Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Matsutake Mushroom Festival

I was feeling so excited leading up to last weekend - the long awaited Matsutake Mushroom festival at Ura was nearly here! I think my excitement was due to living in a sleepy village and longing for some culture and possibly even some foreign food. I'd seized on a write-up online of the festival from last year which mentioned 'Japanese chef' and I was very happy to travel hours on rocky roads to satisfy my cravings for Japanese food.

Alas, the festival didn't really live up to all the expectations I had in my mind, and yet, we still had a really enjoyable day, albeit very much Bhutanese in flavour. The festival is held to celebrate the start of the wild mushroom season - the matsutake mushroom is prized in Japan and worth hundreds of dollars a kilo! Here, the mushrooms are known locally as sangay shamu (Buddha mushrooms) and I've seen them selling for 300nu for a half kg ($12/kg).

Displays of mushrooms available locally were fascinating and informative.


We hired the van again from a man a few kms down the road. Negotiations were lengthy and involved a lot of third parties and hangers-on who helped translate. A lot of debate went on about whether the new road to Ura was motorable - some saying yes, some saying maybe, and the owner of the vehicle saying 'no'. That meant rather than a 1 hour drive we were looking at a 2.5 hour drive. But what to do la?!

Looking down to Ura village.

Rustic fence and house.

Wildflowers are in bloom all along the side of the road.

The festival is held at a community centre a few kilometres before you reach Ura village. A courtyard for dancing was surrounded by wooden booths selling local foods. As it was nearly lunch time, we surveyed the offerings and tried some cheese momos and a new delicacy - a chapatti rolled up and filled with super spicy and salty ezay made all the more mouth-tingling with lots of szechuan pepper. We drank tea while sitting on wooden stumps placed around the courtyard.

Can't resist a photo of roses in recycled pots.

This guy had a huge basket full of mushrooms and a whopper on the top right.

Mushrooms drying in the sun.

The MCs for the event announced that due to power failure all morning, the entertainment program was just about to begin. Lucky for us! We enjoyed watching local dancers from the community and the nearby school perform traditional folk dances and 'rigsar' dancing to Bhutanese pop music.

A Bhutanese festival is not complete without the presence of phallus weilding atsaras and Xavier (who thinks these masked dancers are the same at every festival we go to) confidently teased them.

A ranger from Thrumsing-la National Park came to interview us as one of only two groups of foreigners present. Apparently the day before had seen about 50 tourists attending. He was very interested to hear our story of living in Bhutan and our impressions, and then invited us to sit in the shaded VIP shelter which had a great view of the dancing from the comfort of lounges. Tea and coffee were served and shortly after we were invited to join the VIP buffet lunch. Too good to refuse! A selection of Bhutanese meat and vegetable dishes including a shimeji mushroom broth were on offer.

Afterwards the MCs announced that anyone wishing to take a traditional hot-stone bath, or go mushroom hunting should put their name on a list. I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to have a hot-stone bath - perhaps our only one in Bhutan. As it turned out though, our interest was not communicated to the man who had to heat the hot stones (which takes an hour), and by the time we were ready, the bath preparations hadn't been started. However, we have his number and the contact details for a homestay in Ura so we're thinking it will be nice to return there later when one of our visitors comes to stay.

We picked up some organic vegetables for sale: the first cherry tomatoes and capsicums I've seen in Bhutan, some lovely long eggplants, and of course some mushrooms and then decided to move on. Not before Xavier and Remy took advantage of the typical festival stalls selling plastic toys. We enjoyed handfuls of fresh wild raspberries growing near where we'd parked the van and then headed off.

Market stalls selling all sorts of plastic junk!

A Ben-ten glowing sword for Remy and a toy camera for Xavier.

Bhutanese kids love playing with guns!

Bob was able to reach all the raspberries at the top of the bush that local kids can't reach!
The wild raspberries look just like the ones in Australia, except they're orange and taste a bit sweeter.
Playing around with macro setting - was very happy with this photo.

Bob had an alternative plan for driving home - trying the farm-road 'shortcut' through Shingyer village that connects with the new road back to Chumey.

Well, the experience leaves me in no doubt that when it comes to driving and road conditions, Bob is an eternal optimist and I am a pessimist who envisages all worse case scenarios!

The road was made of big sharp rocks and at low places was mushy, slippery and just terrible. Driving over the rocky parts was like the vibrations of a jackhammer. Bob kept saying things like 'oh we're nearly there', 'we're past the worst' 'I don't know what all the fuss was about', while I kept reminding him we were far from the paved road we were trying to reach and I was far from certain we'd make it. I have no idea why the tyres of the car which are bald did not sustain a puncture on those sharp rocks - a miracle! No RACQ to call out this neck of the woods!

Mr Bob at the wheel!

As we climbed out of Ura a beautiful rainbow appeared.
By no means the worse stretch of road, we stopped to let the old barefoot woman pass.

But I'm happy to report Bob got us through, and we were able to cruise most of the rest of the way on the new smooth road. Even this was not without its perils. Rock fall of varying sizes littered the road and at one point the road goes in under high cliffs of rough rock that looks like it will fall at any moment on the road. We approached a narrow new bridge crossing the gorge - and found that the brand new (unopened) road has actually collapsed on both sides of the approach. Very hairy and we were glad to be through there and if we return to Ura we'll definitely be taking the long road!

This stretch was particularly scary, the rocks did not look stable.


I think the future success of the Matsutake Mushroom Festival relies on greater patronage by foreign tourists. It is a wonderful opportunity to be one of the few outsiders to participate in a local festival (unlike some of the big Tshechus). Everyone we spoke to was friendly, welcoming and made us feel like honoured guests. Hopefully it will grow year by year to become more popular and a good source of revenue for locals. And I think a little food stall selling some tempura mushrooms, or mushroom okonomiyaki would be a wonderful addition!

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