National Geographic : 2012 Aug
• sinensis. e fungus devours the body of the caterpillar, leaving only the exoskeleton intact, and then, come spring, blooms in the form of a brown stalk, called the stroma, that erupts from the caterpillar's head. is process happens only in the fertile, high-alpine meadows of the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalaya. All attempts at farming the fungus have failed. For centuries yartsa gunbu has been thought to possess miraculous medicinal and libidinous powers. Yaks that graze on it, legend holds, grow in strength tenfold. One of the earliest known descriptions of yartsa comes from a 15th-century Tibetan text, titled An Ocean of Aphrodisiacal Qualities, which raves about the "faultless trea- sure" that "bestows inconceivable advantages" on those who ingest it. Just boil a few in a cup of tea, or stew in a soup, or roast in a duck, and all that ails you will be healed---or so it's said. e worms, as they're colloquially known, have been prescribed by herbalists to alleviate back pain, impotence, jaundice, and fatigue. Also to reduce cholesterol, increase stamina, and improve eyesight. To treat tuberculosis. And asthma. Bronchitis and hepatitis, anemia and emphysema. ey're billed as an antitumor, an- tiviral antioxidant. A treatment for HIV/AIDS. A balm for those recovering from surgery. ey may even help with hair loss. As the Chinese economy roars, demand for yartsa has intensi ed---it's become a status sym- bol at dinner parties and the gi of choice to atter government o cials. In the 1970s a pound of worms cost a dollar or two. In the early '90s THE THING SILANG IS SEARCHING FOR, ON HANDS AND KNEES, , FEET ABOVE SEA LEVEL ON THE TIBETAN PLATEAU, IS EXTRAORDINARILY STRANGE. e 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 wild owers 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 fun- gus. From his pocket Silang removes a red plastic bag that once held dehydrated ramen noodles. He places his nd 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. ey have an infant daughter. e caterpillar fungus represents a signi cant portion of their annual income. Across the Tibetan Plateau, these creatures have transformed the rural economy. ey've sparked a modern-day gold rush. In fact, by the time the contents of Silang's bag arrive at the gleaming shops of Beijing, they can easily be priced at more than twice their weight in gold. The fungus is called yartsa gunbu. Translated from Tibetan, this means "summer grass, winter worm," although it is technically neither grass nor worm. It's the underground- dwelling larva of one of several species of the ghost moth that has been infected by spores from a parasitic fungus called Ophiocordyceps By Michael Finkel Photographs by Michael Yamashita Michael Finkel reported on Greenland's dogsledders in the January issue. Michael Yamashita has shot dozens of stories in Asia for the magazine.