It's yarsa-picking time

A holy valley in eastern Nepal prepares for the yarsa gumba harvesting season

The yarsa gumba harvesting season this year coincides with the coronavirus scare  and as rumours spread about its supposed medicinal properties, there could be a run on the over-extracted Himalayan fungus this year.

Furthermore, with the spring trekking season wiped out by the COVID-19 epidemic  local people dependent on tourism income will now have to fall back on earnings from a fungus that fetches high prices across the Himalaya in China.

The highest-quality yarsa can fetch up to $70,000 per kg in China, and its collection each mid-May to mid-July can account for between 65% and 100% of a picker’s annual income. But the profits can be both a blessing and a curse.

The additional income helps pay for food, education and support for aging parents, and donations to local monasteries. But the harvest season also brings an influx of tens of thousands of people each spring to Nepal’s fragile alpine ecosystem in a stampede that looks like a gold rush.

Whole hillsides of slow-growing juniper are cut each year for fuel in Dolpo and Tibet, and there has been an increase in wildlife poaching, litter and garbage  and free-range defecation. There has also been an increase in alcohol and drug consumption, conspicuous consumerism, the loss of traditional cultural values, violence, and even occasional murders.

But here in the Barun Valley the impact of the yarsa season is more benign due to closer engagement of the local community. The Barun is a beyul, a sacred valley blessed by Guru Rinpoche in the 8th century as a refuge for the faithful in times of stress. The landscape is dominated by the spectacular rock face of Shiva Danda, where three caves look like the eyes and nose of Lord Shiva. Each summer, pilgrims undertake the difficult and dangerous rock climb to the caves.

There is also a pigmented cliff at Riphuk which pilgrims believe is a painting of a snow leopard by Guru Rinpoche. Ama Buchung is a rock massif in the shape of a pregnant woman, known for granting the gift of children to the devout. There is also the sacred Seto Pokhari glacial lake near Mt Makalu base camp.

The main difference between the yarsa harvesting season in the Barun and in western Nepal is terrain. While much of the yarsa in Dolpo are on rolling high-altitude meadows, in the Barun the fungus grows upon precipitous slopes dropping thousands of metres to the valleys below.

Mt Makalu (8,485m) towers over the sacred Seto Pokhari glacial lake.

Young yarsa harvesters comb the slopes high above the Barun River. Photo: TSERING SHERPA

Conversations with Makalu-Barun National Park officials, lodge owners, yarsa middlemen and harvesters showed that there are about 3,000 people who come to collect the fungus here every spring. Unlike in other regions in Nepal, they do not leave behind much trash, carry in their own fuelwood, and cannot remember any violence.

Sherpa families from Tashigaon have been camping and harvesting yarsa here for years. Young men from Seduwa sleep in teahouses in the Valley and hike up 1,500m to the meadows each morning to pick yarsa. There are laughing school children on holiday, and everyone seems to have a good time.

The main reason for the peaceful, non-competitive atmosphere is that the quality and value of yarsa in the Makalu-Barun region is not as high as that from Tibet or Dolpo. In 2016, a kilogram of Makalu yarsa fetched only $4,800 from the local middleman, as compared to $21,120 for the famously large, yellowish, and pungent smelling Dolpo yarsa.

Furthermore, instead of representing up to 90% of a family’s income as it does in Dolpo, yarsa harvests here yield the same income as portering, raising livestock, lodge management or work at Makalu Base Camp that paid $20 per day. With the collapse of trekking this season, however, there could be more pressure.

In the Barun Valley, yarsa has been just one more source of income in an already diversified economy. Income from yarsa has just not been worth fighting over.

More importantly, villagers, the Buffer Zone Council, and the local government have developed a system to manage yarsa harvests that is fair and equitable.

As a result the stunningly beautiful but fragile Barun Valley ecosystem remains largely undisturbed and intact.

Yarsa gumba merchandise

Products containing yarsa gumba extracts have become increasingly popular due to the fungus' purported health benefits. Yarsa is known to some by the nickname ‘Himalayan viagra’, and most commercial products that make use of it emphasise anti-aging and libido-inducing qualities. In China yarsa is even added to whiskey and cigarettes.

Yu Chun Mei Cordyceps is a China-made skin cream (above, left) that claims to fight skin-ageing and eliminate wrinkles, black spots and pimples. The day-and-night cream claims to be made from 100% natural ingredients and is sold in various countries in Asia.

Probably the most widely found product to use yarsa gumba extract is tea made from the fungus, of which the varieties are many (above, right). Manufacturers of the teas claim that they treat fatigue, sickness, kidney disease and low sex drive.

Some bars in Kathmandu serve aged aila infused with yarsa gumba, which gives the spirit a tangy aroma that competes with the smell of the alcohol. A manufacturer in Nepal even markets yarsa gumba capsules as a ‘health supplement.’


Yarsa gumba has been used by the Chinese for hundreds of years to treat a variety of illnesses, and its more recent reputation as an aphrodisiac has added greatly to its marketability. Wealthy Chinese also use it in soups and tea as a status symbol when serving favored guests.

Yarsa gumba, translated from the Tibetan as ‘summer grass winter worm’, carries the scientific name Ophiocordyceps sinensis. It is one of the most valuable medicinal fungi in the world and grows in Himalayan valleys above 4,000m from western India to Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan.

There are more than 200 species of Cordyceps (short for Ophiocordyceps) fungus worldwide, and in Nepal they parasitise the bodies of ghost-moth larva that live on the roots of alpine wildflowers found high up in summer yak pastures.

Once contact with the larva is made, the fungus remains dormant for about four years, after which it begins to slowly consume the larva’s insides, leaving behind a shell that looks like a mummified caterpillar. The little mummy larva then slowly shifts its body to point upward toward the surface, after which a black ‘stromata’ grows from its forehead and emerges as a fruiting body 4cm long.

It takes sharp eyes to find these pointed, black, stem-like mushrooms, and young children, with their keen eyesight and low proximity to the ground, are by far the most successful collectors. The stromata is ever-so-carefully pulled upward using forefinger and thumb to reveal the entire yarsa gumba body, which is then cleaned, dried, and stored in cloth bags.

According to anthropologist Geoff Childs, the introduction of yarsa gumba harvesting since legalised by the Nepal Government in 2001 has ‘…contributed to economic and environmental transformations across the Tibetan Plateau and Himalayan region...than any development scheme could envision’.

Alton C Byers, PhD is a mountain geographer at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, (INSTAAR) University of Colorado at Boulder. In the mid-1990s, he worked as co-manager of the newly formed Makalu-Barun National Park. His recent paper on yarsa gumba harvesting in the Barun Valley is published in the journal Himalaya (v. 39, number 2)