How Wechat Is Gradually Changing Lives In The Remote Yak Herding Village Of Soe In Bhutan
Far removed from the towns characterised by concrete cubicles, Soe is among the last villages yet to catch up with a modernising country.
By Needrup Zangpo | Bhutan Media Foundation
On a clear morning, the sharp tip of Mount Jichu Drakay resembles a crystal dagger piercing the sky while the ancient ruins of Jangothang Dzong (Monastery) look dark and crumbling against the shiny face of the rugged Mount Jomolhari.
An imposing rocky structure rising sharply from the banks of the Pachu River is the citadel of Ap Chundu, the guardian deity of Haa.
Down in the valley bestrewn with colourful flowers, the Pachu is a noisy band of silver stretching across the length of the valley. At a cursory glance, nothing seems to stir amongst these giant monuments of nature.
But by the Pachu lies the small, ancient hamlets of Soe which are populated by a group of sturdy nomadic people.
Dangojang hamlet in Soe, Bhutan.
It is also home to Ap Chonyi Dorji, the composer and singer of many celebrated songs in Bhutan - one of which is a haunting song dedicated to a handsome yak that was identified for slaughter. This particular song touches a special chord to the folks living in the mountains of Soe.
About Soe, untouched by modernisation before but things are changing now
Far removed from the towns characterised by concrete cubicles and noisy arguments, Soe is among the last villages yet to catch up with a modernising country.
Two days’ of hard trek from Shana in the district of Paro, Soe is among the villages farthest from a roadhead. It is home to just 200 people living in 28 households, and is the smallest gewog (village) in Bhutan.
Map: Druk Asia
For a long time, Soe had no access to television, radio, and newspapers. In fact, most people have not even seen any form of traditional media. Village leaders and horsemen who occasionally travel to Paro and Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, bring home some news from the rest of the country.
Yet, things are changing, albeit slowly. Electricity reached the gewog in 2016 and just three months ago, Soe was connected to B-Mobile’s 3G network. TashiCell is transporting cellular equipment to Soe for installation while some of the 14 rickety log bridges between Shana and Soe have been replaced by Bailey bridges.
Every year in October, Soe attracts around 400 people, including some 60 government officials to its Mountain Festival which has been running for six years.
Bhutan’s most popular trekking routes – the Snowman Trek, Laya-Lingzhi Trek, Jomolhari Trek, and Soe-Yaksa Trek, also pass through the gewog.
Among the new developments in Soe, the 3G cellular service is the one which has caught the imagination of the villagers the most. In fact, most of them are already using WeChat, touching base and forming groups to discuss community issues.
43-year-old Gup (Head of the gewog) Kencho Dorji, who has been Soe’s Gup for 20 years said that WeChat has brought the community together. For example, the yak herders use the voice messaging app to bring missing yaks home collaboratively.
As for 32-year-old Wangmo from Dangojang hamlet, WeChat has definitely made yak herding much easier. The whole community of herders is now on WeChat, sharing real time information on the whereabouts of the gewog’s 1,461 yaks.
School Among Snow Leopards – the only school in Soe
Perhaps the most endearing feature of Soe’s changing landscape is its only school, aptly named ‘School Among Snow Leopards’. The region of Soe is home to eight elusive snow leopards and many other endangered animals such as the tiger, musk deer, takin, Asiatic wild dog, Asiatic black bear, and sambar.
Established in 2009 by the Bhutan Foundation, the school which some people call the ‘cutest’ school, has eight students - six girls and two boys studying in classes ranging from PP to IV. Getting to school is a challenge and for six-year-old Tandin Lham, one of the two class PP children, who walks two hours between home and school every day.
Along with two teachers, Principal Tshering Dorji, 38, an affectionate figure to the children, volunteered to teach at the school three years ago. He also earned the nickname ‘Bear Grylls’ of Soe for his dogged endurance to swim in a glacial lake at an altitude of 4,300 metres at least once every weekend.
Due to its humble size, the school mostly goes unnoticed to most visiting officials but gewog officials more than make up for this with the attention they shower on the children.
For instance, Gewog Administrative Officer Galay Phuntsho, 48, a jovial man with a receding hairline, regularly goes to the school to exchange high fives and high tens with the children. His friendly gestures kept them feeling loved and uplifted.
While the children of remote schools in Bhutan would typically want to become teachers, the only profession they can relate to, the students of tiny Soe have much loftier ambitions.
Children from the 'School Among Snow Leopards' performed a dance for festival goers at the 2014 Jomolhari Mountain Festival.
Source: Youtube/Snow Leopard Conservancy
Four of the students at ‘School Among Snow Leopards’ want to become teachers, three of them doctors while the six-year-old classmate of Tandin Lham, Jigme Tenzin, wants to be a pilot because he has seen a helicopter land near his school. He wishes to fly beyond Soe as his grandfather thinks that it is better than beautiful Soe.
Tackling waste issues in Soe
In recent years, Jigme has seen hundreds of tourists and their Bhutanese guides pass through his village. They brought with them horse-loads of foodstuff, including packaged food. These tourists came to appreciate the mountains but unfortunately, some unscrupulous ones left waste along the pristine trails.
Echoing the same view, Gup Kencho Dorji agreed that regulations against waste are unequivocal. However, tackling the waste issue remains a mounting challenge as more PET bottles and other plastic waste can be seen along these trails.
Now that the villagers have heard that the media can be a tool of empowerment, they hope that by using WeChat, it will not only bring home their missing yaks but also drive home the message against wanton waste disposal in their village.
This article first appeared in Kuensel and has been edited for Daily Bhutan.