Adventures with a Medicine Hunter

Explorer Jeff Fuchs accompanies one of the few remaining practitioners of traditional Himalayan medicine on a journey through his old herb-hunting grounds.

Slopes run northwards and bend towards Tibet proper. Scree is mixed with tight round thorn bushes and short dwarf trees that arch and bend from the wind’s long attentions.

I follow Aku, whose languid body glides over the landscape, belying his 70-some years. He carries a simple pack upon his back. Aku is known as the medicine man and his skills depend upon the herbs for which he now searches.

Three of us are crossing the high cold lands that rest near Gyalthang in northwestern Yunnan’s Hengduan Mountains. We are tracing a route that Aku thinks he remembers. Ngawang and I follow while Aku leads.

Aku is a famed man whose time is coming to a soft end, as he himself told me before we’d even departed upon this journey. Few (if any) of the local youth are interested in continuing on a tradition of mountain medicine which finds its roots in dense forests, scrubbed surfaces and in the leaves of little known plants.

He is a legend if for no other reason than he stubbornly clings to a way that is based on using nature’s brilliance to cure. Any pride he might have is tempered when he mutters prophetically: “What use are the skills if they end with me”?

Aku is a lean, hard-bodied man who embodies a kind of mountain ideal that is common among Himalayan residents: minimalist and entirely tough. He knows how to read the land and sky around us.

A straggly goatee flows long down his throat and he dons a Tibetan robe underneath a bizarre green military jacket. His little pack contains only a hat, extra socks and of course some locally made barley whisky, which is as potent as Aku himself.

The 'bounty'. For those like Aku, every plant, moss, and root has a use and his worry is that there will come a time when few - if any - remember the old ways.

Mountains themselves are intense and the personalities they produce are equally so. Aku has the same fluid motion moving as he does when speaking. Only his eyes are dots of intensity. They have become more so as our journey has developed, as though he is hunting.

Aku has travelled all over this dense land that marks the divide between Gyalthang and the Yangtze River Valley, hunting beast and medicine. He tells me at one point: “These lands belong to those who know how to treat them”.

Borders here were always informal things, as much about a concept as about an actual line of division. Here mountains reveal themselves in far more variety than simply shards of stone and shimmering glaciers. Lush damp valleys of rich diversity and fauna exist within sight of the great snows peaks; valleys that smell of humid earth and wet wood.

Much of the Himalayas are richer and more vibrant than many believe possible. Such deep valleys are virtual gardens of precious mountain herbs and plants.

These lands, rarely accessed anymore, were once Aku’s familiar herb hunting grounds. Now nature has entirely reclaimed them, though it doesn’t seem to disturb Aku. Our three bodies seem to barely register amidst this desolate, silent space.

Winter is coming and felt in every gust of wind that cuts the teeth. Tibetans, Yi and Lisu peoples still reside in the nearby valleys, but the highlands are only sparsely populated in the summer months by herders. Our bodies are visitors and guests. I often feel that everything within these eternal mountains is transient.

Growing older, Aku seldom comes anywhere near these bear-ridden lands anymore and his memories of the static landscapes seems to confuse the old mountain goat.

We travel with minimal gear, counting on (perhaps naively) rare sources of vegetation and water. We aim on roughly a five day trip which will eventually lead us into the valleys of Tuo’ding further west.

We’ve no pack animals, depending only upon what we can carry, the mountain streams…and the fading memory of an old medicine hunter. It is as much an exercise in faith as it is in the lungs and quad’s abilities, but these journeys are more vital than ever, given how few individuals are left that can recall where to find the precious herbs.

Ngawang and Aku take a moment or two. Ngawang is carrying a bag of plants and leaves as am I, which is besides what Aku has strapped on his back.

We left Gyalthang, also known as Shangri-La or Zhongdian, two days ago. We took shelter in an abandoned herder’s shack the first night, amid fire and dead frozen air.

Winter months can bring any number of ‘versions’ of cold. We chop through ice to source water, though snow hasn’t yet touched down. The winds cut into fabric and bone and when the winds die, a deep cold erupts out of the earth and down from the blue-black night air encasing everything.

Aku had brought along a good week’s supply of local arra (homemade barley whisky), which I quickly found out wasn’t at all intended to last a week. In fact it seems that most of Aku’s supplies involve bottles of the clear potent fluid in slight variations of bottle size.

Ngawang is an even-tempered machine in these outdoor mountain spaces and he simply smiles, having known Aku for decades. He will often disappear without a word, and return with kindling and eatables. His instincts have not been clouded by memories, or memories of memories. He is the understated vital on this journey.

When I ask Ngawang about the chances of finding the old route given Aku’s four decades of absence from its length, Ngawang answers by way of an analogy saying that: “If the hunting is still good we’re fine”. I take this cryptic answer to mean that he isn’t at all certain of anything and that he has in fact contemplated starving.

Days pass and we remain on a trail that at times has us climbing through sandalwood forests, literally scrambling through underbrush - and at others tumbling down scree slopes that slide into dark canyons below.

At times Aku will yelp, finding a small strand of a pathway which has refired his memories, giving Ngawang and I brief moments of confidence. These moments are often short-lived as the sun seems to disappear behind the walled canopy of mountain wood, leaving our hopes and sensations in a dull cold air.

One of our evenings is spent on a small jetty of land that runs between two sacred lakes high on a forested plateau. Aku hasn’t laid eyes on these lakes for over 50 years and he bathes his face in the bigger of the two lakes and recites some mantra into the depths.

Aku reciting mantras at the sacred 'Black Lake'.

While Ngawang prepares our meals on a simple fire, Aku tells me: “These are good lakes and good omens, but now it seems no one comes anymore to pay homage.”

Aku sets his bedding down, layers up his clothes deep to keep out the cold and starts to reminisce about days past. “These lakes were places that shamans once came to, to help with difficult decisions in the past - but now everyone has a cell phone instead,” he says.

He speaks of a time when the land and its elements were tangible parts of people’s lives; a time when mountains, water, winds and trees were integral in decision making, praying, and purging. This animist tradition is a leftover from the pre-Buddhist pagans, the Bon.

Much in traditional Tibetan Buddhism carries the vital remnants of the ‘earth people’ (as the animists were once known). There was a time, Aku reminds us, when forests were rife with spirits, and the lakes and mountains were the abodes of deities of wrath and redemption.

“We’ve killed all the animals and forgotten to be thankful”, he says somberly. Before our evening can get too jaded and skeptical, Aku begins a song that seems to be about everything and nothing and unscrews the top to one of his beloved bottles of whisky.

Next morning we pass through ever-thickening forests and I feel we are once again lost, but I am wrong. Aku knows exactly where we are and is humming, even chatting to himself in some contented state.

Stopping suddenly, he drops to his knees and begins digging something up, beckoning us down to see his spoils. Aku gleams as he shows us long green weeds with their roots intact, talking us through this bevy of the earth. These are medicines that he sourced when young, which aid in everything from stomach ailments to fevers.

In Aku’s village he still treats those who come in from even more remote locales to be treated by the elegant old mountain doctor. He begins stuffing the roots, blades and other various mosses (“good for treating external wounds”, he tells me) into our bags.

Aku at his home treating a patient who showed up from kilometres away. People come as they always have, because of results.

Aku’s pleasure at being amidst all of this green once again is summed up with his almost infantile energy and giddiness. He is pleased too that amidst this cold forest in the heights he can still locate the precious herbs that have for so long been part of the Himalayan weave of life.

His skills, passed onto him by an uncle, who was in turn ‘trained’ by some distant relative, relate one of the great traditions of the mountains: using local agents, herbs and know-how to cure, treat, and aid in injury and disease.

This particular area of Yunnan, though close to 4,000 metres, remains a bio-diverse hotspot of vegetal and herbal sanctity. Beyond simply mountains and ridgelines, there are fertile valleys and soil types that provide isolated sanctuaries for plant life whose uses are remembered by only a few.

Himalayan medicine, like most things ‘Himalayan’, requires memory and knowledge of where to find the precious ingredients and it requires skills in how to use the medicines. It also requires someone to pass down the ways and methods.

In the not so distant days of trade, these ‘doctors without borders’ treated muleteers, migrants and pilgrims alike, turning no one away. They were as vital to the lands and flow of life as the annual snows. Doctors who knew herbs were treated with a kind of reverence normally reserved for holy men.

Descending days later into the heated Yangtze River Valley with Aku purring like a man revitalized (and getting us lost numerous times), he says something that immediately seems to counter his contented mood.

“That is the last time I ever go to my medicine mountains. I’m finished with this place”, he tells me, with no hint of drama. When, with my western sensibilities, I plead for a reason why, he says: “My body cannot do this again. Time to teach someone younger to do what I do”.

I wonder at this last bit, suspecting that few will ever aspire to the ancient skills that made use of leaves, roots, and the human touch.

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