The grain-salt barter trade between Nepal and Tibet has now been replaced by just one precious commodity: yarsa, the caterpillar fungus that grows out of the ground in meadows above 4,500m and is prized in Chinese medicine.
Yarsa means ‘summer grass’ or ‘winter worm’ in the local dialect and has raised living standards here. But lately, due to over-picking and climate change, yarsa harvests have slumped. Dolpo traders used to sell yarsa across the border in Tibet and buy rice, sugar, blankets and even solar panels in China.
“This year it snowed continuously from February to April, and in Saldang half the yaks died. The melting snow also made the ground soggy, and all the yarsa rotted,” said Tashi Dhondup Lama of Tso village.
The weather, crops and health of livestock are so closely tied that the loss of yarsa and yaks has meant no trade with Tibet, which means no salt and no butter. As a result, for most villagers in Dolpo this year there are no ingredients to make the salty Tibetan butter tea.