Date: June 23 2012
ON THE road from Lhasa to Chengdu, at an altitude of 4700 metres, two siblings have found a hillside blanketed with pink and white rhododendrons to stop and clean their caterpillar fungus.
These prized creatures spend the late winter as burrowing caterpillars before having their bodies invaded by a fungus, which sprouts through the surface like a thick blade of grass in late spring.
The body-snatching fungus, known as the ''Viagra of the Himalayas'' (and known for other medicinal properties), typically grows only on the most inaccessible Tibetan mountain faces.
It provides a handy income to rural Tibetans who have otherwise struggled to tap into the booming Chinese economy.
They sell to Tibetan middle men, who sell to Chinese traders, and eventually the caterpillars end up elaborately packaged at Chinese medicine shops near to where officials congregate.
At the gift shops opposite the gates of Beijing's National Development & Reform Commission, where visiting provincial officials and business are loathe to enter empty-handed, you can buy a box of 10 caterpillars for 2000 yuan ($310), or about 200 yuan a gram.
In some elite circles it has become like a surrogate currency, or a bribe of choice, because it embodies a degree of thoughtfulness as well as compact value.
The worm-diggers have the benefit of working in some of the most stunning and unspoilt natural environments on the planet.
On top of the nearest pass is one of the world's most scenic urinals, where men can stand and admire the snow-clad base of an enormous pyramid which I'm told is Nanjiabawa, ''the long lance piercing the sky''.
It is the 15th highest mountain in the world, at 7782 m, but safely concealed by its cloud blanket almost all year round.
The glaciers and snow drifts from this and other staggering peaks trickle into creeks that curl through mountain lichen, past lazy hairy yaks and mountain goats and their Tibetan minders, and then gather speed and tumble through cypress and conifer forest valleys to the thundering Yarlung Zangpo River, literally five kilometres below the highest adjacent peaks.
The Yarlung Zangpo passes the largest concentration of Chinese soldiers in Tibet, outside Lhasa, a legacy of the Sino-Indian war of 1962 and the simmering territorial dispute over Arunachal Pradesh.
It then curls around and spills out of the Himalayas to become the Brahmaputra River, before spreading its flood plains and destruction across Bangladesh.
The sounds, colours and smells of south-east Tibet are unfamiliar to the point of being shocking to visitors from Beijing.
It is only through a series of miracles that I've found myself in this corner of the world, which is now tightly restricted and effectively closed to journalists.
Strange, to be a reporter and unable to report, knowing the trail of complications that would be left behind.
In eastern China the Party-state squeezes the countryside to provide relative affluence and freedom in the cities. In western China it is mostly the other way around. The Party-state concentrates its levers of control on the urban and religious centres, leaving rural areas to breathe.
Out here it is almost possible to forget the ethnic fear, hatred and near-absurdity that concentrates around Lhasa, where passports are required to enter temples, fire trucks stand ready at empty concrete squares, and electronic billboards urge citizens to emulate the spirit of self-sacrifice embodied in the 1960s mythical hero, Lei Feng.
To see Tibet through the glasses of my Chinese friends and hosts, who are waved through road checks because of the police plates on their car, this world is a monument to Chinese sovereignty, with untapped tourism and business potential, and where Tibetans must be prospering because they all seem to have brand new housing.
Conversation inevitably turns to exotic delicacies including Lingzhi fungus and the caterpillar fungus which they call Chongcao.
But there is an acknowledgement that all is not as it should be; voiced in terms of how Beijing's good policies don't always get implemented as planned.
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