The prized fungus
Marching the suspects
Marching the suspects to Chame
Yarchagumba harvesting area
Yarchagumba harvesting area
Thanks to a spike in global demand, mostly from Asian men looking to enhance their virility, a pound of yarchagumba now sells for as much as $50,000 — more than the price of gold.
WHEN I FINALLY ARRIVE in the remote Nepalese village of Nar, the locals offer up many theories about how and why seven young Gorkha men were found dead just outside their tiny town in the summer of 2009. The chief’s brother suspects they slipped while traversing a steep mountain. A horse breeder thinks a boulder shook loose, trundled down a precipitous slope, and knocked them over a cliff. A teahouse owner claims the violent deaths are simply a mystery, the inevitable workings of nature and man in that isolated high dale that outsiders call the Lost Valley. “No one has any evidence of anything,” she says.
It was back in August 2010 that I first heard about the deaths. A short Agence France-Presse story reported that the men had been murdered, the result of a dispute over yarchagumba, a rare and highly prized fungus. The Narpa, as the people of Nar are called, were picking the fungus in their home fields near Tibet when they ran across yarchagumba poachers from the fierce Gorkha tribe to the east. A couple weeks later, the district police discovered two Gorkha men at the bottom of a steep escarpment; the other bodies were rumored to have been cut into pieces and thrown in a nearby river, but they were never found. Suspecting the inhabitants of Nar, the police arrested 70 men, nearly the village’s entire male population.
Yarchagumba looks like a shriveled brown chile pepper and is coveted as an aphrodisiac and medicinal cure-all. Literally translated as “summer grass, winter worm,” it forms when a parasitic fungus invades the burrowing larva of a ghost moth, transforms the vital organs into a cobweb-like mess, and then sends up a wispy sprout through the dead insect’s head. The grisly process plays out across the Himalayas and the Tibetan 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 yarchagumba now sells for as much as $50,000, more than the price of gold. Profits from the fungus have transformed entire villages, vexed government regulators, and even helped bankroll a communist insurgency. Nepal’s former Maoist rebels admit that taxing (read: extorting) yarchagumba pickers was their main source of income in their decade-long war against the country’s monarchy.
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I had visited Nepal often over the previous 15 years, even lived there for nearly a year, and had never heard of it. But as soon as I read about what the tittering international press dubbed the “Himalayan Viagra murders,” yarchagumba began popping up everywhere.
In a Chinatown apothecary near my apartment in New York City, I saw the caterpillar fungus for sale in tall glass jars, under the Chinese name dongchong xiacao. Then, in July, two goons wielding bear spray robbed fistfuls of the stuff from a holistic-healing center in Richmond, British Columbia. Every Nepali friend in my neighborhood, from the hardware-store clerk to the bodega manager, had at least heard of yarchagumba, if not sampled the prized herb. When the checker at my grocery store turned out to be from Phu, Nar’s equally tiny sister village, the coincidence was too serendipitous. I had to go.
Though it was now autumn 2010, the timing of my visit was opportune. Thirty-four of the men arrested in Nar had been released, but 36 had been charged with murder and, astoundingly, more than a year and a half after their arrests, were still awaiting trial in a makeshift jail downvalley in Chame, the district’s headquarters. After many delays, the legal proceedings had recently been rescheduled for early November. If I hustled, I might be able to nose around Kathmandu, trek to Chame to witness the verdict, and then continue on into the Lost Valley for a little fact-checking.
What I would discover after all that—two weeks in Kathmandu, five days of trekking, and three days in Nar—was a mystery as bizarre and unpredictable as it was difficult to unravel.
I LANDED IN KATHMANDU in mid-October. The sunlight of the Himalayas, always sharp in the dry air of fall, appeared to shine with particular clarity, delineating each receding layer of the city’s jumbled sprawl—the cement homes, the bulbous spires, the riot of birds overhead.
Despite the supposed sea changes, a fresh disillusionment covered the city. The Maoist rebels had peacefully joined the democratic process in 2006 and were now honoring their pledge of “land to the tillers” by attending fancy meet-and-greets abroad. King Gyanendra had stepped down in 2008, dissolving the power-grubbing monarchy, but baksheesh remained; Transparency International had just ranked the new democratic republic “highly corrupt,” alongside Haiti, Libya, and Iran. The economy lagged. Politicians continued the old flimflam. Never mind earlier promises, I realized. The revolution would not be streamed live: neighborhoods around the city continued to experience scheduled power cuts from 4 P.M. to 6 P.M. on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays.
No one in Kathmandu had any new details about the alleged murders. Just about the only thing the journalists, NGO workers, sociology professors, government officials, and Maoist ideologues could agree on was the miraculous, unexpected rise of yarchagumba over the past two decades.
While Himalayan herders have snacked on the mummified larvae for centuries, the modern 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 “the most astonishing breakthrough in the history of track and field,” the girls’ 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 world’s first tests for performance-enhancing 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 yarchagumba 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 China’s GDP has risen, so has the price of yarchagumba, including a ninefold increase in the past decade alone. As with rhino horn or bear gall bladder, yarchagumba’s outrageous price tag carries its own appeal. “For most Chinese consumers, it’s all about status and impressing people,” says Seattle mycologist Daniel Winkler, the world’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 fungus, which some believe is the key component in yarchagumba, contains a host of compounds that “stimulate the human immune system,” among other effects. Capitalizing on this belief is a Cordyceps-infused energy drink called Steven Seagal’s Lightning Bolt and a company called Aloha Medicinals, in Carson City, Nevada, which sells Cordyceps grown in near-freezing, oxygen-depleted 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, India, Bhutan, and Nepal can now afford to send their children to proper schools, pay down debts, and even start businesses with the so-called spore money. In Tibet, where the vast majority of yarchagumba is harvested, yartsa gunbu, as it’s called there, now accounts for 40 percent of annual cash income in rural areas, or $225 million. 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 yarchagumba be steamed before export, which effectively turned valuable dry yarchagumba 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 Kathmandu’s metropolitan police, only 20 percent of all Nepalese yarchagumba 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 receipts, and sell directly to Chinese dealers. “We have very few entry points into Kathmandu, and we manually inspect trucks and shipments,” says Kharel, “but we don’t have sophisticated equipment such as you have in the U.S.”
Not long before I arrived, Kharel made his biggest bust so far. Acting on an anonymous tip, his men broke into a downtown flat belonging to a Maoist politician and found 25 kilos of yarchagumba stuffed into trash bags, along with a satellite phone, $7,000 in cash, and a loaded handgun. Over the previous six months, the police had confiscated some $2 million worth of yarchagumba. Kharel suspects that there are approximately half a dozen prominent smugglers and that most of them are ex–Maoist military. The rumor, according to various sources I spoke with, is that these men are fighting among themselves to control the supply chain from the mountains to China. Kunda Mani Dixit, editor of Nepali Times magazine, suggested that yarchagumba “has become syndicated, controlled by warlords and cartels.” Perhaps, but so far the economy has evolved almost entirely underground. If the Narpa murdered the Gorkha, as alleged, it would be the most violent yarchagumba-related incident on record.
WITH THE TRIAL FAST approaching, I struggled to secure permission to visit Nar. While the first part of the trek takes place along the eastern arm of the popular Annapurna Circuit, the spur trail into the Lost Valley, which was opened to outsiders only in 2003, requires traveling in a guided group. I pleaded for a press pass from a succession of portly government ministers but gave up after a few days when the snake bit its tail, the last minister requiring written permission from the first, who required permission from the last.
Thankfully, I had Timo, my bohemian buddy and a local fixer. He solved the problem in two hours by paying $270 to a trekking agent who “hired” him as a guide, drummed up an obviously fake Chinese passport for a fictitious third member, and then secured us permits. So when we finally set out from Kathmandu, rattling west in a dilapidated minivan, it was really three of us jostling from side to side: Timo, me, and the ominous ghost of our compatriot, “Daiying.”
We reached the end of the paved road in Besi Shahar five hours later and continued a dozen miles into the hills on the roof of a much-abused Jeep, songbirds replacing the white noise of the city, until the rutted doubletrack dirt road cliffed out in the quiet encampment of Syange. The following morning, we shouldered our packs and for the next two days trekked steadily from sunrise to sunset, following hundreds of well-outfitted adventurers up a misty canyon. On November 6, a few days before the trial was scheduled to be held, we arrived in Chame.
The riverside town offered all the amenities of a large hamlet on the 21st-century Annapurna Circuit—Internet cafés, a karaoke bar, Indian sweet shops, a snooker hall with two tables that some heroic porters had lugged up. But the trial, it turned out, was delayed yet again.
A hearing in October had stalled because the prosecuting attorney had failed to walk down the hill from his home, blaming rain. Then the rescheduled trial was pushed back when the defendants claimed not to speak Nepali. (Most, in fact, do, although they prefer to converse in Nar Phu, a Tibeto-Burman language spoken only in Nar and Phu.) This time everyone was ready but the judge, who lived two days downvalley in Pokhara. His contract stipulated that he sit on trial outside his district once every three months, and he had already presided over the failed October hearing. So never mind that the accused faced Nepal’s maximum sentence of 20 years and had now been detained without due process for more than a year and a half; he didn’t feel like trudging uphill. “These are clear violations of Nepali law,” says attorney Susan Lee, country director at International Legal Foundation Nepal, “but unfortunately they’re also incredibly common.”
Instead of watching court proceedings, I met with N.P. Upadheya, the district police chief who had spearheaded the raid on Nar. Although it was 11:30 A.M. when I arrived at the station, he was already thoroughly drunk and hosting a festival banquet exclusively for the women of Chame, most of whom looked severely uncomfortable around him.
“This was my most successful mission,” he boasted about the raid. “We arrested 70 people!”
Three weeks after the incident, his story went, women from the neighboring Gorkha district hiked the five days to Chame to inform him that they suspected the men of Nar had killed the seven missing Gorkha men: Bire (16 years old), Kami (15), Sobar (16), Aaitaram (17), Dhrube (17), Suchha (29), and Ram Bahadur (35), all with the caste name Gurung. Upadheya quickly became convinced this was true.
“We asked around—‘Did it happen?’—and people said, ‘Yes.’ ”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“This is a small town; you just know things,” he said.
Whatever evidence Upadheya gathered, it was sufficient for him to launch a heroic sting operation. In the monsoon rains of June 2009, he stationed more than 100 officers for two weeks in the hillocks and ravines surrounding Nar, their hidden outposts supported by food drops and an improvised radio-communication network. On June 10—the same day, coincidentally, of an international yarchagumba conference in China—the officers raided Nar at dawn, automatic rifles brandished.
“We didn’t use force,” he offered. “We said, ‘We’re coming to arrest you,’ and they surrendered.”
Eyewitnesses disagree. According to Nar locals, the officers beat the villagers with batons. When those broke, they allegedly continued the assault with sticks before marching their suspects 14 miles down the cordoned-off trail to Chame.
The rumors and secondhand accounts of the alleged murders were just as graphic, involving chase scenes up mountains, faces smashed with stones and shovels, bodies thrown into a river, corpses buried and dug up and reburied. One story in the Indian press claimed that the Narpa, after the initial encounter and murder of two of the Gorkha, returned to their village as heroes and were paid 1,000 rupees each (roughly $13) for the grisly deed. Another, a favorite of newspapermen and bloggers, said that all the men participated, following an age-old tradition of collective tribal guilt. While many of these accounts have been reported as fact in various media outlets, most of the lurid details came from prisoners’ confessions and a single eyewitness, an itinerant yak herder known as Long Ears who apparently harbors a well-known dislike of all Narpa people. Around Chame, the locals I talked with suspected that the Narpa were motivated by revenge, specifically retribution for the murderous beating, allegedly carried out by the Gorkha, of Nar’s elderly village chief a few years ago.
It was tough to cut through the hearsay. Upadheya remained glib. The prosecuting attorney never returned my calls or e-mails, and the lawyer for the defense claimed abuse. “People from Nar have confessed,” he confirmed, “but only because they were forced to.” Initially, the local police cooperated with the media. They released ghastly photos of the two recovered bodies and even allowed at least one American journalist to interview the alleged killers, one of whom, a shy 17-year-old, supposedly confessed his guilt. But they had since become less forthcoming, and my repeated requests to speak to the inmates were all denied.
Independent observers, of which there are few, remain circumspect. A spokesman for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that the yarchagumba case “epitomizes the impact of the social changes that are going on in the far-flung and previously inaccessible rural areas of Nepal.” Krishna Bhattachan, a sociologist at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan University, went further, blaming the government for selectively policing a tribal area that it otherwise ignores. “The indigenous people of Nar are the victims,” he said.
A few hours after the luncheon, I climbed a long stone stairway to the top of Chame. Loops of razor wire encircled the two-story schoolhouse now serving as the prison. The blue-uniformed guards at the entrance turned out to be more sympathetic to visiting journalists than their superiors, and a few of them helped me climb onto a tall rock so I could at least peer into the compound.
Inside, more guards slouched in the corners while three barefoot guys in colorful sweaters lazily passed a soccer ball. More bright clothing dried on railings. A few minutes later, after the sun disappeared behind a towering fluted snow face, they ambled back inside.
THE EARLIEST MENTION of yarchagumba appears, in poem form, in a Tibetan medical text from the late 15th century titled An Ocean of Aphrodisiacal Qualities. The author writes that the “faultless treasure … removes prana diseases, cures bile diseases, and does not raise the phlegm: a marvelous medicine. In particular, it especially increases semen.”
Does it really? Reputable studies are few but increasing in number. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center is currently looking at the rich mixture of proteins and amino acids in Ophiocordyceps, a related fungus, hoping to find support for Eastern claims that yarchagumba halts cancer-cell reproduction. And in October, Japanese drugmaker Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma introduced a loosely yarchagumba-inspired pill that helps treat multiple sclerosis. Researchers at a handful of Western institutions, including BYU and UCLA, have studied its effects on athletic endurance, but on the whole results have been far from definitive. A widely cited pro-Cordyceps study conducted by physician and author Georges M. Halpern in 1998 is especially dubious. At the time, Halpern’s two coauthors were on the payroll of a multimillion-dollar pharmaceutical company that sells Cordyceps supplements, and Halpern was on its board.
“The Chinese say it’s good for the liver, the kidneys, sex, eyesight—the list goes on,” says Winkler. “But we need more, better, and Western research.”
I, too, was skeptical. But as we prepared to make the final push from 9,000-foot Chame to 13,200-foot Nar, I would have tried anything. (Later I will try it—and feel nothing.) A bout of GI distress had left me hobbled, and Timo’s already odd trekking strategy had turned even more unconventional.
Timo had been avoiding hydration (“I don’t like to drink while trekking,” he said) and hearty food (“I don’t like to eat while trekking”) and instead appeared to subsist solely on pack after pack of barbaric Nepalese cigarettes (“Man, I love to smoke while trekking”). The previous night, he had decided that his best hope for the big two-day climb to Nar was to shed unnecessary weight—including his sleeping bag, spare clothes, and backpack. The Boy Scout in me worried that Timo would end up frostbitten, a Shikhar cigarette wedged between his cold blue lips.
But everything changed as we crossed the first of many suspension bridges leading into the Lost Valley. The trail became a soft, clean, narrow footpath, nothing like the trampled highway of the Annapurna Circuit. And Timo, miraculously, began walking faster than ever. “This is awesome, man,” he said, snapping pictures.
Even the landscape was different. The trail wound not through terraced hills but into a virgin pine-and-maple forest, then shimmied up a narrow cataract before slipping behind the misting curtain of a waterfall. Five hours after starting, we encountered our first people, a mother and daughter descending from Nar who paused only long enough to say namaste.
At around noon the next day, after overnighting at 12,000 feet in one of a handful of seasonally inhabited houses in the town of Meta, we crossed the suspension bridge that is the lone year-round entrance to Nar. A vulture circled overhead, its wingspan so large that I could watch its shadow course over the crinkled brown landscape. A constant breeze pushed us along as we switchbacked up the
final dusty ridge. Then Nar came into view.
The lone cluster of ancient stone houses was cupped in the south slope of an unnamed 17,000-foot peak. Below, a patchwork of potato and barley fields spread across a wide hanging valley where horses and sheep grazed. A stream flowed idyllically through it all.
In most Nepalese mountain communities, houses are spread evenly throughout the town. But here the 80-some homes were clumped together. They shared walls, which buffered them against the constant wind, and had flat roofs, which doubled as walkways and terraces and places to dry hay in the sun. From above, the entire village looked like one massive home.
There were also other, less obvious differences: the board-game-size black solar panels located on the corner of each house. The 11 colorful Buddhist stupas, an astounding number for a hamlet this size. And the light-colored circle of rocks on a saddleback ridge marking a helipad. While all of these developments were yarchagumba-funded, none of them were immediately apparent. Upon first sight, I was simply struck by the concussive beauty of the place.
“THEY DON’T WANT TO talk about the murders,” Timo said after a brief exchange with our kindhearted hotelier.
So at first I just wandered the alleyways of the tight-knit village, getting my bearings and making friends. I interrogated a gaggle of wild-haired kids sledding a dirt slope on a plastic jerry can. A trollish stonecutter invited me to join him playing dice. A mousy single mother insisted I share a cup of chiyaa and the last of a simple cake in her windowless, soot-stained home. A gray-haired man wearing the old-style clothes I’d seen only in picture books—a drapey wool chuba and rainbow-knit mukluks—just stood quietly beside me. The town was oddly devoid of teens, many of whom, thanks to the influx of spore money, can now afford to attend monastery schools in neighboring villages, and men in their twenties and thirties, most of whom were still imprisoned.
If the Narpa were distraught about how Nepal’s dysfunctional legal system had robbed them of their husbands and brothers and sons for over a year and a half, it wasn’t immediately obvious. Women wore the familiar multicolored Tibetan-style aprons, but instead of wearing them the traditional way, they affixed them jauntily to their backsides. One group spinning wool on a roof teased me for not having kids. “What?” asked an inquisitive matron, holding up her pinky finger. “Your this doesn’t work?”
The few men of the village, who had already been exonerated and released or were absent during the raid and had avoided arrest in the first place, were a bit gruffer. “Obviously, we would be very happy if they were released,” one said, referring to those awaiting trial. The men preferred to wear cheap slacks, fleece, and leather boots or trail runners; where they bought their fancy North Face, Vasque, and Columbia shoes I don’t know.
Ever since the first Narpa families trudged away from the Tibetan Plateau some centuries ago, they have largely kept to themselves. Whereas roughly 90 percent of Nepal’s population is Hindu, the Narpa remain Buddhist. Not only have they preserved Nar Phu, but they have also created a second, secret language, the purpose of which was, and remains, to confound anyone who might somehow understand their primary, ng-rich tongue. They organized their own egalitarian government to enforce traditional rules, which persisted through the fifties, when the first Nepali king to make the arduous trek to the area was greeted with head-wagging disinterest.
Throughout most of the 20th century, the Narpa subsisted mainly by trading with Tibetans and occasionally by driving their yaks over a 17,000-foot notch to sell at market. “We used to be sad people,” an older woman reminisced to me one night around a wood-fired cookstove. “We harvested only potatoes, and if it snowed early, then we harvested nothing.” But even as trekking boomed across the country in the 1980s, few Narpa men chose to earn cash as porters. “We carry lots of loads,” one said, “but only for ourselves.”
Now village life is dictated by the harvest. In late May, the village sends out a team to survey the two most productive yarchagumba fields, directly across the valley and about seven miles due north. As soon as the stalks start to show, the whole town empties. The few monastery schools close. Kids and adults wheeze uphill. At the base of the slopes, families erect sprawling camps.
Picking begins at dawn. Inspecting the dewy grass for the camouflaged tips of yarchagumba is like looking for a four-leaf clover, but as soon as someone locates it he calls out and others rush over. Everyone crawls slowly on hands and knees and digs wherever stalks are seen. They carefully remove the dirty plugs and place them in a fold of fabric. At night they clean the dried specimens with toothbrushes. Adults can find anywhere from 50 to 100 pieces a day; children, with their sharp eyes, can find even more.
It’s hard work. The cold ground is soggy. Monsoon rains drizzle down, and a stiff wind blows off the glaciated rumps of Annapurnas II and IV. But the atmosphere is jovial, the attitude one of playful competition. At night, homebrew is drunk and folk songs are sung. In more-populous areas like Dolpa, 80 miles northwest, people set up side businesses—small stores selling rice, noodles, chewing tobacco. Others hike in televisions and DVD players and erect what could be the world’s highest movie theaters. Price of admission to a Bollywood film: one yarchagumba.
Reactions to this new way of life vary widely. Some Nepali believe that yarchagumba has a dark power and those who trade in it become cursed. A few environmentalists worry about how the impact of the harvest is affecting the fragile high-alpine ecosystem and wildlife, while others are concerned that overpicking might cause the fungus to go extinct. But most scientists admit they have no idea about the sustainability of the odd half plant–half animal. Picking yarchagumba, like picking dandelions, might only disperse its spores and increase its distribution. If that’s true, then the Narpa could be ensuring a bumper crop for generations to come.
AFTER THREE DAYS in Nar, I’ve discovered that only children and cows share the dirt paths. Adults prefer to stay high, and I’m finally feeling comfortable enough to pass lazy days walking from rooftop to airy rooftop. Before arriving, I imagined that I might discover a dark-hearted settlement centuries from civilization, but instead the quirky and high-spirited villagers tramp along and seem to take care of themselves just fine.
Each home’s solar panel, I learn, provides enough electricity to power a hot plate and three lightbulbs, reducing dependency on fires that produce noxious smoke and burn precious wood. And thanks to the helipad, if the lama and his herbs can’t help with a medical emergency, as happens roughly once a year, the Narpa can now use their single phone, located in a wooden box in the chief’s house, to charter a flight to a hospital in Kathmandu. Not long ago, this would have been unheard of, the $1,500 chopper ride representing years of work raising and selling livestock, but now it exists and can actually save lives.
Yarchagumba profits have helped with less dire improvements, too. A couple years ago, the villagers replaced the old wooden bridge into town, which tended to collapse every few years, with a sturdier metal one. And last winter, the community repaired its entire network of surrounding trails and bridges, hence the beautiful approach from Chame. Certainly, not all the local spore money, an estimated $65,000 annually, is being used for collective good. I had heard grumblings on the trek up that the men of Nar were visiting the brothels downvalley more often; others groused about how they now spent too much money on their wives, lavishing them with expensive jade jewelry. Even so, those in the Lost Valley appear anything but.
Not that I’ve forgotten the potentially savage murders. But only the village chief’s brother, a charismatic thirtysomething with a thick mustache and spiffy Salomon adventure-racing shoes, comes close to confiding. Mingmar Chhering Lama is surprisingly candid about the need to safeguard their fields. “The value of yarchagumba is touching the sky,” he tells me over tea. “If we stop picking it, then others will come.”
He shrugs off my suggestion that the government’s regulations and police will protect them. “I will definitely risk my life to pick yarchagumba,” he says.
I believe him just as surely as I don’t believe all the excuses his fellow villagers have put forth to explain away the Gorkha deaths. Yes, a few yarchagumba pickers in Nepal fall to their deaths every year while crossing a snowfield or glacier, but the Gorkha did not hike five days over treacherous mountainous terrain only to slip on a sidehill. No, they came to Nar as poachers, and the defensive local tribe took action. The most plausible explanation I’ve heard is that the Narpa attacked the group intending only to rough them up—to send a message, as a matter of practice, and for revenge. During the fracas, two Gorkha tried to escape. When some Narpa gave chase, the pair lost their footing and fell to their deaths. Knowing that the other Ghorka would blame them, the Narpa, probably collectively, made a savage calculation and decided to kill the remaining five witnesses and bury the bodies.
What the courts decide remains to be seen. The November trial will be rescheduled for February 20, I’ll later learn, and then rescheduled once more, when the judge opts to vacation in Kathmandu. As of July, no new date had been set.
If eventually found guilty, the Narpa could be sentenced to 20 years in jail and a couple-thousand-dollar fine. But they could receive a lighter sentence. Even in homicide cases, Nepali judges have the latitude to give as little as time served. It’s also possible that the Narpa’s defense lawyer will win a writ of habeas corpus, thanks to the clear violation of the defendants’ rights to a speedy trial, and the Narpa will be released immediately. This doesn’t seem too likely, but there’s little left to do except wait anyway.
I decide to spend the rest of the afternoon on our last full day trying to buy some Nar yarchagumba. I know that most specimens have long been sold down the mountain and are probably floating in a glass of urine from the Tibetan snow frog or sitting atop a roast chicken at some Chinese yuppie’s apartment in Beijing, but I’m curious to see this innocent little fungus up close.
My first few attempts prove fruitless, as does a later venture, when I haggle with a mischievous teen to purchase a basket of yarchagumba that turns out to be cow dung.
“What are you doing?” asks an old woman with a wily, runneled face who witnesses the aborted deal.
“I want to buy some yarchagumba,” I say, “but there’s none available.”
“Poof,” she snorts, and waves her hand toward the bottom of her house.
I step through a low wooden door into a cramped basement shed, slip past a couple of cows wedged in among stacks of firewood, and climb a ladder into her main room. A single column of light from an opening in the ceiling illuminates the swirling smoke of the cook fire and the drying yak intestines garlanded between the beams overhead.
Wordlessly, from a shelf lined with gilded china bowls and beautiful copper pots, she retrieves a crimson bundle the size of a bowling ball. She unties the twine closure and peels back the cloth. Inside is another wrapping, this one navy blue, which she also carefully unfolds, revealing her stockpile.
Two handfuls of Nar yarchagumba sit inert and lifeless in the waning light. After so much anticipation, I’m a bit disappointed. The stalks just look shriveled and plain and muddy brown. But then she raises a specimen to the shaft of sunlight and twirls it slowly in her stiff fingers, and I, too, inspect it as if it were a diamond.