The green highland of Pupal valley located in the Nepalese district of Rukum has turned into a snow-capped cordillera with only few colorful tents visible from base camp.
Continuous snowfall has been creating trouble for the daily activities of those who have gathered at an altitude of 4,500m in search of the valuable yarsagumba.
Among nearly 5,000 pickers who have arrived at Pupal this season, many are young mothers with new-born babies. Despite the freezing conditions, the new mothers can be seen carrying their babies on their backs and trying their luck in the chase of the unique hybrid.
In detail, yarsagumba is a small, somewhat fragile, mummified body of what is known as the Himalayan bat moth caterpillar, which has been taken over by a parasitic fungus. The species is known throughout Himalayas as a powerful medicine and in some instances is worth more than its weigh in gold.
Goreni Pun, 21, is among the thousands who reached the highland a week ago with her husband and three-month-old baby boy.
“I am here to search for yarsagumba with my three-month old son. I am worried if the snowfall continues, he will catch a cold and I will need to return. I don’t want to go back empty-handed. I want to make some money,” Pun told Xinhua.
She was in the valley last season as well when she had earned only Rs30,000 ($300) in a period of a month. This year, Pun wants to pick more pieces to make more money as one piece is being traded at above Rs1,000 ($10) but she knows that it’s hardly possible due to the health concerns of her new-born baby.
“Bringing my toddler to this isolated valley is not a choice but a necessity. I am worried about the health of my baby but at the same time, I need to support my husband in making money that will sustain our lives until the next season,” she said.
One week has already passed since the formal opening of the yarsagumba harvesting season in Pupal, the highland renowned its caterpillar funguses in the world. Many young mothers with new-born are still on their way to the Himalayan region, whereas many have already started harvesting; ignoring the bitterly cold temperature and their own health conditions.
Prem Maya Pun, 30, was carrying her four-month-old baby on her back with the support of a woolen scarf and searching for the yarsagumba in a high grassy meadow.
One hand holding a black umbrella to protect herself and baby from the snow, her other hand was digging the soil to confirm if she had found the peculiar hybrid, which would have been her first piece of the day.
“I reached here in four days from my village while carrying my infant in a “doko” (bamboo-made basket) and leading two other children. The journey was too difficult due to the steep trail and my poor health condition. But we didn’t have any other option,” an exhausted Pun said.
It takes a few days uphill trek to reach the Pupal valley of upper Rukum, with many base camps on the way. The pickers have to face harsh weather, unpredictable rainfall, altitude sickness and a myriad of other hardships throughout the journey.
The local medical camp at the Pupal base camp said that within two days of the opening of harvesting season, nearly a dozen pickers were forced back home due to altitude sickness.
Pun, who was married at the age of 16, is accompanying her husband Tejendra Pun in yarsagumba harvesting with two children below 10 years old. Most of the people in the region have a minimum of three children, as many believe that family planning is not necessary.
Pun’s two sons are also assisting in searching for the yarsagumba as their schools have remained formally closed for two months due to the yarsagumba season. She expects that this time they will do a booming trade.
“This time, we are four pickers from the same family. I am hopeful that the amount earned from collecting and selling yarsagumba will be sufficient to clear all our debts,” she said.
One commonality among all the highlanders is that they take out loans to cover their household expenses for a year and clear the debts once the yarsagumba season is over.
For the next few weeks, families have set up temporary shelters at the base camps with tents, firewood and cooking materials and utensils, transported by mules and horses.
They solely concentrate on the harvest of this most expensive biological resource to sustain their livelihoods in the isolated area, which has no electricity, mobile networks or internet service.
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