Yarsagumba: Himalayan Gold Rush

Features Issue 130 Sep, 2012
Text and Photo By Don Messerschmidt

The search for ‘Himalayan Gold’ taxes body and soul. But if you collect enough yarsagumba, and if not harvested to extinction, it’s a money maker!

Yarsagumba is the high altitude medicinal ‘herb’ that fetches huge prices on the Chinese traditional medicine market. Collecting it requires climbing high, very high, in the Himalayas, with enough physical exertion, adventure and clear-and-present danger to challenge even the strongest, most experienced and cautious of seekers.

In early May, shortly into the 2012 yarsagumba collecting season, a Nepali friend and I set off north of Dhaulagiri in Mustang District to observe and photograph the Himalayan Gold Rush. We wanted a story, and we got it.


Going High
On our first morning into the highlands we climbed steeply up 1750 meters (5740 feet) to the top of a ridge above the picturesque Thakali town of Marpha in the valley of the upper Kali Gandaki river. We ascended at my speed, slow and steady (thank you), although my three youthful companions, all in their 20s, could have done it in half the time. I was accompanied by Kapil Bisht (freelance writer), Feroj Lalchan (guide and yarsagumba buyer), and porter Amrit Gurung who carried our small tent, sleeping bags and several days’ food.
With monikers like ours, we felt confident challenging the heights. Kapil is an Indian rishi’s name (a sage, or ‘seer’ – quite fitting for a wandering writer). Feroj means ‘victorious’, which we certainly hoped to be. Don means ‘leader’ (appropriate) and ‘gentleman’ (that too!). Amrit was the most promising name of all; it means ambrosia, the beverage of the gods, believed to confer immortality and invincibility (and said to have been formed when the gods churned the ocean of milk). For a guy lugging our bulky baggage on his back balanced by a tumpline across his forehead and wearing a pair of flimsy, thin-soled rubber sneakers, it’s good to be invincible and to seek ‘immortality’ (don’t we all?).

By late morning we four ‘invincibles’ reached the ridge top high up on what the locals call Batasi Danda, ‘Windy Mountain’. Our ultimate destination was Yak Kharka a pasture higher up on the ‘Dhaulagiri Trail’ to Dhampus Pass, part of the Great Himalaya Trail. The pass (also called Thapa La) at 5200 m. (17,060 ft.) is a further day’s hike, and though we weren’t going that far it’s a popular destination with an interesting history.
All the way across the exposed mountainside to the pass, the view is dominated by Dhaulagiri, ‘White Peak’, the world’s 7th highest, less than 15 km. (9 miles) south. Its blocky north face is awesome. Climbers call it ‘the Pear’ for its resemblance to the fruit.

The three Nilgiri ‘Blue Mountain’ peaks are also there, filling the eastern sky north of Annapurna across the Kali Gandaki rift. The valley between is Thak Khola (literally ‘Thak River’), home of the Thakali people who live astride the old north-south trans-Himalayan salt trade route. From our aerie on the mountainside looking down on the villages, we felt like we were standing alive in an aerial photograph.

We had spent the previous three days down in the valley watching the weather, waiting for a break in the daily pattern of snow lightly dusting the high east face of Batasi Danda. Because it was May we had expected relatively good weather. Instead, snowstorms swept the heights each noon, and we had no desire to hike up into a blizzard.

The locals told us that the weather seemed more like February than May. They blamed it on Climate Change  Jal-Wayu Parivartan (literally ‘Water-Wind Change’).

Early on May 2nd the weather looked a little better (the lull before the storm?), so we took a chance and set out from our guesthouse in Marpha to go high to find yarsagumba. The route was steep, up through scrub pine and juniper until we reached the open yak pastureland at the ridge top. Our goal for the day was a short traverse west. We planned to stay there for two or three nights with some gothalos (‘herders’) who happened to be Amrit’s cousins.

A blustery wind greeted us on the ridge. Suspecting that it was the front end of yet another mid-day snowstorm, we rested only briefly, then pulled our woolen caps more tightly down over our ears, zipped up our windbreakers, shouldered our packs and moved on.

The Lure of Yarsagumba
Yarsagumba is known to science as Ophiocordyceps sinesis, or in plain English as caterpillar-fungus, part insect-part plant. It has been highly prized by herbalists since first described in a traditional Chinese medicine book over ten centuries ago. Today, it is the world’s most expensive herbal medicine. Brewed and drunk as a mild tea or powdered and added to food, this ‘medicinal mushroom’ is said to reduce fatigue, boost the immune system, cure numerous ailments, and aid sexual performance as a powerful aphrodisiac. Some call it ‘Himalayan Viagra’.

Yarsagumba first came to world attention when members of the Chinese national women’s track team set new world records at the Asian Games in Japan in 1994. Their coach bragged that they had taken yarsagumba before the races, drinking it down with turtle blood. It is not considered to be an illegal substance. But accounts vary about where and when the Chinese runners and their coach revealed their secret. In another version, the games were in Germany, and yet another says that it was at the games in China in 1993. They may all be right.

Since the early 2000s this valuable golden-brown fungus has been avidly collected in Nepal each spring, April to June. It is also abundant in Tibet and several other Chinese provinces, and in neighboring Bhutan and north India.

Its name derives from yartsa-gunbu, Tibetan meaning ‘summer herb-winter worm’ for its transformation from animal to plant in summer, and back to animal in winter. In fact, it is two organisms. At base it is the larva of the Thitarodes ghost moth (Himalayan bat moth). The moth larva is invaded by a sac fungus (related to morel mushrooms and truffles, brewer’s yeast, and distantly to anti-bacterial penicillium species that grow on cheese). The fungus then kills and mummifies the insect and grows in its body. Eventually, it sends up a tiny ‘club’ or ‘head’ (a tendril) about a half inch above ground. The writer, Peter Zuckerman has described it as “a mummified caterpillar with a mushroom spore shooting from its brain.” That spore is what collectors look for.
Harvesting yarsagumba in the wild is not easy. The caterpillar-fungus only occurs above 3500 m (c.11,500 ft.), though at Yak Kharka it is more common from about 4600 m. (15,000 ft.) up. Spotting the yarsagumba tendrils amidst the grass and other plants in the high meadows requires a keen eye. Collectors typically kneel or crawl or lay prone to get close to it. Each caterpillar-fungus is dug carefully out of the soil by hand and wrapped in soft cloth so as not to crush or break the stem (which diminishes its value).

When a local thekadar (contractor, or buyer) shows up he may pay as much as 500 rupees (around $6) apiece for the unique plant-animal, depending on size and quality. With luck, skilled collectors can earn huge sums in a few weeks, up to four or five times an average worker’s annual salary.

The best quality, hence the most profitable specimens, are said to come from Dolpa District, west of Mustang. A kilogram of the highest quality may contain 1200 or more pieces and sell in Kathmandu for $8,000 or more. In Bhutan it is said to sell for as high as $20,000/kg. And in North America, at the other end of the value chain, an ‘over the counter’ price of $75,000/kg. has been reported.

During the collecting season, it is estimated that thousands of poor Nepalese villagers, mostly young men, trek up to the high pastures hoping to get rich quick. It is so popular that some communities are forced to close the local schools because so many students are off collecting.

Taking Risks
Mustang is not Nepal’s best district for yarsagumba, but it was convenient for us, in part because I’d been in these mountains before and was familiar with the high trail and the physical difficulties and risks involved. And we certainly wouldn’t be overwhelmed by a vast number of yarsagumba collectors, like the thousands who show up each season in the more frequented districts of Dolpa, Rolpa, Rukum and Darchula.
In some locales violence has been known to erupt against outsiders. We all knew the story of the seven collectors in Manang District who were killed by resentful locals who accused them of trespassing. The murders occurred in 2009 near the remote village of Nar (at 13,000 ft.). A “grisly massacre” is how the press described the incident.

When a Nepalese court finally convicted six men of homicide and sentenced them to life in prison, headlines like this one blazed across the print media and on the Internet: “‘Himalayan Viagra’: Six Men Get Life for Nepal Murders” (BBC online). Another 13 defendants received two year sentences for lesser involvement, and 21 others were acquitted.

Since then, non-locals have been banned from collecting yarsagumba in Manang.
In other districts outsiders are more welcome, or at least tolerated, though in many communities they are required to register and pay a fee for the privilege. In Thak Khola we felt safe, for few Thakalis go after yarsagumba. Thakalis regularly hire outsiders like Amrit and his cousins as farm hands and yak herders, and it is they and other non-locals who collect yarsagumba.

Encountering a few displeased locals is unlikely at Yak Kharka. Rather, collectors up there face more dangerous risks, including high altitude, bad weather, falls from cliffs, and threat of avalanche.

We were aware of the potential for bad weather as soon as we made camp. By late afternoon it was snowing lightly and that night our tiny yellow tent was uncomfortably cold! While Kapil and I shared the tent, Feroj and Amrit crowded into the shepherds’ goth (shelter) where they were warmed by a small brushwood cooking fire.
The following morning we were up at first light to find that several inches of snow had fallen during the night, but the shepherds assured us that the sun would soon melt it off. After a hot drink and light breakfast we set out to find the caterpillar-fungus and observe the collection activities. On our way we passed brightly colored tents and make-shift tarps pitched by outside collectors on old campsites and under cliffs festooned with dagger-like icicles.

Our first obstacle that morning was crossing a dizzyingly steep trail on a cliffside track so perilously narrow that we avoided looking down for fear of a misstep. The slope was almost vertical, falling away over a thousand feet down into the canyon below. Only a few days earlier a French trekker had slipped and fallen to his death near here. We were reminded of the tragedy when we saw a helicopter fly by far below us on a mission to recover his body.

Bad weather may have contributed to the trekker’s death. There is a note printed in bold on the popular ‘Around Dhaulagiri’ map that clearly warns: “Do Not Attempt In Bad Weather! White-0uts Possible.” But the French trekker and his twin brother may not have known. Apparently they didn’t understand English, and didn’t have a porter or guide.

Twice Lucky
A white-out is a type of snow blizzard in which it is easy to lose all sense of direction and perspective. I knew about them from past experiences. Back in 1964 on my first trek up to Dhampus Pass, a companion and I came close to walking off this mountain in a blinding white-out. And a week later, on the trek out while carrying a heavy packsack, I fell on a steep scree slope and began sliding feet first on my stomach towards the abyss. Scary!

But I was twice lucky.

In the white-out my friend and I found our way to safety by following the shouts of two friends on the trail higher up (where we should have been). Temporarily disoriented by the blizzard, we had wandered off track.
And after falling on the scree slope I was able to stop and scramble off to a safer track. While sliding, I had dug my hands into the rubble and came up clenching a rock. It was a small black mussel-like bi-valve fossil, a type of saligram (the Nepali word for it) that dates back at least 200 million years to the Jurassic era, long before the Himalayas were formed. It had grown in the mud of the prehistoric Sea of Tethys (a name from Greek mythology) that separated Gondwanaland (now India) from Laurasia (Tibet).

I have kept the 2½ inch fossil all these years. It reminds me of a time in my youth when I was even more prone to taking risks -- in high mountains, on steep slopes, in bad weather.

A few years later some other friends and I became disoriented in dense fog on this same mountain. To our relief we stumbled into a yak camp where we interrupted a unique custom. The herdsmen had tapped a vein in a young yak’s neck and were merrily quaffing cupfuls of ‘live blood’. Tagat lagcha, they said (‘It gives strength’), and jokingly offered us a taste. When we declined, they poured us cups of fresh buttermilk instead. After a few minutes they patched the vein with dung, released the yak, then showed us the way down out of the clouds.

Onward and Upward
Back now on our morning hike up to the yarsagumba trail, on the far side of the cliffs, we met another gothalo with his wife and baby in a small but comfortable camp. He showed us his collection of caterpillar-fungus then joined us as we climbed higher. From there on we met other collectors crawling on the ground searching for the hard-to-see mushroom tendrils. They came from nearby Myagdi District and from as far away as Gorkha, Rolpa, Gulmi and Mugu. As the local thekadar, Feroj estimated that there were a hundred or more of his clients even higher. He told them that he would return on a buying trip in another week or two.

A little farther along, Feroj decided to test our skills of observation. He marked out a small patch on the ground then challenged us to find the yarsagumba. Kapil spotted it first, after several minutes of close scrutiny. The tiny, thin mushroom shoot was almost indistinguishable from the surrounding grass.

For the next 15 minutes we took a flurry of photographs of the yarsagumba being carefully removed from the ground and gently cleaned. After documenting the harvesting process, I paused and stood to take in the grandeur around us.

Immediately southwest across the deep canyon of the Thapa Khola the sharp pyramid of Tukche Peak (6920 m./22,703 ft.) stood sharply etched against a sky of cobalt blue. It was less than eight kilometers (five miles) away. Dhaulagiri rose up close behind it, standing firm as its bolder, more massive guardian.

Years ago I stood near here and watched in awe as a cornice broke off the top of Tukche Peak and fell down the near vertical north face, plummeting 3000 meters (nearly 10,000 feet) into Thapa canyon. A billowing plume of snowdust followed it down, then hung silently in the air for several minutes before dissipating. Impressive.

Turning east from the yarsagumba fields, the Nilgiri peaks north of the Annapurna massif still dominated the far skyline. Altogether, it was a magnificent, breathtaking wide-screen view at the top of the world. I was reminded of what my son once said when he was a boy and saw a similar panorama. After looking in all directions he said, in a serious tone: “Too many peaks, dad!”

I was also watching the weather. It was clear now, but the wind was beginning to come up. I had a hunch, and after considering all our options I made a command decision. We must get off the mountain soon, before the inevitable snowstorm hit us. We had intended to stay longer, but knowing that the weather could change from clear to calamitous in minutes, I said “We’ll go back down to Marpha now. We do not want to spend another night up here.”

Feroj and Amrit silently agreed, for they knew better than I just how fickle the weather could be in this beautiful but austere and dangerous place. They also knew that none of us was prepared for seriously foul weather, if it came. We did not have winter climbing or camping gear. We said farewell to the collectors then retreated swiftly and safely across the cliffs back to our camp where we ate a snack and packed to leave.

I wanted to find a safer trail down to Marhpa compared with the one we had come up, so Feroj chose a more well-traveled alternate route and we set off, fast.

Four hours later we reached Marpha, 2000 meters (6,500 ft.) below Yak Kharka. My hunch had been correct - the weather had changed suddenly and within minutes of starting down snow flurries were blowing at our backs.

Descending the steep mountainside so far so fast was hard on our legs and knees, and by the time we reached the guesthouse at 4:30 pm I had serious muscle cramps. To counter the pain and stiffness I ordered a double shot of Marpha’s famous apple brandy and a mug of steaming hot chocolate. A dose of yarsagumba might also have relieved the pain and fatigue, but I was content with brandy and cocoa.

A Disquieting Look Back
Our little yarsagumba expedition was over - up one day and down the next. But the story was not over.
During the night as the storm rolled in over the mountains it grew more serious. The following day (May 4) it assaulted Thak Khola, full force. Living in the ‘rain shadow’ on the north side of the Himalayas, the Thakalis are normally shielded from this sort of big pre-monsoon storms, but not that day. As we began walking down the valley on our way out to Pokhara snow was falling heavily up high. And on the trail we were quickly drenched by the blowing rain. We had taken the east bank walking trail to avoid the new motor road, but soon crossed to the west side and checked in to Larjung Lodge. We spent part of the afternoon and evening drying out.

In next morning the weather was sullen, high overcast, but clear enough to see Yak Kharka high above us. We were startled by the amount of snow that had fallen, and surprised to see that the snowline had dropped to within a few hundred meters of Larjung village. If we had stayed longer up with the gothalos we would have been, quite literally, in deep trouble. It was a chilling scene, and damn cold too.

The same storm also hit Pokhara on the south side of the Himalayas, dumping torrential rains there as well. On May 5th it triggered a sudden outburst flood along the upper Seti River that drains the east flank of Machhapuchre, ‘Fishtail’ Peak. Within minutes a wall of viscous mud, estimated to have been 10 meters high, roared down the Seti valley, obliterating two small villages and killing over 70 people. The locals called it the Pokhara ‘tsunami’.

Standing in Larjung and looking up at Batasi Danda, we felt reasonably sure that the hardy yak herders could sit out the snowstorm. But we wondered how the poorly prepared yarsagumba collectors had fared, and any trekkers who may have been on the Dhaulagiri Trail to Dhampus Pass...
The Yarsagumba Gold Rush was temporarily on hold, but the intense sun at that altitude would soon melt the snow away and collecting would resume. The caterpillar-fungus harvest is too lucrative to let a day or two of bad weather close it down for long.