What 20 years ago was a strange grass growing
on a caterpillar is now Himalayan gold
Every summer, almost all of the adults and children strong enough to walk living in the Nepal Himalaya make a difficult journey to the higher reaches of the mountains, risking their lives in search of yarsagumba.
It is a parasitic fungus that grows on a caterpillar hibernating underground and yarsagumba literally means ‘summer grass, winter worm’ in Tibetan. The fungus mummifies the caterpillar and then thrusts out of the soil. This tiny protuberance looks like a blade of grass, and that is what harvesters spend weeks each spring searching for.
For some, it’s two or three day walk to a scenic Himalayan meadow at 4,300 m here in the Tsum Valley of Upper Gorkha. The villagers don’t waste any time to pack their lunches, and head up the slopes where a slight misstep can be a fatal fall.
Yarsa has now earned itself the name ‘Himalayan viagra’ and one quality piece can fetch $20. The best pickers can find 70 pieces per day, and make a fortune.
Mingmar (pictured above) is 28 and has left his wife, two children and a newly born baby boy back at home, and walks up the mountain everyday from his stone summer shepherd hut close to the snow line with his cousin and their young friend, Kumar.
They crouch and crawl all day in mulled silence, picking through blades of grass and staring at the soil with hawk eyes. A lucky picker lets out an excited cry, as he lifts a yarsa stalk. Others rush over, and the treasured piece is wrapped carefully in a plastic bag.
They break for a brief lunch and some barley brew. “Hey, how much did you find so far?” someone asks Mingmar. “Just a few,” he replies. Then it is back to the slopes and every group has their own secret spot.
By afternoon, it is snowing, but Mingmar is still focused on his work, crawling up the slope on all fours. He is the sole breadwinner of the family, and knows that every yarsa stalk is cash income.
“I realise I have to help my parents somehow when they are alive because if they die when I am busy in my studies I would regret that,” he says with sadness in his eyes. “I decided to abandon my studies and help them as much as I can.”
Even though Tsum has been declared a holy no-violence zone where animals cannot be killed, it doesn’t seem to apply to the caterpillars. In the evening a Tibetan-Chinese middleman, arrives to buy the day’s harvest.
He can sell the yarsa for three times the price across the border in China. In this two-month season, Mingmar hopes to earn up to Rs 3 million.
Life in Transit, a 24 hours long video documenting Mingmar's life will be available online at www.globalives.org end of September.