miércoles, 18 de julio de 2012

Tibet’s Golden “Worm”

Tibetan Gold

A medicinal fungus highly prized in China is fueling a boom on the Tibetan Plateau.

By Michael Finkel
Photograph by Michael Yamashita
The thing Silang is searching for, on hands and knees, 15,000 feet above sea level on the Tibetan plateau, is extraordinarily strange. The part that’s above ground is a tiny, capless fungus—just a brown stalk, thin as a matchstick, poking an inch or two out of the muddy soil. Eleven hours a day, from early May to late June, Silang Yangpi and his wife and a large group of relatives and friends crawl along steep mountain slopes, combing through a dizzying tangle of grasses and twigs and wildflowers and sedge, seeking the elusive stalk.
When Silang spots one, he shouts with joy. His wife, Yangjin Namo, rushes over. Using a trowel, he carves around the stalk and carefully removes a wedge of soil. He brushes away the excess dirt. And there, in his palm, is what looks like a bright yellow caterpillar. Dead. Attached to its head, unicorn style, is the slender brown fungus. From his pocket Silang removes a red plastic bag that once held dehydrated ramen noodles. He places his find inside, along with the others he and his wife have unearthed, and carefully rolls the bag up. Silang is 25 years old; his wife is 21. They have an infant daughter. The caterpillar fungus represents a significant portion of their annual income.

These buyers paid dearly for a heap of fungus-infected larvae. Some go for $20 apiece.

Faces shielded from the sun, digging tools in hand, Tibetan families can search all day for the larvae, called yartsa gunbu. Some stalks poke barely a quarter inch out of the ground.

A ten-year-old girl's gloved hand holds the tiny, dirt-covered biological curiosity: Yartsa gunbu is a combination of moth larva (caterpillar) and parasitic fungus. The high-priced “worms,” as the infected larvae are called, are believed to cure everything from hair loss to hepatitis.

Every day during harvest season, Tibetan sellers arrive in Serxu with their batch of worms. Here they dry them on one of the town's two streets, evaluating each: Is it undamaged and a good size? Does it have the desired yellow hue? Serxu's worms have a reputation for quality.

Tibetan sellers negotiate with urban buyers, like the man at left in Serxu, following a predictable ritual: Buyers mock the quality of the worms. Sellers hawk their wares to many buyers before striking a deal.

Serxu is booming thanks to the growing yartsa gunbu trade. Many Tibetan harvesters arrive at the market town via motorcycles that are paid for with the profits.

Women sort, clean, and bundle fungal larvae at the Zhong Shi Caterpillar Fungus Hall in Chengdu. For 1,500 high-quality worms—that's about two pounds—the firm could reap up to $100,000.

This family can harvest more than 60 worms on a good day, earning around $600. The cream protects their faces from high-altitude windburn. The tools help them dig out worms unharmed.

This stalk of yartsa gunbu protrudes only a half inch from the tough grass of the high Tibetan fields. It takes a sharp eye and a great deal of patience to find the stalks.

The brisk trade in yartsa gunbu has brought money and modern conveniences to Tibetans but hasn't transformed the life of most nomadic women. Na Mo Yong Zhou wakes before her husband to care for their yak and her calf. She'll milk the mother to make butter tea.

Beneath the cloth, traders use hand gestures to negotiate for yartsa gunbu at Xining, China's largest wholesale market for the valuable worms. Conducting business undercover is part of local tradition. When the solar calculator (foreground) is used to tally final prices, it goes beneath the cloth. Money is exchanged that way too.

Tibetan women in the town they call Jyekundo clean and inspect yartsa gunbu, brought from smaller towns and destined for shops in large cities in China. The region was devastated by an earthquake in 2010—that's why residents are living in tents.
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