The old codger may be right about the 21st century being stamped with Chinese characters, though I'm at a loss to explain how a so-called "lifetime of traveling" translates into such a narrow world view. Maybe if George W. Bush had spent more time on foreign soil—rather than extolling his own provincialism—he might not have made such a mess of things in the White House. There's one way to gain a better understanding of the world and its people: by crossing borders.
My recent trip took me to southwestern China and the Tibetan Plateau. The lens through which I glimpsed these places was fungi. Mushroom season is in full swing in the monsoon-soaked highlands and I wanted to see for myself a mushroom hunting scene that has been described as one of the busiest anywhere, with economic implications that stretch far and wide. Daniel Winkler, a member of the Puget Sound Mycological Society and proprietor of Mushroaming, was my cheerful, indefatigable tour guide (besides an encyclopedic knowledge of local custom and natural history, the guy speaks enough Tibetan to hang out with nomadic yak herders).
You'll have to take my word for it when I say that I survived adventures this July to fill a book—or at least a lengthy essay. Much of it I'm still trying to process. China is big, jam-packed with people, and not a little overwhelming. I've got work ahead to bring into focus my thousands of photos, hours of audio/video, and copious notes. In the meantime, allow me to share a little of the itinerary and some accompanying images.
The trip started in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, where the region's infatuation with everything fungal was on display, at a price. Local pharmacies showed off wild medicinals such as reishi (pictured above) and Cordyceps sinensis, the caterpillar fungus. Should you seek these time-honored curatives, be prepared to open your wallet. One member of our party paid 480 rmb (about $75 US) for a dozen of the desiccated larvae of the ghost moth with their fungal parasites (called yartsa gunbu in Tibetan, with a reputation for restoring the humors, enhancing sexual prowess, and even producing Olympic Gold Medalists)—and she got a deal!
Dujiangyan. There's an unbelievable amount of water pouring out of mountains that seem to go on forever, especially during monsoon season.
We gained steady elevation, finally topping out at 8,400 feet in Kangding, a smallish city by Chinese standards with about 100,000 souls at the confluence of the Tar and Chen river gorges. Despite its size, Kangding boasted more wild mushroom dealers than I've ever seen in one place. Matsutake commanded the highest price, at 80 to 100 rmb per pound for #1 and #2 buttons, while the local varieties of Caesar's amanita (Amanita hemibapha) and king bolete (Boletus sp.) were going for as much as 25 rmb for prime specimens, such as these amanita eggs below.
Cortinarius emodensis, below); hawk's wing (Sarcodon sp., below); Leccinum versipelle; Catathelasma imperialis; various boletes, russulas, and chanterelles; and a Tricholoma similar to man-on-horseback.
Fresh divots in the forest floor told the story: we were too late. Matsutake is intensively hunted on the Tibetan Plateau and represents a significant source of income for many Tibetans. The only species more important is the caterpillar fungus. Later we came upon some successful hunters in the woods. As in the U.S. and elsewhere, the pressure to find matsutake leads to a market overflowing with tiny buttons (called peanuts in the Pacific Northwest). This is compounded by the Japanese preference for unopened caps. If the pickers allowed the mushrooms to grow even a little bit, they'd make more money, but competition is so stiff that the buttons are exhumed as soon as they're spotted. Even a seasoned matsutake hunter from North America would find the level of competition fierce. On this particular day we ran into pickers everywhere, many of them charging up and down the rough mountain roads on motorcycles.
Lithang, birthplace of two Dalai Lamas. At 4,014 meters (or more than 13,000 feet above sea level), it's one of the highest towns in the world, though it wasn't a high point for morale. Sleep and appetite suffered in the thin air. Outside the tourist town of Yading we caught a miraculous glimpse of Mt. Chenresig, the sacred Buddhist peak of compassion (6,032 meters), normally shrouded in cloud cover.
matsutake camp near Chemult, Oregon. There was a lot of activity as the inhabitants collected wood, shored up their domiciles with brush, and laid in supplies.
Shangri-la, a dingy city in Yunnan Province that has appropriated the famous name from Lost Horizon for itself. Yunnan is well known for its wild mushroom trade. Not surprisingly, Shangri-la had a corner of real estate devoted to the buying and selling of precious fungi.
Though our trip was built around the foraging and commerce of mushrooms, we also spent welcome time identifying mountain flora, visiting towns along the route, and exploring Buddhist monasteries. Outside Shangri-la I had one last opportunity to hunt mushrooms in China before flying back to Chengdu—on the grounds of a monastery where, among a roving band of pigs, chickens, and goats, I found a pair of perfect Amanita hemibapha eggs and a beautiful Amanita from the vaginata group in the shadow of Tibetan prayer flags, a fitting end to an exciting and educational mushroom hunt.