Gasa – a place that is immediately associated with soothing hot springs and pristine natural beauty has undergone a sea change since it was connected by road in October 2012.
Agay Tshering, a 72-year-old Layap, recalls getting rations from Lekithang, Punakha, which took an arduous six days’ walk with yaks, back and forth, when road was not reality.
“We didn’t have a single shop in our village to buy basic goods. I grew up eating kabchi and dango (flour),” he says.
He says that children today are lucky. “Things have changed and we are thankful to our government. Rapid development has taken place and people are equally eager to lead better lives by adapting to new advancements,” says Agay Tshering.
Road & development
Though a proper road has yet to connect Laya and Lunana gewogs in Gasa dzongkhag with the rest of the country, the current road has reached Koina. From here, it takes six hours to reach Laya and six days to get to Lunana.
With a population of 3,579 residents from 218 households living in four Gewogs namely Khatoed, Khamaed, Laya and Lunana, Gasa is one of the largest Dzongkhags with the least population.
Meanwhile, Gasa Dzongda Dorji Dhradhul has a vision for the dzongkhag: he aspires to make Gasa “good to great” inspired by the book,“Good to Great” by Jim C. Collins.
“This is a big vision but I strongly feel we need to set such high goals. Our population is less and our annual budget is very little compared to other dzongkhags but I feel Gasa can be self-reliant,” says Dorji Dhradhul.
Under this vision, Gasa has established a Driving Dzongkhag Development (DDD) Center. Plans are in the pipeline to have one such center in each gewog.
In these centers, Gasabs will produce and sell their own local products like cordyceps, local khabzey, medicinal and aromatic plants, and organic products for self-consumption as well as for export. The dzongkhag is also planning to set up a water bottling business.
“The centers are something I am eagerly looking forward to”, says a 55-year-old shop keeper, Ap Kaka from Laya.
Ap Kaka and his family make handmade incense sticks like other Gasabs who do not own cattle. They sell these in nearby dzongkhags.
“With the centers, I can do business in peace. I can produce more incense and will save traveling time,” says Ap Kaka.
DDD centers are also expected to create employment for youth in Gasa. “This is also one of the reasons why we are having centers. We want to keep youth in the dzongkhag for which we need to provide them jobs,” says Gasa Dzongda.
Commercializing hot spring services could also attract high-end tourists, says the Dzongda, who is planning to pilot the project: using the spring for three hours would cost Nu 500.
Other plans to make Gasa “great” are cultural, spiritual and agro-tourism.
“If the highland festivals in Laya and Lunana are marketed to tourists, it is going to be a big revenue earner,” says the Dzongda who feels that contrary to popular belief, tourism can further strengthen culture. “We can impart culture like spiritual teachings instead of being influenced,” he says.
Gasabs have already developed and started farm stays for tourists. The goal is to convert all local homes into farm stays, so that visitors can experience rural Bhutanese lifestyle.
Though Gasa is dreaming big, it has its parcel of troubles.
Public transportation is operational for only six months during dry season from September till March.
“Gasa remains disconnected from other parts of Bhutan as the only road connecting it to the other dzongkhags remains closed most of the time due to heavy rainfall or landslides during monsoon,” says Khatoed Gup, Pema Dorji.
Gasabs pay Nu 600 per head while travelling by taxi, which is rarely available.
During emergencies, the government provides chopper for the communities without road.
Due to heavy snowfall and monsoon, a trail, the only way to Lunana gewog is blocked till June end. Before mid-November, teachers of Lunana School and inhabitants move down to Punakha.
Unlike others schools in the country that get one month midterm break in July, Lunana School covers the syllabus during the break.
Further, like other rural regions, Gasa is witnessing an exodus of youth toward urban hubs, leaving elderly parents in the villages. This has disrupted the social fabric in the communities.
Agay Tshering says he struggles with loneliness and stress. “It is a curse for elderly people to live this way. Youth complain a lot. They cannot even stay for two days in the village. It is our ancestral land; if we do not stay, who will?” asks Agay Tshering.
According to Khamed Gup Kinley Penjor, youth refuse to stay at home after completing high school. “Whether they get jobs or not, they leave for the cities. I doubt if there will be any people left in the villages after a decade or two. This is alarming and it’s a big concern.”
Khamed gewog has 1,073 Gasabs from 114 households. However, according to the Khamed Gup, less than 400 people from 40 years and above are living in the gewog now.
The parents get to see their children only once a year during cordyceps collection season.
“When it’s time to hunt for cordyceps, they will come to villages leaving everything behind. After one month of collecting cordyceps they go back. They are only interested in cordyceps,” sighs Agay Tshering.
Collecting caterpillar fungus (Cordyceps Sinensis) locally known as Yartsa Goen bub found in the high altitude grasslands is one of the major sources of income for Gasabs.
“Earlier it was only five to six people who would be interested to collect cordyceps but since it fetches a lot of money, now everyone including students, monks, soldiers and even housewives are interested in collecting cordyceps,” says former Laya Gup Kinley Dorji.
On average, farmers earns Nu 100,000 a year for cordyceps; however, if a person collects good quality cordyceps especially from the place Phang go, he can earn up to Nu 2mn-Nu 2.5mn a year.
Till 2013, 685kgs of cordyceps was sold and the highest price recorded is Nu. 1.2mn/kg the same year.
Owing to this, some of the poorest Layaps and Lunanaps reportedly bought flats, vehicles and land in urban areas. “Overnight they became wealthy and powerful,” says former Laya Gup Kinley Dorji.
Although development has brought about powerful transformation, Gasa still boasts of a rich culture and traditions like unique dress code, the most distinctive feature being the Layap women’s conical cane hat.
But this might soon change as youth are not very keen on their traditional attire made of yak wool. Now with only three hat makers in Laya, the hat weaving tradition is on the verge of extinction.
Gasabs’ traditional attire has been replaced by western clothes and the national dress, gho and kira.
Gasa has always carried an old-world charm, and though initiatives are on to merge it into the mainstream, one wonders if this could not be done balancing its inherent authenticity with new-age wonders.
Kolikhar-a new town in the making
The government has already started planning a new town for Gasa at Kolikhar, which is included in the12th five year plan.
According to Gasa dzongda, Dorji Dhradhul, it will be a beautiful town.
“In about 10-15 years, people from other dzongkhags would like to come to Gasa and settle down here,” he said, “We have people coming from other Dzongkhags for Tshachu. Once we have the new town, people will come to Gasa just to see the town.”
Gasa Dzongda said the town will not be a concrete jungle.
“The unique feature will be the architecture,” he said adding that the new town would have two-storied traditional buildings with green areas.
Kolikhar will be planned as a small town with a core commercial area. While the new town at Kolikhar would have shops and become a commercial area with two phases, the existing town will be developed into an institutional area for government and corporate offices.
“The town will be small but it will have all basic services,” said Gasa Dzongda.
Pema Seldon from Gasa