In the Himalayas, you can hike uphill for days. We spent the entire next day gaining altitude, until we reached Laya at 12,400 ft. This final outpost of 44 houses was once a poor and rough village with few resources. In the past few years, however, wealth has come to the area in the form of a tiny caterpillar found only at high altitude in the Himalayas. When they munch on grasses and leaves, these caterpillars eat a fungus which then sprouts inside them. It kills the caterpillar and grows up out of its remains…to be eaten by a new caterpillar the next season.
Known locally as yartsagumba or scientifically as Cordyceps, the caterpillar is prized in Chinese medicine for its unique half-animal/half-plant status and is believed to have many medicinal benefits including enhanced virility. As the Viagra of the natural world, Cordyceps is worth more than $18/gram locally (and $100/gram on the global market!). In a good year, a farmer or herder can earn triple his annual income during the one month when the caterpillars sprout. In Laya, this wealth is visible in the form of new houses everywhere. Old stone homes are being replaced with homes that have expensive tin roofs, wood carved windows, and painted facades. The wealth also translates into extra blankets stacked in every home, extra firewood stacked outside, mobile phones and puffy jackets, children in boarding schools, and families leaving the heavy high-mountain snow for a few months in the capital each winter. This year, however, is not likely to be a good year for Cordyceps harvest. The passes to the high fields will still be blocked with snow at the critical time, but none of us know this yet–although we are all concerned by the weather, villagers and trekkers alike.
Our trekking team consists of 8 clients, 2 guides (myself and a Bhutanese guide), 1 assistant guide, a head cook, 3 kitchen staff, 4 horsemen, and roughly 35 horse loads (which will decrease as we eat through food and supplies). The four horsemen hail from this village of Laya, so in the evening they bring their wives and neighbors to sing and dance for us in the close, dark seating room of a village home. The women arrive in their finest traditional dress—handwoven wool skirts, silky blouses, heavy turquoise and coral necklaces, precious carved silver and gold pins and ornaments, and their distinctive cone-shaped handmade bamboo hats with loops of bright beads along the back. Layaps are one of two highlander ethnic groups in Bhutan, traditional herders with distinctive language, clothing, and culture formed through centuries of isolation in the high Himalayas. They sing about their land and about love, in high-pitched nasal voices while dancing synchronized moves in a line or a circle, to a beat we find particularly hard to follow when we join them for their final song.
We gather in a circle afterwards to thank them, offer the traditional tips, and converse. We travelers always have questions we’re curious about, and then I ask what they would like to know about our lives. One of the most interesting questions is when they ask if we all live in apartments in modern, high-rise buildings which they have seen on the news and in movies. Members of our group live in everything from the expected urban high-rise, to modern single-family homes, to a 100-year-old wooden building, to a 400-year-old stone home…and this is all surprising and good fodder for further conversation before we finally say good night.