The Hunt For Himalayan Gold | A Foreigner's Experience Harvesting Yarsagumba
Ready. Set. Go. All the villagers in town awkwardly half-walk, half-run down the trail that heads North. After a few minutes, the crowd breaks into different groups heading up to different mountains. I’m in the “slow and old people” group. Even as a young, fit person I can barely keep up with the “slow” Tibetans who are used to hiking above 4000 m/13,000 feet. We scramble up river beds, across landslides, and through yak herds, until we finally reach the snowline near the top of the mountain. We have arrived. It’s the site for picking Yarsagumba.
Yarsagumba means “summer grass, winter worm” in Tibetan. Known as “Himalayan gold,” it’s a fungus that parasitizes insects and is classified as a medicinal mushroom. But for the Himalayan subsistence farmer, it’s known as a year’s worth of income; for most, the only source of income. Gram for gram, it’s more valuable than gold. The one month window each spring for picking Yarsagumba provides all the money that’s needed for a year’s worth of rice, lentils, salt, medicine, school fees, and clothes.
The scavenger hunt for this caterpillar fungus is competitive and exhausting. The pickers live in tents near the snow line, barely eating or drinking anything while they search. Many have died traversing the dangerous terrain to pursue the medicinal mushroom. Yet the risk is worth it for the estimated 50,000 people that pick Yarsagumba each year. They can pick 60, 70, 80 Yarsagumba per day. The really skillful can pick over 100 per day. Each villager has a reputation. Anyone in town can tell you who is skilled at picking Yarsagumba. At the end of the picking season, each family cleans their Yarsagumba with a dirty, old toothbrush and weighs their crop. It’s then sold to China for a couple of hundred US dollars per kilogram (depending on quality). Then the family can rest easy, knowing they have a few thousand dollars for the year.
Only this year the families can’t rest easy. Yarsagumba picking has been canceled. Nepal’s District Disaster Management Committee decided to ban all Yarsagumba collection activities due to the risk of Coronavirus spreading. The Coronavirus has already devastated Nepal’s largest industry - tourism. And now, Coronavirus is affecting an estimated 100,000 people who depend on income from Yarsagumba.
But if there’s one thing the Himalayan villager knows how to do, it’s survive. They’ve survived for hundreds of years in the highest mountains on Earth - enduring famines, blizzards, wars, diseases, and now the Coronavirus and it’s ramifications. During my day picking Yarsagumba in the Himalayas, I only found one piece. However, at the end of that grueling day, several villagers compassionately shared some of their coveted “Himalayan gold” with me. While the economic impact of the Coronavirus on Nepal will likely last for many more months and even years, the perseverance and generosity that I experienced that day picking Yrsagumba is the exact same thing that will get them through this season without Yarsagumba.