Sunday, 1 June 2008

The price of collecting cordyceps

May 31: Close to 800 people from Chhoekhor geog in Bumthang are harvesting cordyceps this year, an increase of 500 people from last year.

Cordyceps is usually grown at an altitude of 6000 meters above sea level.

It is the morning of May 15. Over 700 people from Chhoekhor geog in Bumthang gather at the Gup’s office to get permits for harvesting cordyceps. In the early hours of next morning, large groups of people head for the mountains.

All have the same mission, to harvest as much cordyceps as possible and make a fortune. Some are leading horses laden with ration, camping gear and cloths. Many carry a stock of instant noodles and flour, vegetables and rice.

48-year-old Norbu Tenzin from Zhabjethang is a veteran cordycep collector. He has been collecting cordyceps since 2004. Last year Norbu earned about Nu. 200,000, the fruit of one month’s hard strenuous labour. This year, he hopes to make more. He has come with three horses. About an hour walk later, they reach Khatang. Here armed force personnel check the permits.

People travel in groups resting every once in a while. They drink hot tea to ward off the travel fatigue in this ultra thin mountain air. The path is so narrow, the horses have to be unloaded and then loaded again.

At around half past four in the evening Norbu and his friends reach Shemthang where they halt for the night. After a good night’s sleep, they resume their journey at six in the morning.

The path is more difficult and the temperature has dropped even lower. After crossing several bridges, Norbu and friends reach Juithangka at four in the evening. They make use of the Bjob’s empty house. The house will soon be occupied for it is time for the Bjobs to return. They eat their dinner by 6pm and retire for the night.

On the morning of the third day, they reach their destination, home of the semi nomadic Bjobs and their yaks. It is 8:30 am and freezing cold.

After pitching their tent and a hot cup of tea, Norbu and his friends walk to Seja, about one hour’s walk from the campsite, to collect cordyceps. The place is already swarming with people. Crawling on their knees and hands, they look for cordyceps.

The first day was not a good day. Norbu spends about six hours on his knees and hands. He gets only two pieces of cordyceps for his pains. It is only the first day and his spirits are high. Maybe tomorrow, his luck will change.

The next day was even worse. The ground is covered in snow and our veteran cordyceps collector tells me it is not possible to get even a single cordyceps on a day like this. But slowly the snow melts to reveal the ground. Norbu does not lose time. He heads out. This time he travels farther to Chuthang. It is about three hour’s walk from the camp. He starts looking for cordyceps with the towering Gangkhar Phuensum looking over him. The temperature has dropped even lower. This time luck favors him. His noodle wrapper starts to fill in with cordyceps.

“In the past without cordyceps, my life was hard. It has helped me a lot. But with so many people coming to collect, I feel the cordycep won’t last long, this year I think there is less cordyceps. If that happens we will face problems like in the past,” said Norbu.

He said some of the people who are here to collect cordyceps are not from Chhoekhor geog in Bumthang. Only highlanders are allowed to collect cordyceps.

According to the Chief Forest Officer of the divisional forest office, Ratu Wangchuk, about 15 forest personnel monitor and look out for illegal collectors.

It is half past four in the evening, and Norbu is back at his camp. He is a happy man today because he could collect 48 cordyceps. But that is not the end of the day. He sits inside his tent cleaning the cordyceps until dusk. The cordyceps will be dried and auctioned. This process of collection, cleaning and cooking in temporary homes of the Bjobs will continue until mid June.

No comments: