The twin valleys of Merak and Sakteng, hidden in the far flung regions of eastern Bhutan have only recently opened to visitors.
Where the roads peter out, yak trails begin and here semi-nomadic Brokpas depend on the yak for their livelihoods. From the animal comes transport, food and clothing, and in an age when young Bhutanese in the west of Bhutan have discovered baseball caps and T-shirts worn with pride under their traditional gho, Brokpa fashion remains steadfastly traditional.
Men’s black shamo hats have five fringes hanging from the rim, spun from yak hair. The result is both distinctive and practical, working as a gutter and drainpipe when it rains, or head cushion when carrying heavy loads.
In small groups dotted across the remote hills between Trashigang and the porous border with Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in India, the Brokpas move seasonally with their animals between fresh pastures while keeping their eyes open for the revered yeti, or migoi, an animal so important in this part of the world that Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary was created to protect it – as well as other inhabitants including Himalayan black bear, fox and squirrel.
In the autumn Brokpa men on horseback race to the sacred mountain Jomo Kukhar to honour their protective deity, the mountain goddess Jomo Kuengkhar. Racing is followed by rounds of home-brewed ara, prayers, songs and dances offered in return for blessings for prosperity.
As frost begins to cover the high pastures at the onset of winter some of the herders descend to the lowlands with the animals on their ‘grain journey’. Yak produce; butter, cheese and dried meat, is bartered for corn and grains, all the while enjoying the hospitality of a Nepo host who, though entirely unrelated, takes them in and treats them as members of his own family. The favour is returned when the Nepo people in turn head to the hills in the summer months.
The immense privilege of trekking in this remote wilderness is to find a people whose culture seems frozen in time as they continue to live and practice age old customs and traditions in much the same way as their ancestors did. The intrepid travellers who make it here though the deep valleys and over the 4153m Nachungla Pass might even be lucky and be treated to Ache-Lhamo nomadic opera or a Yak Cham – the dance of the yaks.
Posted by: Alex