Eric Hansen, in Outside magazine, profiles the fungus growing out of the head of deceased caterpillars, used in Chinese medicine and prized in Asia as an aphrodisiac, which has become in recent years the primary cash-producing export of the Tibetan plateau.
Yarchagumba looks like a shriveled brown chile pepper and is coveted as an aphrodisiac and medicinal cure-all. Literally translated as â€œsummer grass, winter worm,â€ it forms when a parasitic fungus invades the burrowing larva of a ghost moth, transforms the Âvital Âorgans into a cobweb-like mess, and then sends up a wispy sprout through the dead Âinsectâ€™s head. The grisly process plays out across the Himalayas and the ÂTibetan Plateau but only at the beginning of the monsoon and only on reclining slopes of grasses, shrubs, and milk vetch at the dizzying altitude of 10,000 to 16,500 feet. Thanks to a spike in global demand, mostly by Asian men looking to enhance their virility, a pound of yarchaÂgumba now sells for as much as $50,000, more than the price of gold. ÂProfits from the fungus have transformed entire Âvillages, vexed government regulators, and even helped bankroll a communist insurgency. Nepalâ€™s former Maoist rebels admit that taxing (read: Âextorting) yarchagumba pickers was their main source of income in their decade-long war against the countryâ€™s monarchy. …
While Himalayan herders have snacked on the mummified larvae for centuries, the Âmodern yarchagumba craze can be traced back to 1993, when three peasant girls from northeast China stunned spectators at the World Championships in Athletics, in Stuttgart, Germany, shattering numerous long-distance-running records. Asked how he could explain what Sports Illustrated would later call â€œthe most astonishing breakthrough in the history of track and field,â€ the girlsâ€™ coach, Ma Junren, attributed it to a tonic of turtle blood and yarchagumba. Even though many of his athletes would later fail some of the worldâ€™s first tests for performance-Âenhancing drugs like EPO, the astounding feats put yarchagumba on the world map.
In the beginning, the major consumers were Japanese, Hong Kongers, and Singaporeans, who would pay $100 at high-end restaurants for a vegetable soup with three yarchaÂÂgumba floating turd-like on top. Now China is the largest market. Believing that the effects are cumulative, consumers ingest it daily. Nouveau riche Chinese have their cooks roast the mummified caterpillars with duck, or infuse them with rice wine, or simply pulverize them and sprinkle the dust atop breakfast cereal. At high-class dinner parties in Beijing, yarchagumba has reportedly replaced champagne as the preferred gift. In Tibet, the flavorless delicacy is the bribe of choice. As Chinaâ€™s GDP has risen, so has the price of yarchaÂgumba, including a ninefold increase in the past decade alone. As with rhino horn or bear gall bladder, yarchaÂgumbaâ€™s outrageous price tag carries its own appeal. â€œFor most Chinese consumers, itâ€™s all about status and impressing people,â€ says ÂSeattle mycologist Daniel Winkler, the worldâ€™s foremost yarchagumba expert.
Now Westerners are growing curious. A 2003 article in Nutritional Wellness, a quarterly for licensed chiropractors, suggests that the Cordyceps sinensis Âfungus, which some believe is the key component in yarchaÂgumba, contains a host of compounds that â€œstimulate the human immune system,â€ among other Âeffects. Capitalizing on this belief is a Cordyceps-infused energy drink called ÂSteven ÂSeagalâ€™s Lightning Bolt and a company called Aloha Medicinals, in Carson City, ÂNevada, which sells CordyÂceps grown in near-freezing, oxygen-Âdepleted greenhouses intended to replicate growing conditions in the mountains. (One bottle of 90 capsules: $19.95.)
In the actual Himalayas, all that demand has spurred a gold rush. Villagers in Tibet, ÂIndia, Bhutan, and Nepal can now afford to send their children to proper schools, pay down debts, and even start businesses with the Âso-called spore money. In Tibet, where the vast majority of yarchagumba is Âharvested, yartsa gunbu, as itâ€™s called there, now Âaccounts for 40 percent of annual cash income in rural areas, or $225 milÂlion. The Nepali harvest only a fraction as much, mostly in western districts, but the effects are just as dramatic: during the six-week harvesting season, a Nepali can earn upwards of $1,500, more than his parents could have expected to make in a lifetime.
While the yarchagumba trade is now legal and only lightly taxed in Nepal, early regulations discouraged compliance. In 2001, the government implemented a per-piece levy that was higher than the actual market price. A few months later, it required that yarchaÂgumba be steamed before export, which Âeffectively turned valuable dry yarchaÂgumba into worthless mush. Now villagers might pay local taxes, but few bother with the second tariff imposed by the federal government. According to Ramesh Kharel, a former chief of Kathmanduâ€™s metropolitan police, only 20 percent of all Nepalese yarchaÂgumba is sold legally.
Smuggling routes are well established. Tibetan brokers hike over the border, buy directly from villagers, and return with mule trains of semilegal yarchagumba. After dodging the few manned border checkpoints, they sell their crops to brokers in Lhasa, who in turn sell to larger middlemen in the bustling markets of the central Chinese city of Xining, who sell to retailers in Beijing. The biggest black-market deals go down in Kathmandu, the main smuggling hub for Southeast Asia, where powerful dealers consolidate enormous quantities, forge permits and tax Âreceipts, and sell directly to Chinese dealers. â€œWe have very few entry points into Kathmandu, and we manually inspect trucks and shipments,â€ says Kharel, â€œbut we donâ€™t have sophisticated equipment such as you have in the U.S.â€
Hat tip to Fred Lapides.