Print Edition - 2014-07-12  |  On Saturday

Pawns in the great HIMALAYAN GOLD RUSH

  • So many risk so much to try their luck at finding yarsagumba high up in hills of Manang. Not many hit paydirt
Pawns in the great HIMALAYAN GOLD RUSH

Jul 11, 2014-

A fourteen-year-old boy waits in a queue to make a phone call. A chunk of cotton hangs out of a big tear on the back of his jacket, to which he seems oblivious. There is a crowd of 15 around a single telephone that is enclosed inside a wooden case, complete with a locking system. At 9 pm, the temperature drops below 5 degrees. He nibbles on his fingernails anxiously, perhaps in anticipation of the conversation with his parents back home.

Desbahadur is one of the thousands who undertake this perilous mass exodus each year to the remote district of Manang in the hope of making some quick cash by harvesting and selling yarsagumba.

In a yak-grazing spot called Yak Kharka, also a lodge point in the popular Annapurna Circuit trekking route, about 800 people from places like Gorkha, Dhading and Rasuwa have gathered. This is the base, where the pickers reside, socialise and sell their harvests to middlemen in the yarsa trade. At 4,050 m and three hours away on foot from the nearest inhabited village of Manang, there is also no mobile phone connectivity here; a single satellite telephone is the only point of contact.

In the month-long Himalayan isolation, each person drawn to this gold rush hopes to make a handsome sum of money and return home. But life here in the meadows of Manang during the rush is hardly ever an easy one.

Desbahadur quit school a few years ago in his village of Kasigaun, Gorkha. “There was no motivation to continue,” he says. Farming soon became his life instead. He also lost his right thumb in an accident on the grass-cutting machine. But that was no obstacle in his relentless pursuit of yarsa—his one opportunity every year to rise above his privation and be counted among his family and village folks.

For Sukhmaya, birthing an infant boy just three months ago wasn’t an obstacle either. Sukhmaya made the three-day journey from Keraunja, Gorkha, along with her husband and the newborn, without any hesitation. “It is difficult with the baby. I am not able to move about and pick as freely and as efficiently as I would like to. Fortunately, the baby has had no health issues,” she says nonchalantly.

Then there is Kanchi Gurung. Her family is the family of thousands of rural Nepalis—poor and sizeable, sustaining their meagre lifestyle with feeble harvests from lands that they don’t own. And they have a lot at stake on how Kanchi’s trip to Manang turns out in financial terms; consider that they had to sell a buffalo—a huge family asset—to fund her expenses.

For this desperate multitude, the yarsa hunt is a lottery where they at least have some chance of hitting paydirt. The hunt is also a welcome break from their hardships and monotony. And as one disappointed first-timer put it, “Even if I didn’t pick enough yarsa to make money, at least I was able to visit and see this Manang place that everybody in my village keeps talking about.”

The motor road to Manang is a dusty, stony, jagged and highly dangerous path, an apt metaphor perhaps for the fate of the people who travel on it to gamble their fates on the prospects offered by yarsa. Picking yarsa is an exercise in patience and persistence. Each morning, after a three-hour long ascent above 4,500 metres, pickers carefully comb through massive stretches of meadows hoping to spot a yellowish-white stalk hardly an inch high. For most, a full day of crawling and staring at the ground can amount to nothing. The sight on the meadows is strange: hundreds of people on their hands and knees against the vastness of nature, as if pleading with God to make it worth their while.

Not surprisingly, their health suffers in these unforgiving conditions. Pickers spend 12 hours every day up in the ‘lake’, without warm food or sufficient water for days, suffering through gastric problems. Fatigue, cold, allergies and altitude sickness are also common, according to a medical officer associated with the ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project).

To add to their woes, the current picking season has been a huge disappointment—both in terms of the amount of yarsa found and picked and its market value. “Forget profit. I won’t break even. What is strange is that some people pick 30 pieces per day and I can’t pick more than three,” said a veteran picker who didn’t want to be named.

The buyers’ market in Kathmandu is unstable and depends on factors like demand in China, the dollar-exchange rates and the quality of the yarsagumba, among others. This year, the maximum price offered for a piece of yarsagumba has halved from last year. Then there is also the cost of the pickers’ license fee, which was increased by Rs 5,000 to Rs 20,000 this year.

Halfway through the picking season, the mood in Yak Kharka is noticeably downbeat. Despite the fact that it gets easier to find and pick yarsagumba in the latter half of the season, many pickers have had their fill of this ‘adventure’. One picker said, “In my four years here, this was the worst and I will not return.”

Kanchi also shared this disappointment. It is unlikely that her family will make even on the buffalo. But she has a better plan for the future–to work abroad, like her brother in Malaysia. “But until I get my chance, I will continue to put my destiny in the hands of these ‘keeras’ (referring to Yarsa),” she contemplates, with a steely determination in her voice.

As Desbahadur hangs up the telephone, he looks calm. “I told my folks that I’ve been picking successfully. It is not the whole truth. If they know that I have made only 10,000 rupees till now, they will worry and feel helpless. How will that help me?” he asks. “But there is always a little hope. And I intend to come back here every year,” he adds, with an infectious smile that momentarily lightens the gloom around the telephone booth.

- Satish Gurung

Published: 12-07-2014 09:00

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