For most of the long trek from Dharchula to the Lipu pass, en route to Tibet and Kailash-Mansarovar (you can see my earlier blogs at sitanaiksblog.wordpress.com ) you walk on the Indian side of the Indo-Nepal border. And, walking on the higher bhogiyals on the Indian side, you have a clear panoramic view of these high altitude pastures on the Nepal side. Most of these treks were spent in solitude, with only the company of Dharmesh my porter. And, of course we had long chats about the local economy, life, customs and the hardships and perils of life in such terrains.
There are few villages in these parts and as we crossed the occasional local, Dharmesh learnt that a young man had died while trying to cross over to Nepal on a ropeway. This is a treacherous venture, as the rope is strung hundreds of feet over a furiously flowing river – the Kali. Of course, crossing over by a bridge would involve a couple of days of trekking on each side, to reach a village you can site across the valley. So, people risk their lives, as they probably have been doing fro centuries.
But, another reason for this kind of crossing was smuggling. And I was told of this precious plant with magical medicinal properties, that only grew in these parts – and fetched lakhs of rupees per kilogram in the black market in Nepal. Dharmesh pointed out lone tents at high altitudes, where he said people stayed for days on end to collect the plant. I could not get to see a sample – but the names he gave, yielded no information on Google. But, it stayed at the back of my mind – I kept wondering which medicinal plant was so magical and fetched such prices, such that there was Government control over its sale!! And then suddenly I saw an article in Caravan with this picture.
This is called kira jhar in Kumaoni and yartsa gunbu in Tibetan – it is actually the mummified larvae of a variety of ghost moth caterpillar. During their underground larval phase, it attaches to the stalks of a fungus which then attacks and mummifies them. If you Google with above names, you will get tonnes of information….. and will also learn that harvesting these is a major source of income for these remote villages, that its hunt is destroying the local flora and hence is adding to ecological degradation and its value comes from its reputation as an aphrodisiac among the Chinese.
And this kind of explained the above board (which says ‘It is forbidden to light fires, kill any animals or pluck any plants in the forest’) which I had found strange at the time – who would forbid you to pluck the plants, I had thought! But, even in these remote so called untouched areas – the outside world has reached and not always in ways that we can foresee. And what is it with the Chinese/Tibetan races and aphrodisiacs!!