Tuesday, February 8, 2022

LOCKDOWN SPECIAL: The Collection Of The Natural Wonder Called Cordyceps sinensis

Although it is tantamount to tooting my own horn – I must confess that very few can claim to be as lucky as I am. I have been blessed with good health, energy, stamina, power of endurance, determination, daring and audacity – at a level that is almost uncommon. All these qualities helped me embark on many of my jaunts into practically every extreme alpine regions of the country – from Singye Dzong and Jumo Koongkhar in the East to Gangkhar Puensoom in the Central and Chundugung and Nob Tshonapatta in the West.

I made two trips into the mountains of remote Lunana – both on photographic assignments to photograph the collection of the magic worm/fungus – Cordyceps sinensis. Another trip I made was to the Northern extremes of Dhur in Bumthang – for the same reason – to photograph the collection of Cordyceps. The account I present to you below is that of my trip to Dhur. It is my hope that these will engage you, even if for a short while – during these tiresome times of the lockdown.

Bhutan is one among very few countries in the world where the magical Cordyceps sinensis is found. This crazy, crinkly and extremely expensive amalgamation between a caterpillar larva and parasite is one of the most important ingredients in the TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). According to one of my friends in the USA, she swears that the thing is so potent that its administration to her dog cured it of the problem of hair loss.

The Cordyceps sinensis occurs at altitudes around 16,000 ft. and above. Its collection is truly arduous and conditions under which it is collected tests human endurance to the limit.

My Dhur assignment was during May of 2010. The journey began from Dhur village in Bumthang. The trail is among the worst I know – the reason is because the Cordyceps collection season falls during the rainy months. Look at the condition of the trail – it is very muddy and sloshy. Trudging through knee deep mud cannot be any one’s idea of fun. But it is how it is.

Trudging up into the extreme Northern regions of Dhur - over a trial that is muddy and sloshy. Those of you who may have read my series of posts on "Ladoog", you would recall that I said that I always take a minimum of one unladen spare pony - in the event of an unexpected accident. When Western guests are involved, I also take along one riding pony for every four guests - incase they fall sick. You can see the spare pony after the lead pony that is laden with my camera gear.

On the fourth day we are approaching the collection fields where I will be camped for about ten days. As you can see, we are way past the tree lines – we are now in the interiors of Dhur’s extreme North.
On our fourth day of trek, we are approaching the camp site where we will be camped for close to ten days.

We see that some of the collectors are already camped out at the foothills of the mountains where they will start the hunt for the Cordyceps.

Life is difficult for the collectors – look how they live out in the extreme weather conditions. One camp I see is tucked into the cave – with a flimsy plastic sheet keeping off the chilly winds that blow unabated.

Apparently not every one goes collecting – some remain in the camp to keep house and cook and such. Look at how tough the lady is - she is merely wearing a rubber slippers without socks - and washing her hair with the icy water from the brook nearly.

During my rounds around the campsite one day, I happened to arrive when the pretty lady was washing her hair by the small brook running close to her camp – she was stripped naked on the upper part of her body with her breasts dangling out – but she was not bothered about my presence – she looked at me straight with a smile. From this I realized that she must be a mother already. In rural Bhutan, women do hide their breasts – but once they become mothers – they seem to have no qualms about displaying their breasts in public – they feed their babies any time any where – just like that.

The campsite gets seriously cold during the nights and mornings – see the condition of my tent – it is sagging with the weight of the frost formed on it.
My tent frozen stiff from the frost

There was a beautiful lake close by  - it was crystal clear and so calm that I could see the stones and boulders at its bottom.

A pretty lake as clear as a mirror

The mountains at this altitude are jagged and strangely shaped – without a blade of grass on them. One particular cluster was unusually interesting. I photographed it - capturing its three different moods.

Very early in the morning, the mist begins to rise before the sunrise - eventually revealing the jagged cluster of mountain peaks

The cluster of jagged mountain peaks looking majestic in the early morning sun's warmth and brilliance.

Almost mystical - the haphazardly protruding mountain peaks are brightly lit by the brilliance of the moon's light in the night.

The following images show just how extremely hard life is for the Cordyceps collectors – no wonder they are so expensive. Ofcoure I am not sure which is more deserving of such astronomical prices – for the extreme hardship involved in their collection – or because of the supposedly magical properties it is supposed to possess.

Very early in the morning the collectors start their journey for the hunt for the Cordyceps

Crouching over the grounds - every inch of the ground is inspected closely for the worm.

On their belly and knees - searching for the Cordyceps under foul weather.

The following are the four life cycles of the Cordyceps sinensis, which begins its death journey when released by its parent - a moth. The larva of the moth which grows underground gets infested by a parasite. Slowly as the parasite grows, the larva is robbed of is life and the parasite turns into a fungus. Over time, the fungus sprouts out of the ground and becomes visible to the human eyes. It is then harvest time.

An extremely rare occurrence - a moth larva that has not been infested by the parasite. This larva grows underground until it is infested by the parasite which ultimately kills it.

The fungus portion of the Cordyceps sinensis visible above the ground

How the Cordyceps sinensis looks when plucked out of the ground

Cordyceps sinensis: washed, cleaned and dried - ready for the international markets, mainly China.

Dr. Phuntsho Namgyel, a forestry scientist, is marveled by my find of a moth larva that escaped infestation by the parasite. He tells me that it is an extremely rare occurrence. According to him – very few human would have seen a live Cordyceps - without a fungus on its noggin.

No comments:

Post a Comment