National Geographic : 2012 Aug
• HIMALAYA PLATEAU OF TIBET Serxu Lhasa Thimphu Kathmandu Chengdu Kunming Lanzhou Xining sport wide-brimmed cowboy hats and leather boots. Knives are strapped to waists. Smiles ash with gold teeth. Women strut about in necklaces strung with amber beads the size of golf balls. A few have braided hair that nearly sweeps the sidewalk. There are even a couple of monks, swaddled in vermilion robes. Religious strictures forbid them from picking or eating yartsa, but it's ne to buy and sell. Yartsa dealers carry tiny brass-colored scales and solar-powered calculators. e sides of their hands are o en smudged with jotted calcula- tions. Worms are piled in cardboard boxes and wicker baskets or spread on pieces of cloth. When a dealer is approached by someone like Silang---knees muddy, with a bag of yartsa fresh from the elds---the worms are carefully exam- ined. eir value depends on a number of factors: size, color, rmness. e dealer handles each one, o en scraping o caked dirt with a special yartsa cleaning tool that looks like a large tooth- brush. A crowd gathers. It is also common practice, when preparing to make a purchase, for a yartsa dealer to keep up a steady patter of mild insults. "I've never bought such bad worms." " e color's no good. Too dark." "I'm going to lose money on these." Finally, when it's time to do business, the deal- er holds out his arm, the sleeve of his Tibetan coat dangling. e seller slips his hand inside. en, using nger signals, the two haggle in the coat sleeve, shielded from the curious eyes of the crowd. It looks as if a thumb-wrestling match is going on in there---o ers rapidly made and countered, the coat's fabric stretching and twist- ing. When the ngers settle and a price is agreed upon, the money is passed through the sleeve. Silang and Yangjin approach a dealer they've worked with before, a man whose name is also Silang---Silang Yixi, 33, in business for eight years. He keeps photos of prized worms on his cell phone. e two Silangs conduct the ritual: the worm examination, the gibes---at one point the dealer returns the worms to the ramen bag and pretends he's no longer interested---and eventually the haggling. In the end, for their 30 worms, most too small to command top price, Silang and Yangjin are paid 580 yuan, about $90. Zhaxicaiji steps from her chau eur-driven Platinum Edition Toyota Sequoia, shoul- ders her Prada handbag, and strolls, high heels clicking, into the agship store of her yartsa gunbu empire. She is founder and president of ree Rivers Source Medicine Company, one of ASIA AREA ENLARGED INDIAN OCEAN 0mi 300 0km 300 Estimated yartsa gunbu distribution (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) Prime habitat Habitat WORM COUNTRY Ghost moths and the fungus Ophiocordyceps sinensis thrive only at high altitudes (10,000- 16,500 feet) and in moist soil, restricting yartsa gunbu's range. An esti- mated 96 percent of the world's harvest comes from the Tibetan Plateau. Experts worry that the current rate of harvest is unsustainable.