As border with China is closed, Nepali carpets in Taplejung find no marketTraditional carpets from the district are sought after across the border for their warmth, price, and durability, traders say.
Yangi Sherpa has 36 pieces of handmade woollen carpets piled up at her home in Olangchung Gola, located in the mountainous area northwest of Taplejung bordering Tibet, China.
She had been planning to sell them to traders who then export it to China but the Covid-19 pandemic changed everything.
Buyers from China disappeared after both Nepal and China closed their borders in a bid to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Many of the families living in Olangchung Gola are engaged in weaving carpets. Out of 52 houses in the area, 37 have carpet weaving machines. Some families even hire workers to produce carpets. The families make carpets with various designs, from monochromatic to multi-coloured ones and are popular in China.
The thread used in carpet weaving is brought in from China while chemicals used to colour the yarn are imported from Darjeeling of India and Kathmandu.
Carpet weaving is an ancestral profession and every woman learns the craft from their parents.
But traders have not been able to sell the exportable product since Tiptala Pass was closed initially in mid-November due to the cold and later in mid-December due to Covid-19. Trade with China is a major economic activity for the residents of Olangchung Gola.
As a result, more than 500 carpets have been piled up in one settlement alone, according to Chetan Lama Sherpa. “Additionally, carpets made in Yangma of the same ward and Mikwakhola Rural Municipality-5 Papung have also not been sold,” he said.
The traders and weavers target Chinese buyers as they pay more for the carpets compared to domestic shoppers.
Chinese buyers usually buy two carpets while domestic shoppers buy one at a time. Traders are able to sell a pair for 2,000 yuan (Rs34,500 approx).
“Chinese consumers prefer Nepali carpets because they are comparatively cheap, good, long-lasting and warm,” said Sherpa.
With sales non-existent, carpet producing families are now desperately looking for buyers who can order their product and pay in cash. They depend heavily on carpet sales for household expenses.
Most of the locals in the area are farmers, with men usually tending to yaks and mountain cows year-round while women go about household chores and knit woollen carpets, which the area exports and is famous for.
But with the lockdown forcing even the men to stay at home, women are offloading household chores to their husbands and focusing on making more carpets, hoping the border will open soon.
Chunga Sherpa has already woven 32 carpets and stacked them in a room, ready to be sold. Every morning, as part of her daily worship, she lights incense sticks, wishing for the border to reopen in order to sell her carpets.
The increased output has compounded the problem of unsold carpets, as they continue to pile up with no buyers in sight.
It normally takes 12 days to weave a carpet but it can be done in less time, around 8 to 9 days if a woman weaves continuously. Traditionally, men do not weave carpets as they take care of the yaks.
Last year, Tasi Bhote, a local of Fangatalung Rural Municipality, went to Tibet to sell carpets and other goods. “Nepali carpets were the first item to be sold out,” he said.
He normally travels to Ghumti Bazaar and Riu in China, around 50 kilometres from Tipta La to buy essentials using the money earned from selling carpets.
According to Donga Sherpa, traders in Riu buy Nepali carpets in bulk and last year, the carpets were sold out by September.
"A Chinese family purchases 10 to 12 carpets at a single time. The first purchase for a new home in China is a carpet," said Dongga, who has been to Tibet to sell carpets several times in the past.
The Nepali made carpets are also a popular gift item among VIPs visiting the area. It is a custom in the district to present a carpet as a farewell gift to high-ranking government officials and chief district officers, according to Mukti Poudel, a trader who used to sell carpets from the district headquarters Phungling.
But that tradition is slowly disappearing as more carpets make their way to China instead of being sold locally. “Employees who did not receive a gift of carpet used to be able to buy one for themselves but traders have started to divert local stocks to China in the past few years,” said Poudel.