Business across the borders


Call it geographical circumstances or drudgery, the inhabitants of the northern highland in Laya, located at 4,000 meters above sea level in Gasa Dzongkhag, have no other alternatives than to get their necessary essentials from across the borders in China; an informal trading practice that has been going on since the time of their forefathers.

Inhabited by the Layaps, Laya is the highest settlement in Bhutan. Since their forefathers, the Layaps have been trading informally across the borders between Bhutan and China.

The Layaps walk about three days to reach to the nearest trading center called Phari in Tibet. It is only the place where they are allowed to trade. Besides Layaps, people from Paro, Lingzhi and Haa also go there to trade. While Phari is a day walk from Lingzhi, it takes two-day walk from Paro, and two to three days walk from Haa; depending on the different routes taken to reach the place. Meanwhile, for people in Lunana, there is no route that goes to Phari from their village.

And sometimes it’s the people from Phari that come to Lham border; they camp and do the business with the people of Laya, Lingzhi, and the highlanders of Haa and Paro. If they don’t get what they want from the Lham border, they walk to Phari to procure their essentials.

Except for winter, especially January and February, Layaps do not go to Phari as the trail is covered under the blanket of thick snow and ice make the trek difficult with trails being blocked most of the time. The only mode of transportation then for the travelers is horses. Each horse has a load carrying capacity of 50 kilograms, and those who don’t own horses have to hire them by paying Nu 500 each. The charge of horse rises to Nu 800 each during the peak season.

Former Laya Gup Kinley Dorji describes that the trade has been going on since the time of their ancestors. “We are the main customers for them and the Layaps either go alone or sometimes in groups for business. Even women also accompany men for business,” he says, adding that they purchase everything from Kapchi (wheat flour) to blankets, utensils, food items, and clothes, among others.

“We get in fact everything that is available in the market and which is of our use and which we do not have access to in Laya,” the former gup says. And the main items that the Layaps take for sale are Cordyceps, medicinal herbs like putishing, and sometimes zaw (roasted soaked rice).

“Cordyceps are sold at the black market and depending on the quality of the Cordyceps they fetch good prices. For a kilogram of Cordyceps, we get about Nu 300,000 to Nu 2mn,” Kinley Dorji says.

And while there is no imposition of taxes on the goods that are traded, most trade is done using the Chinese currency, Yuan. “Bhutanese currency doesn’t work there. We have to sell our products first and on receiving the amount from our counterparts, we begin our shopping,” the former gup explains.

Despite being illegal, people still take risk and trek to Phari and Lham border for business as Layaps think it is better to do business with them then to travel down to Punakha and Gasa for business and shopping. They believe that there are better business opportunities across the borders than in Gasa and Punakha.

However, today Layaps travel to Punakha and Gasa for shopping after trade across the borders has been stopped and borders sealed following the Doklam issue. The house of each Layap today in the clustered village of Laya that is stretched across with snow-capped mountains as guard is mostly filled with Chinese goods like blankets and utensils.

The village, which is yet to be connected by road, is about six hours trek from the nearest road point, Ponjothang. With the arrival of road back in October 2012 till Gasa Dzongkhag, it is yet to be seen how lives of Layaps have become easier for business and shopping.

Chencho Dema from Laya