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At this time of year most villages in the highlands of Lingshi and Laya appear deserted and forsaken.
This is the season when Layaps move upland to graze their yaks. At least one person per household is out in the yak herding camps, where most are in search of the caterpillar fungus, cordycep sinesis, the collection of which the government legalized in 2003 and that has become an important source of cash income for the highlanders.
According to a former gup of Lingshi, Karma Tshering, before the harvesting of cordyceps was legalized, the slaughter of yaks, once a year, was the primary source of revenue. The meat was sold in the lower valleys where it is much sought after. A kilogramme of yak meat can go for up to Nu 120 (with bones) and Nu 150 (boneless).
“At least two to three yaks used to get slaughtered every year by herders who had many yaks,” said Karma Tshering. “Those households, who did not have large numbers of yaks, combined to slaughter one for the money.”
The legalization of cordyceps harvesting has not only brought down the slaughter of yaks but also brought about an element of equality among the highlanders. “It has dispelled the dividing line between the haves and have-nots in the community. Everybody is allowed to collect the fungus,” Karma Tshering said. “Today, even children can identify the worms.”
As the cordycep season starts in spring and early summer, the highlanders first go and spot a location where it is seen growing. They travel to these areas in groups to stake their claims against outsiders who may want to muscle in.
The forestry department has demarcated areas for the different gewogs in the cordycep growing regions. Villagers are allowed one month a year for collection so that the fungus is not over-harvested. In Lingshi, collection started on May 20 and 244 permits were issued.
Kinley Sithup, 28, from Gangyul, said that it was risky to go alone. “It’s scary to be alone harvesting. There are chances of antipathy cropping up between unfamiliar groups.”
Villagers say that picking cordyceps is difficult. Elbows and knees get bruised as pickers have to get down and dirty on all fours and closely examine bushy clumps and alpine grass for the fungus. When they spot one, they dig it out with their fingers from the semi-marshy grassland.
After five seasons of legalized picking, villagers in the region have their own insight about the caterpillar’s growth. They assume that the caterpillars move backwards as they bury themselves in the earth.
They have also discovered that there are three varieties of fungus. The one with yellow eyes (mito sep) is rare and most difficult to spot and has the highest market demand. “If you find a caterpillar with yellow eyes, there’s no use looking for another in the same area,” said Kinley Sithup. The caterpillar with red eyes grows in groups of two to three and comes next in value. The third and least valuable of the caterpillar is the one with black eyes, which grows in clusters of 20 to a maximum of 45.
Villagers also say that the growing pattern of common mushrooms and cordyceps is similar. If a black-eyed caterpillar is seen growing in one area, it takes at least another four years for its regeneration in the same area. The thin and widely separated yellow-eyed caterpillar are usually replaced by the black-eyed variety the following season.
Ngawang Tenzin, 17, from Chebisa in Lingshi, comes running down the mountain slope with a handful of caterpillars. “I got 100 worms today, that’s the biggest harvest of my life,” he says with a smile.
Cordyceps sinensis, Tochukaso in Chinese, has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for over 700 years for purported benefits to the heart, and respiration, for its energy-boosting effects, and for anti-aging purposes.
Modern day uses are for Cardiovascular and Circulatory Disorders, Effects on Cholesterol and Lipid Metabolism, Digestive, Gastrointestinal Disorders, Immune Disorders, Performance and Endurance Enhancement, Aging and Longevity Enhancement, Reproductive Disorders Sexual Dysfunctions (Male and Female),Respiratory and Pulmonary Disorders, and Bronchial Disorders.
There have been some studies on the benefits of Cordyceps, nothing conclusive, but it continues to be a much sought after remedy.
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