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Pilgrims flock to famed Chinese herbalist

Baisha, Yunnan Province --   

It's not often that an 84-year-old in China's remote southwestern mountains can build a successful cottage industry around one 3,000-word article, but that's exactly what Dr. Ho @!$%#iu has done.

Ho, a spry herbal medicine practitioner from the Naxi tribe -- descendants of a Tibetan tribe with a matriarchal bent -- has been researching herbs and plants in the surrounding Jade Dragon Snow Mountains for half a century.

The octogenarian started out with a degree in mechanical engineering at Nanjing University, but his course of study was interrupted when he fell ill and had to return to his home village, where he immersed himself in the mysteries of herbs.

Adrienne Mong / NBC News
Dr. Ho @!$%#iu at work in his "laboratory."

"My father knew some herbal medicine," said Ho during a recent interview. "I read many books and studied in the mountains."

One of his tutors was the Austrian-American botanist Joseph Rock, who traveled in the region from 1922 to 1949.

And it was an interest in Rock that led British travel writer Bruce Chatwin to the tiny Naxi town of Baisha (pop. 2,000) in northeastern Yunnan province and, eventually, to Ho.

Chatwin's vivid portrait of the doctor sowed the seeds of an international celebritydom.

On display outside the rustic clinic are hundreds of framed articles charting Ho's career alongside scads of business cards and letters of correspondence from more-prominent visitors: ambassadors, ministers, journalists, and, most notably, an American patient who ten years ago was cured of leukemia.

"That was the most meaningful [point] of my career," Ho recounted.  "I was very happy [to hear] those words from his letter that four years later, he had no remission, no cancerous blood cells."

Visitors from near and far

Ho also treats the less privileged. On the day we observed him, foreigners and locals alike passed through the doors of his clinic. One man caught our eye -- a 52-year-old farmer who had climbed two hours down a mountain, followed by a two-and-a-half hour bus ride and then a shuffle through this one-horse town to find Ho. 

What had brought him here was rheumatism of the knee.  His impassive face gave little indication of the pain he was in.

Ho looked him over and asked some questions before prescribing a mix of herbs which had been dried and mashed into powder. He gave the farmer both oral and topical medication to tide him over for two months and then sent him on his way to the next minibus to take him back to his hometown.

The doctor doesn't charge most of his patients, especially not the local ones who tramp over from faraway villages. 

Adrienne Mong / NBC News
The Jade Dragon Snow Mountain range where Dr. Ho finds the herbs and plants for his medicine seen from a surrounding village.

But for far-flung visitors like Laura and Sonia, both natives from Turin, Italy, he welcomes donations. Laura, who now lives and works in Shanghai, came to see him about occasional blurry and double vision while Sonia wanted treatment for a gastrointestinal affliction.

Both of them are fans of herbal medicine. "I prefer not to take [western] medicine," said Sonia.  "I prefer natural medicine… There are no side effects."

But each admits that for "serious" diseases, they would probably resort to conventional medical care.

More turnips may be the trick

When I asked Ho about his feelings towards conventional medicine, he neatly sidestepped the issue, "My philosophy is, it depends on conditions. Sometimes you use western medicine, sometimes you use Chinese medicine."

What he would opine about vociferously, however, was the human diet.

"For me, simpler life is better," said the doctor, beginning a lengthy discourse on how many illnesses today are rooted in diet. "Don't use much salt, cut down on eggs… And eat turnips."

Turnips?

Ho is a big fan of turnips.

They were featured front and center at our shared lunch.

Maybe we should have eaten more. A few days later, after scaling a few more hundred feet higher, all three members of our NBC crew were mysteriously taken ill during our trip. 

And we wondered about the turnips.