On the ground on a yarsa hunt
- Kantipur reporter Abdullah Miya recently travelled to Dolpo to report on the recent problems there between the police and yarsa hunters. While there, he decided to try his hand at finding the elusive herb and found out that finding yarsa is an exceedingly
Jul 18, 2014-
Even after having written a number of articles on yarsagumba and having watched tons of documentaries on yarsa collection, I was yet to get a chance to witness this exotic species in its natural splendour. But those documentaries, pictures and write-ups had whetted my desire for witnessing a yarsa hunt in person and knowing more about the herb from the adventurers who hunted for it in Nepal’s far-flung areas.
Then towards the end of Jestha this year, a clash occurred between yarsa collectors and security forces in Dolpa, and in the ensuing chaos, the security forces killed two and injured many collectors. The reason for the protest was the increase in the tax on yarsa that the government levied. Within 10 days of the incident, Kantipur Daily’s editorial team sent me to Dolpa to report exclusively on the situation.
Environmental journalism is something I have been involved with for more than a decade now, but Dolpa was still unexplored territory for me. The district is the largest in the country, but as far as infrastructural developments go, it still lags way behind others. The district has no roads, and to reach the district headquarters, I had to take a flight from Kathmandu to Nepalgunj first; and then I had to hop on another flight to get to Juphal Airport, in Jumla, located at an altitude of 2,502m.
From Juphal, a jeep took us to the district headquarters of Dunai. The only thing on people’s minds in Dunai, I soon found out, was yarsa. From local shopkeepers to hotel-owners to officers, everyone seemed to be only talking about this prized herb. This kind of atmosphere, I was told, was common during the peak yarsa-collection months, because the place is filled with collectors and businessmen.
A lot of the talk there had to do with the new rules that the government had come up with. Unlike in the past, the collectors this year had to pay a royalty to the government. The decision passed by the Cabinet had made it mandatory for the collectors to pay anywhere from Rs. 500 to 2,000, depending on their place of residence. And the collectors would get just a month to collect yarsa, after receiving their permits, which had become available around mid-May.
There’s a reason that so many yarsa hunters head for Dolpa: the unmatched quality of the yarsa that is found there. And that’s why the place has become the preferred destination for all businessmen involved in the trade, including the Chinese. Of late, Dolpali yarsa is valued more than any other yarsa available in the market. Collectors now come from a total of 28 districts—ranging from neighbouring ones such as Jajarkot and Rukum to faraway districts like Ramechap, Rasuwa, and Sindhupalchowk.
At Dolpo, I finally got a chance to mingle with these fortune seekers who had staked so much on finding the elusive herb. Some people had brought along all the members in their families, and quite a few had brought along their infants as well; all of them were carrying enough supplies for the arduous month-long hunt. To survive the temperatures here, which dip below sub-zero levels, they’d brought with them thick blankets to keep themselves warm, tents to make temporary shelters on their route up the meadows and mountains and other paraphernalia used for collecting yarsa.
There were so many of them there that the lines of collectors snaked all the way from Dunai to the remote valleys where yarsa flourished. Most of them knew the type of yarsa found in a particular place, except for some first-timers like me and my companion, Bish-nulal Budha. And most preferred spots around Dho, for they considered its yarsa to be the very best.
On the first week of Ashad, Bishnulal Budha and I embarked on a trip to Takshi. Located at an altitude of 5,000m, Takshi lies in Dho district. The more we travelled into the remote wilderness, the more people we encountered. The massifs along the way had their slopes covered with tents. And some of the people, for want of space, had even put up in caves.
Along the way, a collector showed me how yarsa nestles in the wild. “This is yarsa, Dai,” he said, pointing to a tiny speck on the ground, “The rest lies below. It has to be dug up,” he said, as he skillfully used his hoe to unearth the entire specimen. Covered in dirt and humus, the yarsa was unrecognisable to me until he’d cleaned it up. Having seen a yarsa specimen in the wild, I too wanted to try my hand at finding some. But despite scanning the ground for a whole day, I couldn’t spot even one.
The next day I tried again. This time, aping the expert collectors, I dug my knees into the ground, hunched my back, focused my eyes on the grass below and meticulously combed the surface, trying to find the shoot-tips that protrude slightly from under the earth. Again, I was unsuccessful. Finally, I came to understand the reason behind yarsa’s exorbitant price. Though the expert collectors do find yarsa quite often, finding it requires extreme concentration and a lot of hard work. Plus, collecting yarsa is risky business. Spending hours at altitudes over 3,900m can induce altitude sickness, and respiratory problems are common here. I too soon had problems breathing in the thin air.
After three days of coming up empty, I finally decided to give up on this endeavour and proceeded with what I had been assigned to do–report on the hunt. I was deflated at not finding a single yarsa stalk, but I could see I was not alone. Among the throngs on the meadows, I ran into many hapless novices like me among the expert collectors.
But even for the experts and experienced hands, finding yarsa isn’t easy. While some of the luckier ones collect as much as 15 yarsas a day, many are forced to return to their camps empty-handed at dusk, hoping for better luck the next day. And that’s the result that most have to live with on most days during yarsa season in Dolpo.
Published: 19-07-2014 09:02