Blessed Aphrodisiac, Murderous Curse

A priceless folk medicine promises lifelong virility—and tears apart a town in the high Himalayas

| March-April 2011

As twilight falls across the snowy peaks of western Nepal, just over a steep ridge from the iconic Annapurna trekking trail, a herder scans the shadows with binoculars, searching for a lost yak. From a perch high above the tiny, cliff-clinging village of Nar, he spots a stealthy movement in a desolate meadow just below the snowline.

He sharpens the image. It’s a young man, a stranger. Just behind him is another. Eventually five more creep into view, most still boys in their late teens, led by a man in his mid-30s. The herder knows immediately who they are and why they are there.

This ragged band of men is from the Gorkha tribe, the historical adversaries of the Manang people of Nar, and they’ve come 60 rugged miles to plunder the village’s treasury—its fields of yarsagumba, a tiny, wrinkled fungus that is, by weight, the most valuable tonic in traditional Chinese medicine.

It’s been prized for centuries as a potent aphrodisiac and an elixir of youth, which tradition holds will prolong virility throughout a long life. On a good day, a yarsagumba picker can bag 400 pieces, which he can sell for as much as $1,000—double the average annual income in Nepal.

His lost yak forgotten, the herder quickly clambers down the scrubby hillside to spread the alarm. The village elders convene a hasty meeting to organize a posse to repel the interlopers. Mukhya, the communal law of the Himalayas, requires that one adult male from each of Nar’s 63 households join the posse. During the night, the men prepare an ambush, surrounding the poachers’ isolated position. As the mild June night wanes, the group’s fury at the violation builds: They will do whatever it takes to protect their communal wealth.

At dawn, a force of the fittest Manang youths storms the Gorkha camp, attacking with sticks and farm tools. The enraged Manangi beat two of the Gorkha to death and throw the bodies into an icy crevasse. They round up the other five and herd them down the mountain, where the main force from Nar is waiting.