheyla uses his income from the trade to educate his younger siblings and buy basic commodities at home. He is the bread-earner for his old grandparents, single mother, and his two children.
Five months ago, his expecting wife left for delivery in Mongar. Due to long distance from the health care services, the doctors advised her to stay nearby to avoid complications but it translated to higher expenses for the family.
There is a shop in the village but goods cost double the price, mainly because of difficulty in transportation. To save expenses, Yesheyla brings rice and other necessary items from Khoma, which is about a day’s walk from Denkchung. “Most of what we earn is spent on basic commodities,” Yesheyla said.
As of last month, the official records showed that more than 1,500 pilgrims visited Singye Dzong this year alone. There are about 100 pack horses from Denkchung and Khomagang.
Despite the absolute absence of amenities such as roads, hospitals, and schools in these villages, there is no gungtong issue here, which is attributed to increased economic activities from pony services and sale of Kushithara.
But what the future holds, he is not sure.
As Yesheyla pruned the manes of his sumpters, his three-year-old son watched inquisitively. When asked if he would let his son follow his footsteps, Yesheyla scratched his head, gave a shy retiring smile and said, “He may not! Soon he will go to school and then work as an officer, maybe?”
“The struggles and risks are too much!” he added.