Tibetan Gold

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

This story appears in the August 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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.

Across the Tibetan Plateau, these creatures have transformed the rural economy. They’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 sinensis. The 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. This 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 treasure” 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.

The 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. They’re billed as an antitumor, antiviral antioxidant. A treatment for HIV/AIDS. A balm for those recovering from surgery. They may even help with hair loss.

As the Chinese economy roars, demand for yartsa has intensified—it’s become a status symbol at dinner parties and the gift of choice to flatter government officials. In the 1970s a pound of worms cost a dollar or two. In the early ’90s it was still less than a hundred dollars. Now a pound of top-quality yartsa can retail for $50,000.

Such outsize demand sparks concern that the total annual harvest, now roughly 400 million specimens, may diminish as yartsa fields become overpicked. To harvest the worms sustainably, pickers would need to leave some stalks in the soil to mature and infect the next season’s larvae, says ecologist Daniel Winkler. Instead, most villagers harvest every stalk they find and then move on to higher hunting grounds.

Due to the annual yartsa windfall, thousands of formerly impoverished Tibetan yak herders own motorcycles and iPhones and flat-screen TVs. Battles over worm-picking turf—most areas allow only licensed residents to pick—have resulted in violent encounters, including seven murders in northern Nepal, where a small percentage of the world’s yartsa is picked. In the city of Chengdu, in Sichuan Province, burglars once tunneled, prison-break style, into a shop selling yartsa, making off with more than $1.5 million worth of product. The Chinese police have established numerous roadside checkpoints to prevent poachers from sneaking on to hillsides reserved for local villages.

There are now places, like the town of Serxu—home to Silang and his wife—where, when the ground warms and the grass sprouts, all else in life is abandoned to the pursuit of yartsa. Children, with keen eyes and low-to-the-ground statures, are often the best pickers. Some school systems, helpless against the lure of the worms, close for a one-month yartsa holiday.

At the end of the long picking day, Silang and Yangjin bring their worms to the local market. Serxu’s market, during the height of the season, sprawls along the puddled sidewalks on both sides of the town’s main street. It is customary, in this frontier-feeling place, amid treeless hills speckled with herdsmen’s tents and strung with prayer flags, to dress up for market.

Many wear traditional Tibetan coats, the sleeves so long there’s no need for gloves. Men sport wide-brimmed cowboy hats and leather boots. Knives are strapped to waists. Smiles flash 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 fine to buy and sell.

Yartsa dealers carry tiny brass-colored scales and solar-powered calculators. The sides of their hands are often smudged with jotted calculations. 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 fields—the worms are carefully examined. Their value depends on a number of factors: size, color, firmness. The dealer handles each one, often scraping off caked dirt with a special yartsa cleaning tool that looks like a large toothbrush. 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.”

“The color’s no good. Too dark.”

“I’m going to lose money on these.”

Finally, when it’s time to do business, the dealer holds out his arm, the sleeve of his Tibetan coat dangling. The seller slips his hand inside. Then, using finger 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—offers rapidly made and countered, the coat’s fabric stretching and twisting. When the fingers 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. The 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 chauffeur-driven Platinum Edition Toyota Sequoia, shoulders her Prada handbag, and strolls, high heels clicking, into the flagship store of her yartsa gunbu empire. She is founder and president of Three Rivers Source Medicine Company, one of China’s best known yartsa brands. She manages 500 employees and 20 stores; annual sales can top $60 million.

Growing up, Zhaxicaiji, who’s now in her late 40s, was like Silang and Yangjin. She crawled in the hills, picking worms. Her family raised yaks and sheep and lived in a yak-hair tent. She started the business in 1998 with $120 of her own money and rode the yartsa juggernaut to success. She plans to expand internationally, exporting yartsa to places like Japan, Korea, and Malaysia. Within a decade, she says, her worms will be sold in the United States.

Her store in the central Chinese city of Lanzhou occupies a full city block; mounted over the entrance is a giant video screen playing commercials advertising her worms. Inside are opulent chandeliers, a trickling fountain, uniformed security guards, and vases of fresh-cut flowers. Her yartsa is exhibited in dozens of museum-style glass cases, the temperature and humidity precisely controlled.

Before a worm arrives here, it may change hands a half dozen or more times. Dealers in frontier markets sell to midsize markets, and those businessmen usually head to China’s biggest yartsa market, which operates year-round, bustling and loud as a stock exchange, encompassing an entire district in Xining, a city just west of Zhaxicaiji’s headquarters. Many of the largest, firmest, most ideally golden worms are selected by Zhaxicaiji’s buyers. Prior to being put on display, all are x-rayed—it’s become common to hide bits of lead wire in worms to increase weight.

A black Mercedes pulls up to her store and four middle-aged men, wearing polo shirts and chunky watches, take seats in front of one of the glass cases. They’re promptly served by a staff of young women in dark skirts, white button-front shirts, and cotton gloves. The men munch on walnuts and raisins and drink yartsa-infused water as they make their selections. The worms are then neatly packaged in maroon wooden boxes with felt interiors and brass clasps, transforming a startlingly unattractive product—a faintly fishy-smelling Cheez Doodle-colored caterpillar with a strange growth emerging from its head—into something practically regal. The boxes are stacked in cloth shopping bags. In a matter of ten minutes the men spend $30,000.

On the fifth floor of a modern high-rise apartment building on the east side of Beijing, resting on her sofa and flanked by her bichons frises—Quan Quan (Little Circle) and Dian Dian (Little Dot)—Yu Jian sips a cup of freshly brewed yartsa gunbu tea. Yu is 40 years old; she’s wearing a cheery flower-patterned blouse and leopard-print slippers. Until recently, she was an executive at a health food company. But in October 2010 she was diagnosed with uterine cancer.

She pursued a modern course of treatment, including extensive rounds of chemotherapy. But she also decided to visit a traditional Chinese herbalist. He prescribed yartsa. She’s been using it for about six months.

Each evening she places two worms in a glass of water and lets it sit overnight. In the morning she boils the water along with some dried dates. She drinks the tea and then eats the softened worms. Yu buys only the highest quality yartsa, from the Tongrentang chain of pharmacies—one of the few brand names more famous, and more expensive, than Zhaxicaiji’s. A bag of 24 midsize worms, enough to last a couple of weeks, costs her more than $550. “I think it’s worth it,” she says, though she is aware of the skepticism surrounding its effectiveness. So far the proof for the power of yartsa gunbu is not in.

Some studies, conducted primarily in China, reveal that it does contain an immune system modulator known as beta-glucan and an antiviral agent called cordycepin. A few clinical trials suggest it can help alleviate many of the conditions it’s long been prescribed for, including bronchitis, asthma, diabetes, hepatitis, high cholesterol, and sexual dysfunction. But critics say the studies have been small and the methodology suspect.

“Until someone does a large clinical trial using a high-quality product, the science we have to rely on so far is not suggestive of a significant effect,” says Brent Bauer, director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, who has extensively studied herbal medicines.

What’s more, says mycologist Paul Stamets, wild yartsa may be tainted by any number of unidentified fungal molds, some of which might be harmful. “People could be poisoned,” says Stamets, who has written six books on mushroom cultivation and sells his own mushroom products. “For the inexperienced, it is a form of Russian roulette.” Whether the worms are a potent elixir or an exorbitantly expensive myth, there’s little sign the yartsa gold rush will be over anytime soon. The evidence may be far from certain, but the belief is pervasive.

Yu Jian claims she can feel the worm’s effect—both physically and psychologically. She says it improves her spirits and revitalizes her “life energy”—what’s known in China as qi (pronounced chi). Her actual energy, though, can be variable.

Though she’s quite thin, Yu does have a soft ruddy color and a palpable vigor. On better days, it’s easy to give the worms the credit. Other times, she’s reminded that all cures, ancient and modern alike, have their limits. Yet on her most recent medical visit, she recalls, her doctor was shocked by the swiftness of her improvement. “He didn’t even remember I was a cancer patient,” she says.

EPILOGUE—Since the reporting for this article was completed, Yu Jian’s cancer turned virulent and ended up taking her life.