THE HUNT FOR ‘YARSAGUMBA’ IN NEPAL- a unique caterpillar-fungus

A remote village in the Upper Himalayas of Nepal.

Yedan Sherpa lived with his father, mother and his little sister on the slopes of mountains. As Sherpas you’d expect them to live up to their name, carry, climb and help mountaineers. And his father, Dorje did the exact same for a living. He was an experienced climber/porter and was a reliable one excelling on climbing steep slopes with loads on his back that would make almost everyone else tip over. After his every trip to the mountain top, he would earn few thousand rupees, few bottles of Khukuri Rum, few packs of imported cigarettes, few dolls and clothes for his family and kids. He was resourceful and did everything within his grasp to provide for his poor family.
They owned a house and an acre of barren land which could only grow apple and barley. The kids used to play on the orchard, climbing the apple trees; eating raw, sour and bitter apple until their mother came chasing them with a stick or broom. A poor yet happy family. Their father would seldom be at home so they didn’t know how fierce fathers could get. It was just like that for years. Same old routine. There were no schools in the village and the only means of communication they had was a radio and the only station with traceable signal was a local radio station. Everything else disappeared on the thick layer of snow.
After years of everyday life, Dorje was in his middle 40’s when he decided he was too old for his job. He discussed with his family to open up a hotel in their home. Everyone agreed reluctantly but money was hard to come by. Even the government hadn’t realised the hidden potential of Dorje’s village. Only a few adventurous tourists visited that place. So he had no option but to go for a final job. The job would be the highest pay for him, a porter for Mount Everest climbers. He left home hoping to bring home a better future but didn’t return back. What returned for his family was a letter bounded by strings, few thousand rupees but not Dorje, not even his dead body. He was termed missing in the 1996 Mount Everest disaster.
The family was devastated. All their big dreams of a satisfying life and hopes for the days coming by were crushed beyond recovery. Especially Yedan, he had decided to take the same path his father had taken. People often say “The future is not something we enter. The future is something we create.” But life got them captured in the worst scenario. They were offered with a dark future where they neither had the courage to enter nor could they create a bright one. They cried and grieved for days. A week later there was nothing left to eat. They had to work. The pain of every work to eat family, they couldn’t even grieve for the deceased. Yedan earned some money by selling their homemade apple wine. He took the wine his mother made to a village nearby and sold it to hotels and foreigners. The income was low but it was all he could possibly do.
Due time, he did his best to provide for his family as his father’s replacement but always came short. He didn’t want to leave his home for a job but the debt was increasing month by month. All he earned with his might couldn’t even manage the food they needed for each day. After a year they had to sell their only plot of land to clear off the debts. His mother cried when they had no options left but to sell the land. No relief money was provided by the government whatsoever. After losing their land, Yedan decided to try for the selection of British Army, a popular job alternative in his village and a high paying one.
For the selection, he had to travel down to Pokhara and therein laid the problem. His family was broke. His mother scraped off the remaining of her and his sister’s jewellery as the bus fare for Yedan to travel to Pokhara. He was pretty solidly built being a mountain boy. And he was even stronger in his mental strength with all the responsibilities he had to withstand. He was accustomed to carrying loads, doing physical labour but not in running. There was no plain ground to run in his village. He lost in the five kilometers race of the selection. What made him strong also became his weakness. He was rejected from the preliminary round. Ohh what hopes he had for himself and his family. He couldn’t believe a few meters difference and a tick-tock of the second hand of a watch would cost somebody their future. He realised once again, the world is unfair. A week later after leaving the village, it was time to return back, empty handed and empty hearted.
His mother greeted him on the doorstep with tears and his sister with anger. The plan was to marry Dechen to a good family after their reputation in the village was raised above the poverty line they were living on. She was 17 by then. Most of her friends were already married. Yedan out of frustration and anger decided to work as a porter. Dinner that night was Dhedo(traditional meal of Nepal) and potato soup. He slept that night and next morning headed out towards the base camp of the mountain looking for climbers in need of a porter. He didn’t tell his family where he was headed. He landed his first job and returned home successful after a week. Upon arrival both his mother and sister burst into tears. They were terrified that something had happened to him.
Later the day he returned, his sister apologised and his mother gave him an earful of worries and cries as she didn’t want to lose his son too to the mountains. He also apologised and gave his mother all of his earnings. She wasn’t happy but her saddened face lit up. They ate meat that night after a long time. Next morning when they woke up few boys and a Sherpa policeman were there around the entrance of their house. After Yedan and his mother were out, the policeman said: “Madam we found your husband’s dead body”. She after hearing that, lost it, she became unconscious. The trauma she was trying so hard to recover from got her fall back once again. Whatever hopes she had that Dorje was still alive disappeared immediately after the seven words from the policeman’s mouth. Seven isn’t a lucky number for everyone.
A few hours later, she woke up. Her eyes were shedding tears for Dorje for the second time. She wished rather not to hear the story of how they found the body five years after his death. The policeman asked one of the family members to be present during the burial of the body. As per the tradition, ‘who dies in the mountains, stays in the mountains’, Dorje was to be buried. Nobody ever tried to go against that rule believing they would make the mountain God angry and lift off the blessings on the Sherpas if they did. Yedan decided to go with the flow. He was already over his father’s death. A trip to Everest was just 8 hours of ups and downs. He reached Namche that evening. The official burial ceremony was the next day and he went to a monastery to prepare for that.

The burial took few hours and three people were buried that day. It was not just the bodies they buried. What was being covered with snow was the corona of someone, hopes of each individual’s family, their future and everything. His father’s body was found few meters below one of the camps an Italian group had set up. The rest of three bodies were found further down. He met a girl there during the burial. Her father was an Everest guide and the same blizzard of 1996 took his life. They were in the same group of climbers and died the same day. Dorje had tried to find a way out for them from the place they were. So he was in a different location than the other two bodies. After the final lump of snow covered the dead, she cried but he held his tears. He was proud to be his father’s son.

It was late evening after everything was over. Choden, the daughter of the late mountain guide invited Yedan to stay the night. When her family learned about him, they invited him to a prayer for the lost souls. He was treated as a part of the family. That night Yedan talked with them. He felt like he wanted to belong there. The warmth of a family night he had long forgotten, the care of grandmother he never received and the satisfaction to serve a grandfather he never had, he filled up few of his vids. He wanted to melt the ice that had covered his heart till then. He just sat there and listened. Her grandfather had lots of stories of his days for him. He was most fascinated by the stories of Yarsagumba-the miracle fungus.
“Last year harvesting the fungus was made legal by His Majesty’s Government. Before that, we had to hide and harvest the larva. One of our friends was punished for it. But there was too much money for the business so I didn’t want to leave it. And eventually like everyone else I got old for it. I heard the current price for a kilogram of Yarsagumba is one lakh rupees” and the grandfather ended his story. Yedan immediately knew what he needed to do for a future he wanted as his. He asked in details about the whole process. The old man started all over again.
Next morning after a bowl of yak milk, he left for his village promising Choden’s family to visit them when he was in town. After ten long hours of walk, he finally reached his home. It was late evening but neither the time nor the tiredness could stop him from his determination to reshape his future. He invited four of his closest friends over for a drink. He then discussed and formulated a plan. All of his friends were jobless, unmarried and army rejected. They had nothing to lose. Being at the rock bottom meant the only way out for them was going up. They decided to go to the lower meadows of the mountain range in the hunt for Yarsagumba. But the lower meadows was anything but trouble; steep terrain, unpredictable rain and snowfall, snow leopard, robbers and the list of risks kept on increasing. Yedan was determined to do what it took and his friends even more.

After 4 months  preparation.

It was the end of June and they started their descent. After three days they arrived at a monastery Choden’s grandfather had told him about. The head monk there was his old friend. They stayed the third night there in the monastery and the monk showed them the way next morning. By late afternoon, they were at the edge of a cliff, and down below laid a field of opportunity for them, the meadows of Yarsagumba. They started their final descent from the cliff. With bare minimum instruments and safety, it was the hardest maneuver they had ever done. When the last one of them landed safely, they decided to rest for the day. They cooked, ate and slept.
Being as tired as they were, nobody would have been surprised if they didn’t wake up early, but the excitement and craving for money woke them up earlier than they were used to. Yedan leads his team to an old abandoned stone shed, the same used by his motivator. He knew he was at the right place. They laid their goods, wore work cloth and immediately went picking Yarsagumba.
Luck wasn’t in their favour as a downpour hit them almost the same time they had started collecting the caterpillar. The atmosphere then changed, thunder and sound of raindrops filled the entire stretch of meadows. The team of five was shivering with cold. Starting a fire took them half an hour. After the fire started burning, they had a small fight. Fight for the first position on who got to sit around the fire. After winning, Yedan cooked some pine tea. After warming themselves up they waited for their turn and the weather to clear. Then it began snowing. They were disappointed. They slept cold and bitter after eating food, all grouped near the fire.

Warm rays of sun woke them up next morning. The day was bound to be the good reason how sunny the sky was. They immediately dispatched from the shed and started collecting Yarshagumba. Turned out the rain they faced a day before was the last of the Mediterranean wind and what it really indicated was the weather would be sunny onwards. They realised it after a week of harvesting the larva.

A week later they started facing some difficulties. Their food supply ran out. Water was easy to find but the food was hard. For two days after the last ounce of food was consumed, they ate grass and streams. The lack of nutrition and overwork took its toll on them. Yedan fell sick and Ajim suffered from diarrhea. They both were sick but it was two people were dragging the other three down. One had to sit beside them and the other two collected Yarsagumba, food and herbs. With every sick day’s setting sun, Yedan felt as if it was their future setting down. They were getting miserable day by day. Yedan’s fever further worsened and Ajim had lost most of his weight. They needed a miracle to get back on track.

 

The miracle they needed was already with them, stuffed inside their bags and pockets. They knew little about Yarshagumba and its healing properties but Ajim decided to go for it. Rather than be sick and left behind, he decided for both of them to eat the Yarsagumba they had collected. Later that night he snuck into the collection and stole Yarshagumba. He ate few for himself and force fed somewhere around twenty to Yedan. Both of them cried horribly that night due to overdose and slept throughout the next day. By evening Yedan’s fever was retreating and Ajim’s stomach was stable. They were cured. All of the five were back in their job.
They were hard at work stopping only for tea, breakfast, lunch, dinner, toilet and sleep. The fate of their families depended on them. The hope of better days ahead kept them trying harder every day. They really pushed themselves beyond their limits. A month went by and their hair was a mess, few strands of beard and moustache pierced their skin and few grew unusually long. Their clothes were as dirty as the rags they slept on. They killed and ate what was available there. For a civilised future, they turned into cavemen. After a month and two weeks of harvest, every bag they had carried there was full, every pocket they had was brimmed with Yarsagumba and all of them had become just bones & skin. It was time to return back.

The return trip took them a week in total. Recovering and regaining the strength they lost during two of the hardest month of their life. Eating never felt so easy for them, the water they drank as if it was a magical potion. They had nearly forgotten the pleasure of life. They had risked the joy of living for the sake of existence but all that was about to change. They got to the trading centre of the district the next day then weighed, sold and divided the money. They truly had hit the jackpot. Everyone got just over three lakhs rupees after the royalty cut and expenses paid. They were never so happy in their entire life. The same day they took a van to Namche, brought salt, spices, blankets and headed to their village.

The villagers upon hearing the news of their return had gathered around the village entrance with ‘tika and mala’ in their hands. Families of the five were soaked with joy and cried upon reunion after seeing the condition they were in. Each of them became a role model for everyone there. A buffet was held in honour of the five for they had brought the villagers a new way to earn money. Everyone was excited to hear the stories those five had carried with them from the journey they had made. Even they were surprised that their Yarshagumba hunt had become such a great deal. A week later everything was back to normal.

After a week Yedan brought his family’s land back and a month later, Ajim married his sister. There was a huge celebration and they spent most of their remaining money on the wedding and dowry. After the marriage, he bought a bulaki (traditional Nepalese jewellery) for his mother and opened a hotel in his home. All the stuff he did, all the items he bought and all the preparations he made from last of his remaining money had just one purpose. To be prepared for the hunt next season-The hunt for Yarsagumba.

 

Photograph By- Eric Fry-Miller

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