We landed with a bump at an airstrip in a village called Humde. It was a portal to a different world, chilly and pure, where the gaze is always drawn upward. White mountain peaks glistened as spidery drifts of snow caught in the updraft curled into flickering rainbows. A hand-painted sign on the hut that served as terminal read humde airport, manang. 11,000 feet. I was headed to Braga, a two-hour walk away, with Karma Gurung, a 26-year-old manager of a hotel along the Annapurna trekking circuit. He had been recommended to me as a reliable guide into the shadowy world of the area's yarsagumba trade.
"This wasn't the first time yarsagumba poachers were murdered in Nar," Karma told me the day before, as we sat in a dimly lit cafe in the Thamel district of Kathmandu, formerly the highest stop on the hippie trail, now a warren of alleyways lined with guesthouses and cheap restaurants that cater to a new generation of wanderers. "But before, they kept it a secret. The people in Nar are very dangerous.
"I used to collect it," he went on. "Most of my family is in the business. Almost everybody in Manang is involved." Karma explained that the yarsagumba trade in Manang started seven years ago, when yak herders noticed that animals grazing up near the snow line were healthier, more active – and hornier. "The people in Nar knew about it long before that," he said. "Everyone else wondered why they were up there with the yaks all the time. It was a secret then." Braga village sits at the foot of Annapurna, where yarsagumba grows in the alpine meadows.
On the outskirts of Braga, we arrived at the entrance to the protected area, where we stopped to show our credentials at a police checkpoint. When I flashed my press badge, the officer at the desk, a beefy man with a bushy mustache, asked me what I was writing about. I told him, and he smiled back broadly and said, "I am taking it." I asked him if it worked, and he gave his head a noncommittal Indian wobble. But after Karma and I set off and started climbing the trail, I looked back. The policeman shouted, "It works!" He lifted his right fist in the universal gesture of triumphant manhood.
As I traveled through the land of the Manang, virtually everyone I met was involved in the yarsagumba trade in one way or another. On the road to Braga, I met an intensely serious 10-year-old boy named Lakhba Tsering, who wore a leopard-print silk scarf tied over his head. He said his whole family picked yarsagumba. "On a good day, I can collect 400 pieces," he boasted. "I give it all to my father."
Old Braga village clings to the steep hillside like an Anasazi cliff pueblo, its mud-brick walls blending harmoniously with the terrain. The village is halfway between the airport and Manang village, the regional hub for tourism. In Manang they have Italian coffee machines and French wine for sale in the shops, but Braga retains a rustic feel. Karma's hotel, the New Yak, is situated just across a rushing creek from Annapurna III (elevation 24,786 feet), the third-tallest peak in the massif. In the morning the mountain looks close enough that a good shake would bring it crashing down on the hotel, and by early afternoon its shadow covers the village.
Karma took me to meet Samdu Tsering, a farmer from Phoo. Phoo is Nar’s sister village, but smaller and even more remote; the Nepalese usually refer to the area as Nar-Phoo. Like most people in the Annapurna, Samdu has seen his fortunes rise, following the trajectory of the yarsagumba trade, from extreme poverty to relative prosperity. Now he lives near an ancient lamasery in a snug, low-ceilinged house, dark as a cave and fragrant with juniper incense, which he shares with his daughter. "Everyone in Nar-Phoo collects yarsagumba," Samdu told me. "The women same as the men, and children as young as four." He said that children make the best pickers because they're closer to the ground and better able to see the spindly stem poking up from the dirt.
I asked him if he ever used yarsagumba himself, and he shook his head, looking slightly amused. Despite the intense romance surrounding the fungus, it's perfectly legal, more like the trade in saffron or orchids than that in narcotics, but Manang people like Samdu who harvest it rarely use it themselves, just as gold miners rarely wear gold jewelry: It's far too precious.
In fact, many people here have a moral objection to collecting yarsagumba. Later that night, over a dinner of dried yak meat, Karma told me that his cousin in Kathmandu had offered him 20 lakhs – nearly $30,000 – to run the trade in Braga, but Karma's father didn't want him to do it. "We believe it's bad karma to pick yarsagumba. It's like killing a living thing," Karma said. I pointed out that by the time it's picked, it's a mushroom, which possesses much less life force than the yaks we had just eaten. He shrugged and gave me a reply I couldn't match: "It doesn't matter if your belief is wrong – how can we know what is right? What's wrong is to go against your belief."