Nepal’s Aphrodisiac War
Credit: Prakash Mathema / AFP / Getty Images
When I got home from Nepal, my friends all had one question: Did you try it?

Of course I tried it, though it was little more than a taste. A wholesaler I met in Kathmandu gave me a handful of broken pieces, which I washed down with tea. The crunchy little caterpillar fragments had a faintly fishy smell and went down with the musty flavor of most dried fungi. Forewarned, I didn't expect to feel a jolt of virility. In fact, I didn't feel much of anything at all, at first. It was only at the end of the day that I realized how much clear-headed energy I had after taking it. I had a glimpse of why people might come to believe in its power.

When Krishna Lama talked about the curse of yarsagumba, he didn't mean it as a metaphor. He was describing the fungus's inner power, which is more real to the people of the Himalayas than any scientific report. On the Annapurna trail, I met an old man who ran a little shop on the side of the road selling yak skulls and farm tools; he explained why devout Buddhists believe it's an evil power. "A famous lama chose to be reborn as yarsagumba as a boon to mankind," he told me. "If you trade in yarsagumba, you will be reincarnated very low. You won't be reborn as a man."

Like every gold rush in history, the yarsagumba boom in the Himalayas has blighted many more lives than it has enriched. As I write, the accused killers of Nar await sentencing, but it's almost certain that the terrible predictions of Karma Wangdi Lama and Krishna Lama are correct: Their lives are ruined. The legend of yarsagumba radiates an imperishable glamour, holding out the tantalizing promise of preserving the gifts of youth throughout life, but it's tainted by the blood of poor farmers and young men's dashed hopes. I'm not superstitious, but I know a curse when I see it.