One of the most rewarding things that can happen when watching a documentary is to learn something really new, something so gob-smackingly alien to your experience that you’ve never even heard of it before.
That’s what will probably happen if you watch Himalayan Gold Rush, one of those appetizers you stumble across when you take a detour from the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival’s meat-and-potatoes entrees of climbing, skiing, snowboarding, and mountain biking. (At least, it would happen if you didn’t read this first.)
Imagine a caterpillar, the larval stage of a Himalayan moth, that burrows underground in search of roots for up to five years below mountain meadows at an altitude of 2,000 to 5,500 metres. At some point, a parasitizing fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) attacks the caterpillar, fills its body with mycelium (sort of like fungal roots), causes it to travel near the top of its burrow, then kills and mummifies it.
When the winter’s snow melts above, the fungus erupts from the head and sprouts a mushroom that pushes up through the ground to emerge in the rarefied air, where it eventually releases spores that sink to the ground to repeat the process.
For more than 500 years, and especially during the past few decades, that entity--the caterpillar corpse and fungus, together known as yarsagumba--has been valued as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicines, reputed to cure everything from cancer to liver ailments and fatigue.
It’s most treasured use, though, is as an aphrodisiac (some call it Himalayan Viagra), and demand has grown so much, through reputation and scarcity, that wild yarsagumba (fungal farming efforts have yielded an “inferior” product to date) is now worth upwards of US$60,000 per kilogram—pricier than gold.
Hence the film’s title. That value is why thousands of villagers in remote Nepalese valleys travel to the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau every spring—leaving school, farm fields, and even monasteries unattended—to get on their hands and knees and scour steep, grassy slopes for the hard-to-spot fungi.
It’s dangerous work and even more dangerous travel. Robbery is also a constant threat, and territorial rivalries have even led to murder. Because the discovery of one fungus can be the equivalent of a day’s wage, the lure is obvious.
Himalayan Gold Rush follows a trader, Dhan Shandra, who collects yarsagumba for a dealer in Kathmandu. Shandra buys from a farmer, Sugalal, whose fortunes are also tracked for one spring while he hunts with his wife and two sons for the treasure that will keep them in food and supplies for the rest of the year, until next spring’s hunt—if they can keep their father away from the predatory gamblers who travel from camp to camp.
There is plenty of splendid mountain scenery on display here, sometimes breathtakingly so, but it is all just so much background to the locals with their eyes fixed close to the ground (children are valued because of their sharper eyesight).
Later in the film, French director Eric Valli (maker of other Nepal documentaries such as Honey Hunt and the Oscar-nominated Caravan) follows Shandra’s wealthy buyer to Hong Kong, where we see the wholesaler and retailers that provide yarsagumba to its wealthy and deluded end users.
The real price of this most expensive traditional ingredient may be found, in future, in villages left without tilled fields, and high-altitude grasslands overrun with vegetation-destroying moths and their larvae. Nobody knows what will happen when the wild product disappears, as it eventually must, under such extreme pressure.
In the meantime, the caravans of villagers and pack animals stream into the plateaus and high valleys every spring for two months, as long as the cycle of moth, caterpillar, fungus, and banknotes continues.
Himalayan Gold Rush plays at the Cinematheque on Wednesday, February 13, 7:30 p.m., as part of the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival's Himalayan Show. Two short films, Secrets of Dhaulagiri and Beyond the Gates of Phu, will also screen.