Spring is a season of opportunities for Bhutanese nomads living in the northern fringes of the country.
But the opportunities are hard-earned.
Cordyceps (“Yatsagunbub”) collectors don’t have it easy when they go looking for the “fungus-worm” but then they are not ones to give up easily.
Preparation is done many days in advance before venturing out into the hostile, cold mountains. The nomads have to ensure that all the basic commodities that they need to survive in the mountain environment are ready.
Their baggage includes tents, warm woolen clothing and food. Since it is not sensible to pack normal food, they make do with fast food such as ‘flour dough.’ “Water is all you need to make dough,” said Pem Dechay, a regular cordyceps collector.
After the horses are loaded, the collectors travel in groups resting every once in a while. Hot tea along the way helps ease travel fatigue caused by the thin mountain air. The path they tread is so narrow that a misstep will send them plunging down the mountain edges.
It takes days to reach the collection site since they are nowhere near any human settlements. Even as the cordyceps hunters climb further up, the temperature gets chillier and the path narrower and riskier to tread.
It is only towards the fourth or fifth day that they reach their destination.
The first thing they have to do now is set up a base camp. The tents are pitched. It is early in the morning; the harsh climate is relentless but this is not going to deter them. After sipping a hot cup of tea, each walks for one to two hours from the campsite and gets down to work. Once in the collection zone, the nomads turn into animals crouching on all four limbs. Each of them starts combing through the grasses and other plants. Soon, the place is swarming with people.
Like a pack of monkeys digging for earthworms, the cordyceps collectors leave no area unexplored. Every clump of grass is shredded literally leaving no area for the worms to hide. They proceed in particular directions, covering vast areas in a single day. But even after spending about six hours on knees and hands, the unluckier ones are hardly a few worms richer while those whom luck favors manages to make a tiny collection. But it is only the first day and they cannot afford to feel dejected. Maybe tomorrow, the tides might turn.
When one finally sights a cordyceps , he or she carefully digs out the whole thing making sure that he or she does not separate the caterpillar from the fungus. The tool used is a small twig usually made of bamboo. Each collection is safely put inside a noodles plastic wrapper.
The next day as luck would have it, there is a snowfall which carpets the whole ground. Their quest is momentarily halted but slowly the snow melts. Nobody wants to lose time so everyone heads out again. Every new day, the nomads on mission have to travel farther looking for new grounds. Their work takes them almost till the base of Gangkhar Phuensum and other towering mountains. The temperature drops even lower. But what keeps them going is the sight of the noodles wrapper slowly filling up with the worms.
Everyday, it is usually half past four in the evening when they return to their base camp. But now, they have to sit inside the tent and start cleaning the cordyceps until dusk. The day’s collections are dried the following day while they are on the mission to collect some more fresh cordyceps. This process of collection, cleaning and drying will continue until mid-June.
“In five days of literal hunting for the worms, I could manage only 100 pieces,” said Aum Om of Laya gewog in Gasa, “Last year I collected almost four times the number in the same period of time. This year the yield is unusually low.”
Before they head north towards the ice-capped mountains, they have to avail a government permit (GPT) for which each pays a nominal fee of Nu 260. In one season, maximum permits for three members of each household are granted.
This is supposed to check overexploitation of the resources plus facilitate stern monitoring in the collection spots. Reports say that foresters in Bumthang already left a month ago to monitor the cordyceps collection sites.
Some of the popular cordyceps spots are Sinchilakha, Butsulakha, Japhukab and Rodo which are thousands of feet above sea level.
“Once we are back at the camp, the day’s collection is cleaned and dried; the routine is repeated till the season ends without a night’s sumptuous dinner,” said veteran codyceps collector Gyembo Tshering.
But there is a sense of an accomplishment when at the end of the collection season, the nomads head back with their family’s source of livelihood safe in their backpacks.
The highlanders thus earn an enviable amount of cash through the sale of cordyceps but it is only natural as they have worked hard for it.