Bhutan's Buddha Mushroom Mirror

Written for: The Mirror
Newspaper of the International Dzogchen Community  Jan / Feb 2010
[A much longer, fungally richer version will be published in Fungi in mid 2010]

Bhutan's Buddha Mushrooms
and Other Attractions

Daniel Winkler

The road wound its way in tight curves up the narrow valley along a mountain river. The gushing water was brown from the heavy monsoon rains. I was eager to make the late morning session at a panel on medicinal plants and their increasing scarcity in High Asia at a conference on Traditional Asian Medicines. We passed by a farmer selling apples and chili peppers along the roadside. He also sold small plastic bags full of yellow chanterelles. Late or not, I had to call a stop. Besides bags of smallish chanterelles, he was selling whitish-brown Matsutake, and big purple corals. Quickly, I took pictures, bought some chanterelles and a coral, and got back in the car. I had been invited to this conference Thimphu, Bhutan, to present my research on Yartsa Gunbu, Caterpillar fungus (Cordyceps sinensis). I had wanted to come to Bhutan, or Druk Yul, "Land of the Thunder Dragon" for 25 years but somehow it had never worked out. This was partly due to Bhutan's policy of minimizing the impact of tourism by letting in only a limited amount of guided groups, and maximizing the financial return by offering only high-end tourism, not my style of traveling. However, through the years I had been in contact with Dr. Phuntsho Namgyel, a Bhutanese researcher who studied caterpillar fungus and Matsutake, Bhutan's most precious fungal resources. So I had hopes of exploring Bhutan's fungal economy instead of joining exclusive tours that would speed right past the forests now full of mushrooms.

It wasn't so easy to get back in contact with Phuntsho. He had switched fields and was now the director in the Election Commission of Bhutan, a new office, since the 4th King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, had ordered Bhutan to become a democracy. This move was not so popular with many people, but the 4th king pointed out that democracy is the future and one bad king could ruin a country. However, the election took place during the early reign of the 5th King, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, who just turned thirty these days.

Bhutan is located in the Eastern Himalayas, sandwiched between Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. It has a forestation rate of over 70% and boasts an incredible biodiversity, including ecosystems from the tropic Himalayan foothills to high alpine areas peaking out at over 7000m bordering on Tibet. Bhutan as a country was unified by the Drukpa Kagyü Lama Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651) who had left Tibet in 1616 because of a power struggle. In Bhutan, Ngawang Namgyal unified the various warring fiefdoms. His succession remained politically a challenge and his incarnation lineage was - as some suggest - on purpose diluted by the declaration of three manifestations, a tulku each for the aspect of body, speech and mind. When five years old, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche was recognized as the mind incarnation of Ngawang Namgyal by the 16th Karmapa, but Chögyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche had never sought to claim the office. Nowadays, Bhutan has around 700'000 inhabitants being nearly the size of Switzerland (7.8 million inhabitants); fast growing Thimphu valley has around 100'000 inhabitants now, which worries planners. The administration is working hard on improving living conditions in the countryside to slow down emigration.

In this context, rural mushroom income is regarded as an important factor for rural development, and Bhutan has been dedicating resources to this cause. For example, the annual Cordyceps harvest is being sold via a government auctions to maximize local income in remote regions. Also, Bhutan has the most advance field trials researchingCordyceps sinensis ecology, although Bhutan's annual production is below a ton and thus less than 1% of the annual production of the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas. And the interest in Cordyceps is great. Most people I talked with were familiar with "Yartsa Goenbub," as it is known in Bhutan. Phuntsho took me to the National Mushroom Center to meet his friend Dawa Penjor, the NMC director. Dawa was so kind as to organize an overnight excursion to Ganekha, the village where the "first" matsutake (Tricholoma matsutake) was found. Actually, this mushroom was known before, but in 1988 a Japanese visitor realized that Bhutan's Po shamu ("penis mushroom") as it was nicknamed back then for its sometimes suggestive shape, was identical with Japan's most famous mushroom. Already the next year, commercial harvest had started, and ever since then it has been collected in Bhutan's oak-pine forests for air-freight export to Japan. All it needed was a new name; everyone now knows it as "Sangay shamu," the Buddha Mushroom.

Our visit was timed so that we could visit the matsutake market. Buyers come to the village three times a week. The matsutake are sorted into two categories; Class A are specimens whose caps have not fully opened and they sell for US $5 per pound, Class B sells for $2. Most mushrooms sold are class A. [For comparison, locally beloved chanterelles cost 40 cents/lb]. Collectors can earn $750 per season; overall Sangay Shamu constitutes over 40% of the local income in Ganekha. A decade ago it generated over 80%, but the fungal income was invested in agriculture, which enabled farmers to increase overall income.

Dawa and Phuntsho had arranged for us to stay in a farm house in Zamto village and to join in on a matsutake hunt. On the way we encountered a collectors' camp on a small meadow in the woods. 35 men from a lower village for whom a daily walk up into the woods was too far were camping out. Soon after, the road was blocked by a landslide, so we had to hike the last bit. The narrow valley opened up between forested slopes. The southern slope was dotted with tall, beautiful farmhouses with ornate windows. Once arrived we were served milk, tea, and Indian cookies. This was soon followed by a sumptuous dinner. First we received a big bowl of red rice, a local specialty. I was shown how to use the sticky pinkish rice to clean my hands by first rubbing it and then kneading it in my hands. The darkening of the rice convinced me that my hands were now clean enough to eat with. On top of my rice I received a ladle each of ema datsiand shamu datsiDatsi is a cheese sauce, somewhat close to our idea of a cream sauce, and an all Bhutanese favorite. Ema are green chilies. In Bhutan hot peppers are a vegetable, not a spice. Incredible amounts of hot green and red chilies are eaten every day. Not surprisingly, the shamu datsi - mushrooms in cheese sauce - were also enriched with lots of chilies. The mushroom served was the Himalayan Gypsy (Rozites emodensis), which looks just like its close relative the Gypsy Mushroom (R. caperata), but can be distinguished by the purple hue of its gills and cap. It was difficult to discern its taste beyond pleasantly fungal, due to the overwhelming presence of the green peppers.

At dawn, following our host Dema we quickly traversed some pastures on the way uphill to the matsutake forest. In the morning light, the forest of stout evergreen oaks and Bhutan pines decorated with long strands of Usnea lichen interspersed with tall Rhododendrons seemed like it was out of a fairy tale. Soon we found the first mushrooms. Bright yellow chanterelles and a variety of Brittlegills (Russula) dotted the ground. Matsutake were much more elusive, the daily collection by locals having cleaned out the forest successfully. Or maybe they were all hidden? A small budding matsutake was found, but we hid it again under moss so it could keep growing. We found many familiar mushrooms such as a variety of Amanitas (A. citrina and A. francheti), milkcaps (Lactarius scrobiculatus and L. rufus), and a whole range of knights (Tricholoma sejunctumTsulphureum, & T. focale). Also we came across the big purplecoral (Ramaria asiatica) called "Bjichu kangru," the bird foot, a very popular edible in Bhutan. But, of course, there were plenty of mushrooms I had never seen in my life or just couldn't place.

Another outing took us to the woods below Chari Gompa up the valley from Thimphu. Joining us in the woods here below Chari Gonpa was a bunch of young Nepali women (Bhutan has a large Nepali population known as Lhotsawas), who were apparently picking any good-sized mushrooms, kept asking us if they could eat them. We told them we didn't know what they were picking, pointing out that it is not wise to eat unknown mushrooms. They did not seem to care for this bit of advice, and went their way with a wild assortment of brittlegills, milkcaps and corals; at least they had no seriously poisonous mushrooms. In Bhutan many people are convinced that toxicity in a mushroom can be neutralized by cooking them with tingay, the seed of Prickly ash (Zanthoxylum sp.), known in China as Sichuan Pepper. The consumption of incorrectly identified mushrooms is a big problem in Bhutan. Enthusiastic fungophilia paired with lack of knowledge is a dangerous concoction. Every year many people get sick and some even die form eating poisonous mushrooms. One of the Mushroom Center's main objectives is to educate the public. It has published posters and table calendars of the main edible and poisonous mushrooms.

In the woods below Chari we found "regular" chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) and a dark blue-gray chanterelle (Craterellus cornucopioides). The last, known as the Horn of Plenty, is an excellent edible, but is not really eaten in Bhutan because of its dark color. This gloomy perception is also reflected in its European names such asTotentrompeteTrombetta dei morti and trompette des morts. Interestingly, close by in Tango I found the edible Winter chanterelle Craterellus tubaeformis, but was informed by Wangdi, a fungophile monk, that he regarded this mushroom as inedible. Tango Gonpa was already founded in 12th Century and is Bhutan's highest center of Buddhist studies. Almost every Je Khenpo, the highest monastic authority in Bhutan and also the head of the southern branch of the Drukpa Kagyü, completed the 9-year study and retreat program there. Also Drukpa Künley, the illustrious "Divine Madman" studied in Tango.

Also below Tango Gonpa, I found my first Aureoboletus thibetanus, a tiny but absolutely stunning bolete with a sticky, dimpled brown cap and yellow pores. It was first described from oak forests in Kham. Growing on an oak nearby was a bright orange cluster of Gymnopilus spectabilis, a psychoactive mushroom. Some days later over dinner I was told by a Bhutanese that his father used to talk about Ga shamu, the "Laughter mushroom". The extreme steepness often slowed us down and the mossy "ground" in the form of the slope was right in our faces. Thus, I noticed a minute, filigreed fruiting body with a yellow base and the rest all covered in white spores, like a small tree covered in powder snow. Eureka! I had found a Cordyceps. We looked all around and found four more minute similar fungi. Well, it turned out we had found three different species, all technically not Cordyceps, but very closely related to Cordyceps, one of them Isaria tenuipes. That was enough to make my day, but it got even better that evening when the only Italian restaurant in Thimphu served us an excellent pizza con funghi generously topped with Sisi shamu, the oak mushroom, which we know as chanterelles.

The last day of my trip, I had reserved to see Bhutan's most spectacular monastery, Taktsang, the "Tiger's Nest." The current temples were first built in 1692. However, the site is famous, since Padmasambhava, landed here in 747 AD flying in from Tibet on the back of his consort Yeshe Tsogyal, whom he had transformed into a flying tigress. They meditated here for four months. This absolutely stunning temple is built into vertical granite cliff of over five hundred meters complete with a roaring waterfall. I arrived at the base of the mountain just as a powerful downpour had started. I had no umbrella, no pre-arranged ride back, and everything was dark and wet. But what the heck, I thought. I had wanted to visit this temple ever since I had first seen it in photos many years ago. I jumped out of the taxi and rushed into the pine woods.
My trousers were soaked within minutes. Parts of the wide, entrenched trail turned into a small river. Where I was going was completely unclear due to the hard rain and low clouds. I took a few short cuts through the dense lichen-clad forests to save time, but ended up worrying whether I was still on the right path. Finally the path leveled out. The view was still all heavy fog, but I spotted a small gate. Yes, I was in the right place! The path turned into a stairway and went steeply down a nearly vertical cliff. It led me to a wooden bridge under a roaring waterfall that shot out between two cliffs. To the right of the falls was a retreat house; not a drop of rain reached that spot under the immense cliff. At this site Yeshe Tsogyal had been in retreat. What a place to immerse oneself into the roar of the water element I thought, but had to laugh at the fact that I was already completely immersed in the water element on a more mundane level. From below the house the path led up some stairs and finally there was Taktsang Gonpa in the clouds. If I were a flying tiger or an eagle, I would have my nest here too! What an incredible site!

I was hoping for a moment of peace inside the gonpa, sitting in front of an inspiring Guru Rinpoche statue, but the young monk in charge of the temple kept asking questions about my family. Even sitting in meditation posture with closed eyes didn't gain me a moment's solitude. Also, having been soaked to the bones, I quickly got a chill. Movement was needed. I got up and the monk volunteered to show me around. Most impressive was a dark cave known as Taktsang Senge Samdup. Guru Rinpoche had practiced in this cave over 1200 years ago and now one could look down into a deep dark hole, which was full of coins, bank notes, khatas and other offerings left by pilgrims. The cave is usually covered by a wooden lid hidden in the floor of the shrine room. Actually Taktsang was built around this cave. Nowadays, the sacred site is administrated by Drukpa Kagyü monks. Unfortunately parts of Taktsang had burned down some years ago, but had been rebuilt beautifully. I went back down again and while climbing the steps beyond the waterfall, the clouds suddenly parted, giving me the most stunning glimpse of the Tiger's Nest. A perfect surprise! More clouds moved in, a drizzle started up, and down I went.

On the way down, I managed to stop quickly for a few mushrooms: a Fried Chicken Mushroom (Lyophyllum sp.), a very popular mushroom in Bhutan known as Nala Shamu and Lion's Mane (Hericium erinaceus). The fading daylight reminded me that I had not arranged a ride back to Paro, from where I was to depart the next day. In Paro is Bhutan's airport, tucked into a narrow valley of rice fields and farmhouses. Landing there is quite an experience. It seems as if the wing tips are brushing along the pine forested slopes, so close that I was eagerly trying to spot mushrooms from my window seat. I reached the road at twilight, but not a single car was to be seen in the spot where I had hoped to hitch a ride. I hiked down the road for a mile or so before I heard the first car approaching. Bright lights blinded me. A pick-up truck stopped and the middle aged driver asked in good English where I wanted to go. And although he was not on his way to Paro, he offered to drive me to town. Completely soaked, cold and hungry, I was immensely grateful to have been offered such a gracious ending to an awesome journey.

Please note:
This is the article that should have made it in the Mirror.
Unfortunately the Mirror published the wrong paper, a sample I had submitted before rewriting it for the Mirror,
This version has more cultural content and less of a fungal load.

About the author
Daniel Winkler grew up collecting wild mushrooms in the Alps. He received a master in Geography, Ecology, and Biology at FU Berlin and first met Chögyal Namkhai Norbu in Katmandu in 1989. Daniel lives in Seattle and works as researcher and NGO consultant on environmental issues of the Tibetan Plateau []. Working in Tibet, Daniel realized that mushrooms play a crucial role in rural Tibetan. Daniel also leads annually "MushRoaming" tours to Tibet []; in 2010 the Cordyceps Expedition explores East Tibet [May 26 to June 8] and the Summer Fungal & Floral Foray travels in Kongpo [July 14 to 27]. Bhutan tours are organized on request.

Here my new Tibet's precious mushroom T-Shirt [mail order]:

Last edited on Fri, August 24, 2012, 1:05 pm