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.
There, the angry mob beats the poachers and rips the life from them, hacking at their limbs and bashing their heads with rocks. Every member of the group, including boys as young as 12, is required to strike a blow, so the guilt will be collective.
Then they cut the five corpses into small pieces, wrap them in plastic, and throw them into a glacial torrent that carries them away. Their bloody work done, hands spattered with gore and splinters of bone, the 65 men and boys of the village sit in a mountaintop conclave and swear a solemn oath never to tell anyone what happened, not even their wives.
It takes just a month for the murderers’ pact to unravel and their secret to come out, as blood secrets always do.
Traditionally, the wealth of a village like Nar was its livestock, measured primarily by number of yaks, but in the early 1990s the economy of the Manang was revolutionized by yarsagumba. The mummified caterpillar of the Himalayan bat moth, a burrowing insect that dies underground after it is attacked by spores of the fungus Cordyceps sinensis, yarsagumba is literally worth more than its weight in gold. One ounce, comprising around 60 pieces–a scant one-month supply for a daily user–retails at Chinese apothecaries for up to $1,300.
After the discovery of extensive yarsagumba fields in the Annapurna region, farmers could suddenly earn more money in a few weeks than their fathers did in a lifetime. In picking season, late March through June, merchants move in to sell the farmers TVs and DVD players, and set up impromptu brothels. Most of the fields in Nepal are in wilderness and open to all, but Nar is so poor that it was given a special dispensation, allowing villagers to prohibit outsiders from picking in the mountains surrounding their village. Yarsagumba was supposed to save Nar.
A month after the massacre, life in the village continued at its slow pace, but the inner turmoil of the 65 murderers, all devout Buddhists, was as violent as their crime. The conspiracy began to fall apart when a delegation from Gorkha arrived in Nar, seeking news of their missing kinsmen. They were brusquely turned away. Then a traitorous cowherd took them aside and told them where they could find the bodies of the first two victims.
The Gorkha visitors went to Chame, the district capital 10 miles to the south, and told their story to the authorities, who dispatched a force of more than 60 police officers to Nar. They soon discovered the two bodies in the crevasse, decomposing in the summer heat and swarming with maggots. The police, well aware that mukhya required collective guilt, rounded up all the men in the village who were physically capable of having participated in the crime and herded them down the mountainside like sheep. It was the first time any Manang people had been arrested.
Violent crime is so rare here that Chame didn’t even have a proper jail; the occasional thief or yak rustler was simply locked up in a spare room at police headquarters. The authorities decided to transform the district education office into a jail large enough to hold the suspects. In the meantime, they incarcerated them in a rustic monastery nearby.
A curse had fallen on Nar: Women grieved, their children were fatherless. The economy spiraled into entropy. Untended, yak herds mingled together randomly until no one could tell which yaks belonged to whom; new houses were abandoned in the middle of construction. There was no one to pay the hired hands, who stole away by night. A village that had survived for centuries in one of the most extreme environments on Earth tottered on the brink of extinction.
Karma Gurung, the young manager of a hotel in Braga, on the Annapurna trekking circuit, had been recommended to me as a reliable guide to the shadowy network of the Manang yarsagumba trade. We met in Thamel, the urban village that was formerly the highest stop on the hippie trail and world headquarters of freakdom, now a warren of alleyways lined with guesthouses, cheap restaurants, and travel companies that cater to the current wave of wanderers.
Karma explained that the yarsagumba trade in Manang started when yak herders noticed that animals grazing up near the snowline were healthier, more active–and randier: “The people in Nar knew about it long before that. Everyone wondered why they were up there with the yaks all the time. It was a secret then.”
We took a terrifying flight up to Manang and landed with a bump at an airstrip in a village called Humde. It was a portal to a different world, chilly and pure, where the gaze is always drawn upward. White mountain peaks glistened as spidery drifts of snow caught in the updraft curled into flickering rainbows. A hand-painted sign on the hut that served as the terminal read “Humde Airport, Manang. 11,000 feet.”
Karma and I set out for the two-hour walk to Braga. At the entrance to the protected area we stopped to show our credentials at a police checkpoint. When I flashed my press badge, the officer at the desk, a beefy man with a bushy mustache, asked me what I was writing about.
I told him, and he smiled back broadly and said, “I am taking it.” I asked him if it worked, and he gave his head a noncommittal Indian wobble. But after Karma and I set off and started climbing the trail, I looked back.
The police officer waved at me and shouted, “It works!” He lifted his right fist in the universal gesture of triumphant manhood.
As I traveled through the land of the Manang, virtually everyone I met was involved in the yarsagumba trade in one way or another. On the road to Braga I met an intensely serious 10-year-old boy named Lhakpa Tsering, who wore a leopard-print silk scarf tied over his head.
He told me that his brother was in the circus. I thought he was making up a story, but then he executed a spiraling series of perfect cartwheels. Lhakpa said his whole family picked yarsagumba. “On a good day, I can collect 400 pieces,” he boasted.
Old Braga village clings to the steep hillside like moss, its mud-brick walls blending harmoniously with the terrain. Braga is halfway between the airport and Manang village, the regional hub for tourism. In Manang they have Italian coffee machines and French wine for sale in the shops, but Braga retains a rustic feeling. Karma’s hotel, the New Yak, is situated just across a rushing creek from Annapurna III, at 25,000 feet the third-tallest peak in the massif. In the morning, the mountain looks close enough that a good shake would bring it crashing down on the hotel; by early afternoon its shadow covers the village.
Karma took me to meet Samdu Tsering, a farmer from Phoo. Phoo is Nar’s sister village, smaller and even more remote; the Nepalese usually refer to them jointly as Nar-Phoo. Like most people in the Annapurna, Samdu has seen his fortunes rise, following the trajectory of the yarsagumba trade from extreme poverty to prosperity. Now he lives in a snug, low-ceilinged house, dark as a cave and fragrant with juniper incense, which he shares with his daughter.
“Everyone in Nar-Phoo collects yarsagumba,” Samdu told me. “The women same as the men, and children as young as 4.” He said that children make the best pickers because they’re closer to the ground and better able to see the spindly stem of the dead caterpillar poking up from the ground.
I asked him if he ever used yarsagumba himself, and he shook his head, looking slightly amused. Despite the intense romance surrounding yarsagumba, it’s perfectly legal, more like the trade in saffron or orchids than that of narcotics, but Manang people like Samdu who harvest it rarely use it themselves, just as gold miners rarely wear gold jewelry: It’s far too precious.
Some people here have a moral objection to collecting yarsagumba. Later that night, over a dinner of dried yak meat, Karma told me that his cousin in Kathmandu had offered him 20 lakhs–2 million rupees, nearly $30,000–to run the trade in Braga, but Karma’s father didn’t want him to do it.
“We believe it’s bad karma to pick yarsagumba from the ground. It’s like killing a living thing.”
Cell phone coverage is surprisingly good on the Annapurna circuit. Before leaving Braga, I called the lead detective in the Nar arrests, Inspector Bharat Bahadur Biswakarma, to reconfirm my appointment the following day to meet the accused killers. After an exhilarating and exhausting 15-mile trek, I arrived in Chame in darkness and found my way to the Marshyangdi Mandala Hotel, where I dined voraciously on fried eggs and dried yak meat with rice and dhal.
Bharat is handsome in the clean-cut way of a soldier, with a jutting jaw and a steely gaze. He painstakingly wove a detailed account of the murders, showing me gruesome photographs of the corpses found in the crevasse and letting me read the confessions he had extracted from the accused. Bharat had some sympathy for them.
“The Gorkha men came to Nar to steal yarsagumba, and it wasn’t the first time,” he said. “The Nar men only wanted to teach them a lesson, but as they beat them, it got to be more and more brutal.”
The maximum punishment for murder in Nepal is 20 years in jail and the confiscation of property. Bharat quietly added, “It was the worst crime that anyone here can remember.”
Then I went to meet the killers. The former district education office is a two-story stone house, which has been enclosed by a series of concentric barbed-wire fences wrapped around sharpened birch boles. This gives the place the grim air of a gulag, but living conditions inside appeared to be comfortable.
The men of Nar sat cross-legged in a lake of sunlight, playing board games and weaving harness straps for ponies they might never see again. They took turns playing badminton. Guards in camouflage fatigues stood in bored clumps, their .303-gauge bolt-action rifles, antiques dumped by the British after World War II, leaning next to them.
The portly jailer pulled chairs into the sunshine, and I sat opposite two of the accused murderers. The first was Karma Tashi, 26, whose full confession of the crimes I had read in Bharat’s office. He met me with a sullen, defiant face and denied everything. He wasn’t there, he didn’t know what happened. “I didn’t do what it said in that statement. I don’t know where the police came up with that.”
The other prisoner who agreed to talk to me presented a more interesting case. Karma Wangdi Lama was 17 and looked younger, with a boy’s fresh, unformed face.
“I was one of the men who climbed to the top,” he said softly. In a quavering voice, staring nervously at the ground, he confessed his guilt. “I knew I was wrong, so I didn’t run away. I waited for the police to come. I wish I had never done this thing. Before, I wanted to be a schoolteacher. Now I think everything is over for me forever.”
On my last day in Chame, word came by fax that 17 of the prisoners were to be released without bail, on parole to return for trial a month later. Among those released was Krishna Lama, a 21-year-old college student. He joined me for breakfast at the Marshandi Mandala Hotel the morning after his release, but he wasn’t celebrating.
“Yarsagumba brings a curse,” he said. “Our entire village has had to suffer. Even my father had to face that fate.”
Krishna’s father was murdered two years ago when he tried to drive away another gang of interloping yarsagumba poachers from Gorkha. He, too, was beaten to death with sticks. Krishna was attending college in Kathmandu, studying computer science with the money his father had saved from selling yarsagumba. He had just come home on a holiday to see his widowed mother when fate knocked at his door.
“I had to go,” he said. “A man from every house had to be a part of the group, and my father was gone.”
Krishna’s story, that he was one of the last to arrive on the scene of the crime and didn’t even witness the killings, is corroborated by the police, who obviously have sympathy for him. Yet under Nepalese law, as in most countries, his role in the conspiracy makes him culpable.
He shrugged with a grim smile and said, “I am cursed. It happens to me time and again. I have no hope.”
When Krishna Lama talked about the curse of yarsagumba, he didn’t mean it as a metaphor. He was describing the fungus’s inner power, which is more real to the people of the Himalayas than any of the scientific reports attesting to its efficacy. On the Annapurna trail, I met an old man who ran a little shop on the side of the road selling yak skulls and farm tools, who explained why devout Buddhists believe it’s an evil power.
“A famous lama chose to be reborn as yarsagumba as a boon to mankind,” he told me. “If you traffic in yarsagumba, you will be reincarnated very low. You won’t be reborn as a man.”
Like every gold rush in history, the yarsagumba boom in the Himalayas has blighted many more lives than it has enriched. The gloomy predictions of Karma Wangdi Lama and Krishna Lama are almost certainly correct: Regardless of how their case is decided, their lives are ruined.
The legend of yarsagumba radiates an imperishable glamour, holding out the tantalizing promise of preserving the gifts of youth throughout a long life, but it’s tainted by the blood of poor farmers and young men’s ruined hopes. I’m not superstitious, but I know a curse when I see it.
Jamie James writes about travel and culture from his home in Bali, Indonesia, and is the author of The Snake Charmer; www.snakecharmerbook.com. Excerpted from New Internationalist (Nov. 2010), which reports on global issues with an adventurous spirit and a probing social conscience.www.newint.org
This article first appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Utne Reader.