Over the past three decades, the impoverished edges of the Tibetan Plateau have remained stubbornly resistant to the economic development that has transformed the rest of China. However, this is finally changing, thanks to an unlikely commodity.

The caterpillars of the ghost moth live underground in high-altitude regions (between 3000–5000m elevation). While feeding on roots, the subterranean larva is attacked by a parasitic fungus, Cordyceps sinensis, which kills the caterpillar and erupts from its forehead in a stalk-like growth. When hand-collected and dried by nomads, the bizarre-looking fungus – half caterpillar, half stalk and known as chongcao (“insect grass”) in Chinese, or yertse kumbu (“winter insect, summer grass”) in Tibetan – has long been used in traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicine, where it is reputed to act as an aphrodisiac and improve a range of conditions from asthma to cancer.

As China’s middle class has grown, demand for caterpillar fungus has increased and prices have soared. The profits from this booming trade – prices can reach well over US$100 per gram, more expensive than gold – have started to improve the livelihoods of people across the Himalayan region. The practice of harvesting the fungus before it has released its spores has decimated the harvest elsewhere on the plateau, pushing prices ever higher in the places where the fungus is still relatively plentiful, as it is in the Tibetan fringes of Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan, encouraging locals to cash in while the boom lasts.

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