It’s been awhile since my last posting, as I’ve been up high up on the Tibetan Plateau for six weeks. The locale couldn’t have been better for pictures – amazing scapes, colorful Kham cowboys, and a great subject – yartsa gombu, the strange worm with incredible healing properties that is infusing new life into Tibet’s economy. But for my fixer, Fu Qing, the trip was not only scary, but downright life threatening.
Fixers are the unsung heroes of photojournalism. They’re a combination of boots-on-the-ground guides/ production coordinators/researchers/interpreters/secretaries/accountants/restaurant critics/bag carriers and sometime drivers. I like to say that the job of a fixer is to put the subject in front of my lens. And Fu is one of the best – a seasoned mountaineer who is familiar with the harsh terrain of Tibet, as well as a knowledgeable and amiable travel companion. I’ve been working with him for the last three years.
Our trip started out positively, with three days of travel by Land Cruiser to get to our location in Sichuan, near the Qinghai border, an area famous for yartsa gombu and the nomad markets where it’s sold and traded. We were following a family of nomads collecting this precious commodity worth more than the price of gold. Yartsa gombu’s scientific name is cordyceps sinesis, and it has for centuries been known as a potent folk medicine.
In recent years, thanks to several scientific studies that confirmed its efficacy for certain conditions, the yartsa gombu trade has exploded. Part of the mystique of this wonder drug is in the way it grows: a parasitic fungus invades the head of a caterpillar, which then hibernates under the snow. The fungus continues to infest it, and by the spring thaw, a brown, gnarly worm-shaped mushroom is what remains. Eaten whole or consumed in pill or tea form, it’s supposed to cure everything from cancer to impotency.
The next day, we hiked all day following twenty of the nomad clan members crawling on their hands and knees over mountains in search of the elusive fungus. After a heavy spring snow, things began to take a darker turn. Fu complained of shortness of breath and chest pains, so I told him to rest and take it easy. But by sunset it was clear that Fu was more than just tired. An overnight in a nomad tent under falling snow and the incessant barking of Tibetan mastiffs outside didn’t help.
The next day we were headed to Serxu at 15,000 ft., way above the tree line. Unfortunately, Fu was worse. He had awakened from a fitful sleep with a racing heart and was coughing up blood. We knew we needed to head for a lower elevation, so we set out for Yushu, in Qinghai province — a five-hour drive away. This town, with an elevation of about 12,000 ft., is noted for the massive earthquake that leveled it, turning it into a tent city. We found the only doctor in town, who had set up shop in a makeshift tent when the earthquake destroyed the city’s hospital. He confirmed that we were dealing with HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema), serious and sometimes fatal altitude sickness. He administered oxygen, but ordered us to descend even lower. By the fourth day, after driving for 16 hours, we had made it to Xining, where Fu got to a proper hospital. But even here, at just over 7000 ft., the doctors felt the elevation was too high, so they instructed Fu to head home as soon as possible – but via train, not air, as he was still dangerously sick. Fu, ever the consummate professional, was reluctant to leave the assignment, but the doctors and I gave him no choice.
When the doctors gave the go-ahead for travel, I put Fu on the train, in a soft sleeper car, bound for Chengdu and some much-needed R & R. Back home, he recuperated quickly, though his enthusiasm for mountain adventures has ebbed a bit for now. After seeing Fu off, I couldn’t help but notice the irony of the whole experience. HAPE is a strange condition, as it ironically tends to affect those who are young and fit. So it was Fu, who was younger and an experienced climber, rather than I, who succumbed
I was soon back on the road with Michael Deng, another fine fixer from Beijing, in hot pursuit of the yartsa gombu. Alas, despite the worm’s reputation for curing hundreds of maladies, HAPE is not on the list.