Photo Essay: The Swallows’ Nest Collectors of Yaan

The only way to reach the birds' nest cave. (Image: Sina News)
The only way to reach the birds' nest cave. (Image: Sina News)

This is how these villagers in Sichuan Province pick edible birds’ nests via a precarious mountain trail.

The nests belong to swallows which use their saliva to glue together the grass, twigs, and feathers. By steaming the nest, this can be extracted to make soup, and its high protein content also makes it a highly prized tonic.

Every May, residents of Yaan travel back and forth on an 8-inch-wide trail in the mountains to collect birds’ nests, and herbs.

During the 4-hour walk and 2-hour search, they risk their lives just for the money these items sell for at market.

A few years ago, villagers were able to harvest over 200 swallow nests a year, but last year it was down to just over 100. They worry about their future due to the poor soil for farming and the uncertainty over the birds’ nest harvest.

(Image: Sina News)

The remote Maoke Mountain region. (Image: Sina News)

Deep in the mountainous region and with barely a sign of human life, the 10,580-foot-tall Maoke Mountain is wrapped in clouds and mist all year round.

The closest village is more than 60 miles to the west where a community of around 200 villagers live. The trail is the only way to reach the village.

(Image: Sina News)

The trail to the village. (Image: Sina News)

April is the month when birds’ nests, Chinese caterpillar fungus, and the herb Gastrodia elata are around for picking.

The distance from the village to the cave of birds’ nests is only a few miles, but the difference of almost 3,300 feet in elevation makes the trail precarious. Danger lurks everywhere—moss, loose rocks, nettles… To get through, pickers have twist, stretch, or even go on all fours.

These virgin forests are treacherous. No outsiders dare to explore them without a guide. Even villagers have to go in groups for safety’s sake.

(Image: Sina News)

Climbing a cliff. (Image: Sina News)

(Image: Sina News)

The treacherous route. (Image: Sina News)

(Image: Sina News)

Pickers cope with what is provided by nature—rattan vine. (Image: Sina News)

(Image: Sina News)

Nature is mesmerizing, but behind the bright green lurks the danger of moss and nettle. (Image: Sina News)

(Image: Sina News)

The trail is barely wide enough for a single foot. (Image: Sina News)

(Image: Sina News)

The entrance to the cave is hidden. Pickers have to crawl in through the narrow space. (Image: Sina News)

(Image: Sina News)

It is completely dark inside, and there are caves within caves like a maze. (Image: Sina News)

(Image: Sina News)

Tools are minimal—a torch, a twisted steel bar, and a hoe. (Image: Sina News)

(Image: Sina News)

One of the nests. (Image: Sina News)

(Image: Sina News)

At the end of the journey, the rewards are only a handful of nests, plus cuts and bruises.(Image: Sina News)

(Image: Sina News)

Some of the brave harvesters. (Image: Sina News)

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