Dechen Tshomo | Lingzhi
If those at the foothills of Lingzhi drungkhag have to own a car as a means of transport, it is horses and mules in the mountains of Soe and Lingzhi.
Without motorable roads connecting the drungkhag, people in Lingzhi, which is located above 4,000 meters above sea level, still depend on the old mode of transport. Each household in Soe and Lingzhi own at least five horses while some own more than 25 mules and horses.
Motorable road ends at Shana in Paro. From Shana, horses and mules replaces Boleros and trucks. Any given day, long caravan of horses and mules is a common sight.
Tashi, 33 from Chebisa in Lingzhi said that without motorable roads, horses and mules are more of a lifeline for the nomads living in the two gewogs than just a status symbol. “Due to extreme weather, we don’t grow many food crops, so we buy almost everything from Paro and Thimphu.” He said the horses and mules have made transportation of goods much easier. “Without them, we are cut off and will go hungry.”
A 44-year-old herder, Passang, said he uses his 15 horses and mules for transporting ration. “We provide the pony service to visitors only when we don’t have to transport our own goods.”
For some locals, the pony service is an additional source of income, besides cordyceps, the main sources of income for the highlanders since the collection of the fungi was legalized in 2004.
The porters and horses make at least a trip in a week during peak tourist season, which starts from April and goes until November.
Each horse earns around Nu 300 to 450 a day, depending on the type of load.
Karma Namgay, 32, from Chaphu in Lingzhi provides pony services to officials and tourists. He earns about Nu 1,200 per horse in a day. “With my six horses, I make about Nu 22,000 per trip.”
Karma Namgay owns 10 mules and horses. A few years ago, a snow leopard killed his five mules and a horse at once. I did not get any compensation and it was a big loss for me.”
Tashi Wangchuck from Gangyul in Lingzhi said he earns about Nu 42,000 per trip with his 11 horses. “This is just from Shana to Jangothang in Soe, mount Jomolhari’s basecamp. I earn more if I transport the load to Lingzhi, which is an additional day’s walk.”
Some work as porters for the highlanders to transport goods of the local travelers and tourists.
Phub Gyeltshen, 35, from Tsaluna in Thimphu is one of them. He has been working as a porter transporting goods from Shana in Paro to Lingzhi for the past six years. I have contacts with some tour operators and they call me when they require pony services. “I have only one horse but I use my in-law’s 18 horses during peak tourist season.”
He is paid Nu 500 to 700 a day and he makes about five trips in a month. “We make more trips during the tourist season and when we get contracts to transport goods like cement and metals for construction work in Lingzhi.” On an average, he makes about Nu 100,000 in a year.
19-year-old Rinchen from Dopshari in Paro also works as a porter transporting goods for the tourists. “My father has 15 horses and for uneducated like us, it is a good source of income.”
During off-seasons, we take the horses to other places where there is no road connection. “Last year, I was in Tashigang with my horses transporting mobile tower materials.”
An 84-year-old Aap Gochay in Chebisa has 18 horses and 60 yaks. He said that cattle have been an important part of the nomads’ lives for a very long time. “My children want to sell the yaks as rearing them entails more work, but I didn’t allow them to do so. As long as I am alive, I will not let them sell my cattle.”
Meanwhile, the goods the highlanders are transporting are also changing. People in Lingzhi transported rice, flour, chilies and other eatables from Paro and Thimphu for ages. Every load today contains LPG cylinders to LED television sets and alcohol besides the necessity like rice and cooking oil.