Daocheng (lit. rice city) county is located in western Sichuan Province, China, Southeast of the high Tibetan plateau with an overwhelming Tibetan population. It just recently got famous because of several hit movies and variety shows that were filmed there. According to Drolma, a local girl that later became an internet celebrity, the best seasons to visit would be from June to November.
“Let me tell you a secret
There is a place called Daocheng
I’d want to go there with my most beloved
To see the dark blue sky
The white snowy mountains
And the golden grasslands
Watch the autumn fairy tale.”
Romance novelist commented as such.
Drolma has been staying in this heavenly county on the Tibetan plateau all her life. Before the age of 18, she never set foot anywhere outside the county. Her face shines with a healthy red from years under the blazing sun. The beauty of the mountains, golden grasslands, blossoming azaleas and flags dancing in the wind is the only existence she has ever known.
She is now 22. Not a lot has changed, except for the fact that she somehow became famous on a social app called Kuaishou. She posted videos of her own life, tourist attractions, traveling to the mountains to pick caterpillar fungus (a plant used in Chinese traditional medicine), garnering 1.7 million fans in just a couple of years.
“At first, it’s just purely for fun, entertainment. I never once thought of getting famous, you know, just film something random. At first, I didn’t get that many clicks until one day, I posted a video of digging caterpillar fungus in the mountains. And when I finally got to a place where the internet signal was better, the video soared up the top lists, with half a million clicks all of a sudden.”
Many people commented on her videos asking about how to purchase the products, and the idea of selling caterpillar fungus was born. Before that, she owned a small snack bar with her husband, outside a local elementary school. They have to wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning just to make a living.
Her encounter with her husband is also dreamy. In 2015, he was working in a trade firm in Yunnan province, and came across the book Lost Horizon, the 1933 novel by James Hilton that talks about the imaginary heavenly place called Shangri-La, the place where monks and lamas could live for hundreds of years after discovering the elixir of youth. Like all other travelers longing for adventure, her husband decided to go there, traveling from Lugu Lake in Yunnan to Daocheng by foot in a span of seven days. They got married that same year.
“It came to him that a dream had dissolved, like all too lovely things, at the first touch of reality; that the whole world’s future, weighed in the balance against youth and love, would be light as air.” The novel wasn’t exactly a perfect depiction of the place. It was filled with rather dreamy but unsubstantial fantasies of Shangri-la. Back then, westerners expected it to be the last sanctuary in a world of chaos.
However, she is not at all familiar with the deep-rooted romanticism in the novel, she was just an ordinary young girl trying to make a living. She told me her salary was about 3000 yuan per month, which is slightly better than her fellow villagers.
“My life is so much freer and better now, because I don’t need to get up so early each day.” I have never talked to anyone so genuine, pure and simple before.
Despite the fact that life got better ever since the videos got popular, they would still keep the habit of rallying fellow villagers to go dig fungus in the mountains. “I would buy their products and help them sell them to consumers for 10% more than the market price.” Her initiative gave a large boost to the local economy, in the best seasons, Drolma could sell fungus and matsutake worth a total of 300,000 yuan.
Caterpillar fungus is a most treasured medicine product only found in the high plateaus in four countries including China, India, Nepal and Bhutan. It is fungus grown from the bodies of caterpillars, costing as much as 120,000-160,000 yuan ($17,800-23,700) per kilogram. First class matsutake would cost between 300-400 yuan ($40-$70) per kilogram.
During the harvest seasons, she would go up to live in the mountains, together with the pigs and cows. The whole family lived in small roughly built brick houses, with no internet or electricity, and spent their days digging. The caterpillar fungus is found in 4500 to 5000-meter altitudes. If they got lucky, one could dig up to a dozen per day, weighing three to five grams.
“Another business idea is to develop homestay hostels, and several of the online fans have already offered their help and willingness to invest in the new project.” she said in a cheery tone.
When asked about future video ideas, she said, “all my videos are authentic depictions of my life. I never make any scripts or drafts, it’s just all improvised. If I find something somewhat interesting, I film it and upload it.” Drolma is now expecting her second baby.