Known as the 'roof of the world', Nepal is home to some of the world's most famous mountains and awe-inspiring treks. However, there is more to this country than just Everest and Annapurna base camps.

We speak to author, photographer and explorer Stuart Butler about the mythical yarsagumba, a fungus/tuber that is literally worth its weight in gold, what it feels like to climb down a glacier and all the information you need to choose a trek in Nepal to suit your needs.


Horizon Guides [00:01:30] What is the yarsagumba and how did you come to be searching for it in Nepal?

Stuart Butler [00:01:38] Well, yarsagumba is basically a combination of a fungus and a caterpillar. So there's the caterpillar of the ghost moth, which lives high up in the Himalaya at 4,000m plus just above the tree line. And then there's a fungus that kills the caterpillar. Before it kills the caterpillar, it makes it bury itself underground.

Stuart Butler [00:02:16] Out of the head of the caterpillar grows a giant stalk like on an apple, that is three or four centimetres long. Yarsagumba is used primarily by the Chinese, but it's becoming more popular in many parts of the world as a kind of energy boost. People have known about it for hundreds of years but it only became very popular and well-known after the Beijing Olympics. One of the Chinese teams -- I believe it was a swimming team -- did exceptionally well, and when people interviewed the coach, he said one of the things he did was use yarsagumba as an energy booster.

Stuart Butler [00:03:27] It's not seen as a drug, but a herbal remedy. This success started a surge in interest and now a kilo of yarsagumba in big cities with big Chinese populations (Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore) has more than doubled. It's the world's most valuable natural resource at the moment.

Horizon Guides [00:03:56] Where is it found? If it is only found in Nepal or can it be found in other places?

Stuart Butler [00:03:59] In Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and possibly parts of India. You can't find it everywhere in Nepal. I've never heard of it in India, but it is illegal there to gather it. With something worth that much, people will try to regardless of the law. There can be one mountain valley where lots of exists, and then there'll be two or three valleys in a row where there is nothing, then another valley where it exists. I guess that's just down to the local environment. What happens is it only occurs at certain times. So, for two or three weeks just before the monsoon, the locals go and scour the mountainsides looking for yarsagumba.

Stuart Butler [00:05:06] It's very hard to find because of its small size, so kids are actually the best people at finding it. So, a lot of schools close and the children go off and help look for it because they're lower to the ground.

Horizon Guides [00:05:34] How do people get yarsagumba out the ground?

Stuart Butler [00:05:36] They just dig it out of the ground and they clean it with toothbrushes. Depending on where you are, a middle man will come and gather it at the end of the season and then it will be taken to China. Some Nepalese will try and cut out the middle man and send it straight to China themselves. In the monsoon, many Nepalese will try and send it across to their neighbours in Tibetan villages. The whole system is very controlled -- it's not a free for all. Harvesters have to have licences. For example, it's only the two highest villages closest to the Arctic region where they're allowed to gather it. They get the first pick for three weeks.

Stuart Butler [00:06:56] They will have to pay for a licence to gather it and the border is shut for this period. The locals are very very strict on other people coming into the area at this time. So, they're watching villagers from further down coming up because they don't want them stealing something that's worth so much.

Stuart Butler [00:07:25]
There have been some incidents in the past. A few years ago, half a dozen guys from the lowlands came up to try and get yarsagumba. There was already bad blood between the people of one valley and the next valley. Basically, they tried to steal some of the yarsagumba and the villagers killed them. Anything worth that much money is going to cause problems.

028 Nepal Tengboche

Horizon Guides [00:08:31] How did your first hear about yarsagumba?

Stuart Butler [00:08:40] I first saw it a couple of years ago when I was in a remote part of the Annapurna area of Nepal. We arrived very late one night on this pasture. There were some local people already camping there. It turns out they were gatherers, so the next day they showed us what they did with yarsagumba and what it was used for. That got me interested in seeing it and finding out more. I'd also just visited Bhutan, where I spoke to nomads there who had just finished gathering it and were looking to sell.

Stuart Butler [00:09:37] Because it was winter, all the nomads had come lower down to the edge of the towns. I kept seeing this helicopter land, drop people off and then fly back north again. I couldn't work out what was happening.

Stuart Butler [00:09:58] I wondered if it was the government or police or something to do with tourists renting the helicopter, but I was it was actually the nomads. They've made so much money from yarsagumba, that rather than walk, they just pitched together and use the helicopter to check on their yaks and stuff.

Horizon Guides [00:10:32] What are these villages like?

Stuart Butler [00:10:38] With many of the longer treks in Nepal, you start down in the foothills which are predominately Hindu villages. It's very green, subtropical banana plants and so on, and as you climb up it gets colder and the plant life and villages change. They become stone houses and then Buddhist villages. There's a lot of excellent side trips here, alongside the classic Nepal treks.

Stuart Butler [00:11:29] The treks in Manaslu tend to follow old trade routes or the routes villagers would use to get to the next village. These tracks develop because they're easy rather than scenic. As with much of Nepal, the side trips up to monasteries and remote pastures are some of the best and least touristy. You'll need a permit for it, but it's not expensive.

Stuart Butler [00:12:20] A lot of the time you, have a lot more cultural interaction in Manaslu than on the main trails to Everest or Annapurna where there are so many tourists. Crossing the high path gives fantastic scenery, hemmed in by mountains on either side. It's definitely one of the more rewarding tracks in Nepal both for the scenery and the cultural interactions.

Stuart Butler [00:13:39] I do remember one time we went to a big monastery where the monks were debating out in the courtyard. It's very dramatic and there is a lot of hand slapping and overreacting to the answers and so on. It's quite theatrical. There was just myself and the two people I was tracking with. I felt like I'd stumbled on something quite special.

Stuart Butler [00:14:59] Otherwise -- going to nomad tents and villages, drinking yak butter tea. It's quite an acquired taste, but I quite like it now. It's one of those ones you have to keep forcing down, but after time you start to get used to it, if not enjoy it. Even if you can't understand the conversation, just listening to everyone sat around the fire in the middle of a room and warming themselves up is great.

Stuart Butler [00:16:24] When planning a trip, look at the time of year you're going and what you want to do. So, if you can only go in July -- which is the wet season --then you are very limited in the tracks you can do. Mustang would be a classic one to do. You wouldn't get the same Himalayan views but you'd get to experience a strong Tibetan culture. But if you were going in October then you have much more choice on routes, as this is the best time for trekking, although it is busier. So if you're doing a popular trek like Everest base camp, then you could find that the lodges and tea houses are full.

Stuart Butler [00:18:20] If you don't think you've got the stamina to walk for two weeks at high altitude, there are plenty of much shorter treks that don't go very high at all. Some of these you can even do with children. The most important thing is to give yourself time. Too many people try and rush these treks, particularly the ones that take you higher. They don't acclimatise properly, and then they have problems. For example on the Manaslu trek, I read that something like 70% of people don't finish the trek.

Stuart Butler [00:19:39] I've never had any issues with acclimatising because I've always believed in lots of rest days and doing all the side trips I can. You actually enjoy the trek more when you're seeing better scenery or getting to know the people more. Why do a trek in 10 days when you could do it in 13 days and enjoy it more?

Stuart Butler [00:20:09] There are also a lot of people that don't equip themselves properly. They think that crossing a 5,500m pass is just like going for a walk in the woods. I've seen people in trainers and jeans with a light summer coat trying to go over passes on their own in the snow late in the day.

Stuart Butler [00:20:39] There are a lot of people going unprepared or who don't want to spend the extra $20 a day on a guide or porter and then struggled to do the trek. Take that extra bit of help to have a more enjoyable trip.

028 Nepal Annapurna Circuit

Horizon Guides [00:21:19] What makes Nepal such a special place? Why do you keep visiting?

Stuart Butler [00:21:25] It's the best trekking in the world. There are endless possibilities and it's not busy with people. On some trails, you might be the only person. So there's endless scope for new adventures and new treks.

Stuart Butler [00:21:55] I also like the interaction with the people that you can have. I like the fact that you are walking, so you're going at a slower pace and you're able to meet the people in a way that isn't possible normally.

Stuart Butler [00:22:17] For me it has a bit of everything. It has wilderness, landscapes, cultural interest and adventure. You're exercising every day. You could spend a lifetime travelling and walking around Nepal and not get bored.

There's certainly nowhere else in the Himalaya that's quite so easy to visit but rewards you in such a way. If you like mountains, you're going to love Nepal.

Horizon Guides [00:23:21] Do you have a favourite trek?

Stuart Butler [00:23:24] I would say that they're all fantastic. They're all different in their own way. And even when I've gone back and redone a trek, it's different in some way.

I did an interesting one a couple of years ago where I did a loop around Upper Mustang. The original plan was to try and get over this very remote pass, but we needed local guides as well as our guides from Kathmandu. However, nobody would take us as they thought it was too dangerous.

Stuart Butler [00:25:28] So we varied it. We finish the loop around Mustang but went the opposite way to everyone else and then went up Tilicho Lake which has probably the best mountain scenery I've ever seen. It's stunning. We camped up there which most people don't and we were the only people up there and there's this huge wall of mountains around you. The lake was frozen at night and you could hear avalanches coming down the mountains. Waking up in the morning, the skies were pink and the clouds were level with us.

Stuart Butler [00:26:34] The whole trek made a fantastic figure of eight that had a bit of everything. We had culture. We went to stay in nomad tents. We explored caves full of Tibetan Buddhist paintings. We had incredible mountain scenery on the lake.

Horizon Guides [00:27:30] Sounds fantastic. Finally - what's your one piece of advice for trekking in Nepal?

Stuart Butler [00:27:51] If you're reasonably fit, it's not as hard as many people believe it to be. So as long as you've got a bit of stamina and you're reasonably fit then you can do any of these treks.

Stuart Butler [00:28:04] I would do most of them with my children who are 8 and 6. I think a lot of people think it's going to be much harder than it is. The other thing is most people think you're going to be wading through snow at high altitude for days on end. On the majority of tracks, that's not the case at all. There are people everywhere because people live all over the Himalayas. On 70% of the treks, you're always reasonably close to people.

The Journal Podcast #2: On the trail of Nepal's mystical yarsagumba

Karam Filfilan

Karam is an editor and journalist with more than 10 years' experience in industry. He has worked and lived in the UK, Middle East and India, but his favourite travel experience is spending a hazy month exploring landlocked Paraguay.

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