AFP Photo/Devendra M. Singh
by Frankie Taggart
"We're in the middle of the Himalayas -- who am I supposed to use it on?" I asked, rolling the small, knotty object between my thumb and forefinger.
It had the weight and consistency of a bumpy cashew nut shell, but it felt strange, somehow alien. My interpreter looked embarrassed and declined to translate for my hosts. "It's not Viagra - it's Himalayan Viagra. It's different -- it doesn't work the same way," he scolded.
Himalayan Viagra, known to the people of the world's highest mountain range as yarchagumba, is a high-altitude wild fungus prized for its aphrodisiac qualities. It is effectively two organisms, the larva of the Himalayan ghost moth and the Cordyceps fungus. The fungus spores attack the larva while it lives beneath the ground, killing it and causing a mushroom to sprout out of its head.
China has a huge appetite for the obscure fungus, pushing prices above $11,500 per pound (450 grams) and putting its value somewhere between silver and gold. Thousands of foragers in Nepal's mountains are able to support their families for a year with a decent haul and I was on a trip in their hunting ground, the mystical Nepalese former kingdom of Upper Dolpa.
My interpreter’s qualifications notwithstanding, Chinese herbalists are persuaded that yarchagumba -- an excellent balance of yin and yang, as it is both animal and vegetable -- does boost sexual performance.
AFP Photo/Frankie Taggart
It was relatively unknown to the West until 1993, when it was cited as one of the secrets behind the success of the Chinese women's record-setting track team at the world championships in Stuttgart, Germany.
Their coach boasted that he gave them the fungus in turtle blood.
In a small, gloomy guesthouse in Dho Tarap, unofficially "the world's highest village" at 4,300m and the main trading post of Upper Dolpa, I was enjoying the hospitality of the locals. Our group of three -- me, a photographer called Samir and a local guide, had spent more than a week in Upper Dolpa, hanging out with its sparse population of agro-pastoral ethnic Tibetans and watching how they survived in one of the harshest, most desolate environments on the planet.
We had subsisted on a diet of fried trekking food, improvised as best we could when nature called, withstood altitude sickness and walked almost all day, every day. I was feeling like I needed a pick-me-up.
I hadn't been offered turtle blood but was keeping the cold at bay with my fifth glass of something rather more potent -- a Tibetan rice wine called raksi, a thimble of which could probably strip the paint off an aircraft carrier.
At one point, the innkeeper, an almost comical archetype of the wizened old Himalayan chieftain, proffered a tray containing various desiccated moth larvae -- the big ones were 5,000 rupees ($60) and the rest were about a tenth that price.
Pemu seemed like a trustworthy guy; minutes earlier he had been giving frank answers to my drunken, indelicate questions about his love life after he revealed he and his brother had both wed the same woman.
They had entered into the unusual marital arrangement, practiced across the Himalayas and known as polyandry, to prevent the family holdings being broken up between brothers. And no, they didn't "share" her in a ménage-a-trois. The brothers took turns, one night on one night off.
Pemu eyed the wad of rupees I was drunkenly counting out and entreated me to part with a few and try his yarchagumba. Oh well -- in for a penny, in for a pound, I thought as I opted for one of the smaller pieces.
Yarchagumba is supposed to be taken with tea or crunched up and added to soup or stew. Emboldened by the raksi, I swallowed mine whole.
"You'll have the best night's sleep you've ever had and tomorrow -- no more stomach upset, no altitude sickness," said Samir. The dodgy stomach had started more than a week earlier, partly due to the shock of switching from fine dining in Kathmandu's best restaurants to trekking food.
But mostly, I suspect, a reaction to having watched one of my climbing boots fall six feet into a "long drop" toilet – disturbing the morass of waste produced by 15,000 pilgrims at a Buddhist festival – and having to fish it out with the help of a hiking stick and a passing monk who had to be bribed.
This was an unusual trip on all counts. Not many journalists have written about Upper Dolpa, which only opened to the world in the early 1990s. Mentions on the internet and in press archives are largely confined to reports of conflict during the 10-year Maoist insurgency and gushing travelogues, which don't really get under the skin of the place.
AFP Photo/Frankie Taggart
I had arrived ostensibly to cover the Shey Dragon Festival, a symposium of tribesmen, traders and monks from across the Himalayas which takes place once every 12 years and includes the staging of the world's highest horse race.
We had travelled across the mountains by helicopter and touched down at 4,100 meters. But we might as well have landed on Mars for all this barren, beautiful landscape had in common with the rest of Nepal. It quickly became apparent that it was not enough simply to visit the festival and then head back out to the real world and the relative normality of Kathmandu, so we decided to take some time getting to know the locals.
Over the following 10 days I interviewed more than 50 people on a variety of topics which would only come up in a land where parents pay for their children's education with yak dung and brothers in many families share the same wife.
Among the characters I met was the ageing star of the Oscar-nominated Himalaya, who has fallen back on hard times despite the movie being a worldwide hit, and returned to his simple agrarian life on the roof of the world. I also encountered the son of the libertarian philosopher Jean-François Revel, who had turned his back on the Paris intellectual life carved out by his eminent father to become a Buddhist monk and an aide to the Dalai Lama.
AFP Photo/Fabrice Cofrini
Communication was a problem at times. It was difficult enough coaxing conversation out of a people who had been taught that speaking to the outside world and allowing themselves to be photographed was a sin.
But the real problem was the language.
The lingua-franca in Nepal, perhaps unsurprisingly, is Nepali but the vast majority of the nation's 100 ethnic groups use it only when they have to, preferring their tribal tongue for small talk. A large proportion of the people of Upper Dolpa, most of whom live in small villages two days' walk from the nearest neighboring settlement, speak a Tibetan dialect called Dolpo, and can manage no Nepali at all.
So often I found myself asking questions which would be passed on in Nepali by my interpreter and then rendered into Dolpo by his interpreter, before my interviewee responded and the whole process was reversed.
AFP Photo/Frankie Taggart
Many times I had to double-check that I was coming across as intended and not missing anything in the answers, and it strikes me that perhaps the somewhat odd and mildly racist phrase "Chinese whisper" should be changed to "foreign correspondents’ whisper".
It's hard not to descend into cliché when describing the "simple" life of the "poor but happy" people of Dolpa, but all these trite platitudes seemed to be true.
The life expectancy is horribly low, in the late 40s for both men and women, and a lifetime of toil under a blazing summer sun and in the biting winter wind is undeniably an endurance test virtually from the cradle to the grave. On my travels I met three buffalo herders who were taking their livestock on a day's walk to the next town. The eldest could not have been more than six.
Everyone I met seemed remarkably cheerful, friendly and, above all, at peace, despite the grinding poverty which they were enforced to endure.
Yet as I became more acquainted with the hopes, fears, joys and frustrations of the people of Upper Dolpa, the seed of an increasingly nagging but half-formed worry began to germinate.
Although many had never seen Kathmandu, let alone the rest of the planet, they knew very well how poor they were and seemed desperate to let in the outside world at any cost. A deeply religious people, they are beginning to see that Buddhism perhaps does not have the answers to all of their problems. Despite the widespread faith in the healing powers of the region's traditional "amchi" medicine men, parents would open my tent last thing at night and beg for Western medicine for their sick children.
At the other end of the scale, aspiring businessmen like Pemu are beginning to take down prayer flags to make way for satellite dishes, and shops are selling Coke cans which can be seen discarded among the shrines at even the highest mountain pass.
AFP Photo/Frankie Taggart
Tourism is young in Upper Dolpa and the locals are becoming increasingly aware of the lure of their land to Westerners with bulging pockets, and that they can build schools and hospitals with the cash in those pockets.
It's easy for a white, British journalist to lecture a people living in penury that they should beware of Western influences and ensure that their pristine, mystical land is just as pristine and mystical for when I next visit. But surely it is incumbent upon the tourists, the trekking agencies, the NGOs and the film-makers to ensure that when Upper Dolpa does open up, its culture is not lost forever to the satellite TV and fizzy drinks which come with global commerce.
As I woke up the morning after my debauched night of weapons-grade raksi and Himalayan Viagra, I had a crystal clear head, a smile on my face and no sign of the stomach problems which had persisted for more than week.
It occurred to me though that Upper Dolpa had more to offer than history's greatest hangover cure, weird tales of polyandry and a whole load of great scenery.
I had been lucky enough to meet the inhabitants of one of the most remote places on earth who, despite being on the cusp of a great change which may transform their lives forever, and despite living in crippling poverty, seemed largely to be at peace with the world.