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Mógu Mania (Part 3): Mission Mógu

Delicious Beginnings

We wake up at 9 a.m. to a gorgeous mountain morning: Mission Mógu is under way. First order of business for all three of us: coffee. As if mushrooms were not enough, Yunnan Province is also known for its Arabica coffees. As a former barista, coffee afficianado and all-around obsessee of the beverage world, you might imagine what this little setup does for my fungal foreplay:

This, folks, is a vacuum or siphon pot - and not only is she a fine-looking specimen of coffee brewage, but she also has the added functional value of what we nerds call full-saturation brewing (at a constant and ideal temperature).

Suffice to say, it rocks. I inhale a deep earthy breath followed by a slow slurp, letting it bubble over my tongue. It's the best coffee I've had in China: bright with a nice touch of acidity and medium body.

Caffeinated and sated with yogurt and Chinese pastry products, we venture from the one open café back to our "horsepen," where the day's adventure begins.

A Foodie Sorta Day

It so happens that our hostel-owner, Shirley, is a wonderful outdoorsy woman who has offered to take us up the mountain with her giant St. Bernard, Marley (a rarity in China, where big dogs are discouraged if not verboten). Before setting off, we climb on top of the toilets to knock a few apples from the tree in our center courtyard - it's already fixing to be a foodie sorta day.

The mountains of Yunnan are distinctly lush from the Rockies of home. We travel along rural cobblestoned roads, which are flanked by irrigation ditches that divide the surrounding rice paddies. As we venture upwards, the earth turns from sandy grit to a red clay and underbrush begins to coat the ground, wilderness taking over. My fingers begin to itch with excitement. Will I find a good one?

A Fungal Phallic Find

Then it happens, craftily exposing itself from beneath the foliage something is sprouting: mushroom! My friend and I bend down and unearth it, reveling in its grotesque beauty. It's a beautiful specimen, flawless in its organismic composition. It is also the most overwhelmingly phallic vegetation I've ever seen.

My friend and I ogle briefly, then look up at each other: who's going to pick this bad boy up? OK fine, I will.

Do I grab it by the shaft or the, um, tip? I gingerly place my fingers around the base. It's soft and smooth like chubby baby skin, but with damp diaper-creamy film that makes me a little uncomfortable. This is not the way I expected my senses to be titillated today.

I can only dwell on my minor disgust for a moment before the fungus engrosses me. While delicately holding the specimen between thumb and forefinger, I continue hiking, head glued to the ground. Soon enough there's another and another, each mushroom different from the last, and we just cannot stop adding to our trove.

Time out.

Mycology Credentials?

So I'm sure at this point you're wondering, "And what the hell does this girl know about harvesting edible mushrooms?" Nothing, really.

In fact I salivate over the prospect of attending the Telluride Mushroom Festival every year, but the closest I ever come is Boulder's Whole Foods, where I gaze lustfully at the various mycelium selling for approximately $372 a pound. Once I splurged for a few fresh truffle shavings probably unearthed by a Frenchman's olfactory-endowed swine.

So my knowledge is confined, I'll admit. And yes, I also know that that some-odd numbers of people die each year from ingesting poisonous mushrooms and that maybe I should watch out for said potential toxic shrooms, but that's where the talking mountain comes in.

At first it sounds like birds calling to each other across the steep slope of the Shibao, but as the howl carries on we realize that the sounds coming from above and below cannot possibly be animal. Is the mountain warning us?

On a different kind of mushroom mission I might attribute this to some psilocybin-induced hallucination.

Before I have time to converse with the mystery moans, I spot them. A group of Bai women spread across the mountain, calling to each other as they forage. Are they letting the others know where they have already been? Is this Bai GPS? The closer we come to the top of Shibao Shan the louder the calling becomes. "Oh boy!" we think, "We can show these women our harvest."

Fungal Failure?

There are many great things about being a foodie in far-off places. One of the finest is how food often supersedes language. So, even though I speak neither Chinese nor Bai nor Yii, the mushrooms speak for me.

Apparently they're foul-mouthed little buggers though, and the Bai do not like what they have to say. Because when Rory and I spread out our hands in delight, the blue-clad women pick through our collection, tossing one beautiful fungus after another to the ground. We are left with three measly mushrooms, one of which is our first phallic friend.

Shirley looks at our defeated faces with no small amount of good humor. "You know what?" she says, "At the top of the mountain there is a mushroom trading point. If you like, perhaps you can sell your mushrooms or we can buy some more and we can have them made into lunch."

You mean mushrooms for lunch at the top of a mountain surrounded by ancient rock carvings? Sweet! Phallus in hand, I double-time it up the mountain, anxious to partake in a smorgasbord of shrooms, including my very own, albeit small (but size isn't everything), contribution.

Stay tuned for Part 4…


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