Nepal’s Aphrodisiac War
Credit: Prakash Mathema / AFP / Getty Images
Living in Asia, you get used to the impossible. I've lived in Bali for more than 11 years now, and most people in this part of the world believe in magical cures. If they get sick, they may seek Western-style medical treatment, but just to make sure, they also visit a faith healer, who dispenses the right herb or animal part to heal them. Of all these time-honored remedies, none is more sought after than those reputed to enhance male sexual performance.

Centuries before erectile dysfunction drugs, purveyors of traditional medicine were ransacking treasures of the wilderness for easy ways to stay hard. Some of them, such as seahorses and boiled swallows nests, are as innocuous as they are ineffective. Others are criminal: One of the principal causes for the continuing decline of the rhinoceros is butchery for its horn, said to resemble an erect penis. There are "medical" restaurants in China that specialize in serving animal penises to enhance virility, ranging from dog-dick sushi to tiger-penis soup. But the power of these elixirs is largely myth, arising from the primeval veneration of the great mammals, infused with their rarity.

Yarsagumba is by far the most precious of the Eastern aphrodisiacs. It's basically a mummified caterpillar that was once the larva of the Himalayan bat moth, which has been attacked by spores of the mushroom Cordyceps sinensis. Once harvested, the pale, delicate caterpillar carcasses are carefully kept whole until they reach the consumer's table, where they're crumbled into breakfast cereal or added to soup. Recent medical research has shown that unlike most natural aphrodisiacs, yarsagumba might actually work. A study at Stanford medical school found an increase of the 17-ketosteroid in the urine of men taking it, which indicates an increase in the subject's sexual drive and function and directly affects the sexual center of the brain and sexual organs. Controlled animal tests offer credible evidence that regular yarsagumba use decreases recovery time between orgasms and increases the volume of semen production. In another study on human subjects, 64 percent of Cordyceps eaters reported an enhanced sex drive.

In other words, Cordyceps doesn't work like Cialis – you don't pop one before a big date. To benefit from it, you must take it every day. Healthy Asian men of a certain age and income pay thousands of dollars yearly for a regimen of yarsagumba to hold on to what they've got – to cheat time. One ounce, comprising around 60 pieces – a scant one-month supply for a daily user – retails at urban Chinese apothecaries for up to $1,300, which means that it's literally worth more than its weight in gold. But these men are buying youth, the one thing even more precious than love.

It took centuries for the legend of yarsagumba to accumulate its power. A Chinese manuscript from a.d. 620 first recorded the tale of a charmed creature that metamorphoses in summer from animal to plant. By the 15th century, the fungus's reputation as an aphrodisiac was proverbial. A Tibetan monk named Nyamnyi Dorje Palden Zurkhar wrote a long poem in its praise called An Ocean of Aphrodisiacal Qualities, which promises that men who eat yarsagumba "will enjoy the delights of hundreds of thousands of beautiful women."

Yarsagumba first became known in Europe in 1726, when a Jesuit priest posted at the court of the Chinese emperor brought some specimens to Paris and presented them at a scientific meeting. It was even marketed in the United States in the mid–19th century by the Lloyd Brothers pharmaceutical firm in Cincinnati, but it soon disappeared from view except in traditional Chinese apothecaries, where it has always been venerated.

As the market for the fungus has grown, entrepreneurs have tried to cultivate it, but, so far, artificially incubated yarsagumba has lacked the mojo of the wild mushroom, which grows only in the alpine meadows of the Himalayas. Most of the yarsagumba harvested in Nepal comes from the Humla district, in the country's far north; undoubtedly, more prime yarsagumba fields await discovery.

Traditionally, the wealth of a village like Nar was its livestock, but in the early 1990s the economy of the Manang was revolutionized by the discovery of yarsagumba. Suddenly, simple farmers could earn more money in a few weeks than their fathers did in a lifetime. Every year in picking season, late March through June, itinerant Chinese merchants move in to sell the Manang people TVs and DVD players and set up impromptu brothels. While most of the fields in Nepal are in wilderness and open to all, Nar is so poor that it was given a special dispensation that allowed it to prohibit outsiders from picking in the mountains surrounding the village. Yarsagumba was supposed to save Nar.

A month after the massacre, life in Nar continued at its slow, pastoral pace, but the inner turmoil of the 65 murderers, all devout Buddhists taught to revere life, was as violent as their crime. The conspiracy began to fall apart when a delegation from Gurkha arrived seeking news of their missing kinsmen. They were brusquely turned away; nobody knew what they were talking about. Then a non-Manangi cowherd named Taghu Gurung Langzung took the group aside and told them where they could find the bodies of the victims.

The Gurkha visitors then went to Chame, the district capital 10 miles to the south, and told authorities, who dispatched a force of more than 60 policemen. They soon discovered the two bodies in the crevasse, decomposing in the summer heat and swarming with maggots. The police, well aware that mukhya required collective guilt, rounded up all the men in the village who were physically capable of having participated in the crime and herded them down the mountainside like sheep. It was the first time any Manang had ever been arrested.

Violent crime is so rare here that Chame didn't even have a jail; the authorities decided to transform the district education office into a prison large enough to hold the suspects. In the meantime they incarcerated them in a rustic lamasery nearby.

A curse had fallen on Nar: Women grieved; children were fatherless. The economy spiraled into entropy; untended, herds mingled together randomly until no one could tell which yaks belonged to whom; new houses were abandoned in the middle of construction; the hired hands, with no one to pay them, stole away by night. A village that had survived for centuries in one of the most extreme environments on Earth tottered on the brink of extinction.