Staying in Punakha the night before, I drove two hours through the Jigme Dorji National Park to Gasa for the trek into Laya.

Few travelers — or indeed locals — travel this way. The winding road is empty, little in the way of humanity but plenty of scenery in these low peaks. Gasa town’s major attraction is its hot springs. Quite crowded, so much so that it puts one in mind of human soup, it might not seem very appealing at first, but in the early winter of the Himalayas, it was a welcome warmth.

But the main purpose of visiting this town was to make camp, for the cold light of morning would see us hiking the long trail to the Royal Highlander Festival at Laya.

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Held in Laya, the highest permanent settlement in Bhutan, the festival is a rare opportunity for tribes to meet and for outsiders to photograph the dances and traditions of the highlands people. While the histories of the tribes go back centuries if not millenia, the Highlander Festival itself is a rather new, first introduced in 2016.

It is one of the few festivals to be found in this rugged region of Bhutan, so very sparsely populated and — due to Bhutan’s prohibitive tourism measures — almost entirely without tourists. The end result is the many tribes of the valleys and hills in the borders of Bhutan and the Tibetan hinterland making offerings and singing their songs to honored guests that include Bhutanese royalty.

There is only way to reach this festival sans helicopter: an entire day of intense hiking through mud roads in the freezing cold at altitude.

The accommodations along the journey would be a world away from the Six Senses Punakha. There are no five-star hotels on this trail, but the camping can be made comfortable enough; I had a tent, a warm sleeping bag, even a dining tent and an assistant to cook.