Before 1985, only a small number of tourists were able to get permits to visit a restricted number of places in China. Beginning in1985, it became possible to get an individual tourist visa to visit most places in the Republic, including Tibet and Yunnan province in the south of the country. Around 250 cities and counties opened to foreign visitors.
Four of us got individual visas in Kathmandu in early summer in 1987. (Soon afterwards, individual visas were terminated and you had to go in a supervised group.) After spending a few days in Shigatse, where there is the magnificent Tashilumpo Monastery (which is the seat of the Panchen Lama), we continued by local bus to Lhasa.
In Lhasa there were five hotels open to foreigners. We checked into rooms on the top floor of the Banakshol Hotel, which was full of travellers. We stayed there for a month, before setting off hitch-hiking east through Tibet, then south alongside the Brahmaputra river to Yunnan Province. From there we travelled further east, eventually arriving in Macao and Hong Kong in September 1987.
Hash smoking in China
For some years we had heard in India about Chinese hash; some had arrived in Goa in 1986.
The hash had come from Xinjiang Province (New Province) in south-west China, a province that borders Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. This province is referred to as Turkestan by the Uighur inhabitants, who are Muslims, originally of Turkish descent. The capital of Xinjiang is Kashgar, south-east of which is the city and county of Yarkand (Shāchē), which is one the eleven districts of Xinjiang, located on the southern rim of the Taklamakan Desert in the Tarim basin. Once a stronghold of Buddhism, Yarkand is renowned for its excellent hashish.
Some foreigners who liked hash had taken the opportunity to travel in China to visit Yarkand. Hash was $10 a kilo (yes, kilo!). Exports from China were profitable, as no one in those days suspected that a package posted from China would contain hash, or that someone leaving China would have it on them.
The top floor of our hotel was full of hash. There was a smoking room, furnished with bongs, pipes and chilams. The hash was free. At that time, throughout China, in any city, including Lhasa, you only had to find a Uighur restaurant and you could buy a tennis-ball of hash for 1 Yuan (at that time around 15 USA cents). The blonde hash was nearly always lightly pressed into tennis-ball sized lumps. It was quite aromatic, very similar in taste to Gold Lebanese, but not quite as potent.
The way Uighurs smoked hash was usually in what we called a Chinese joint, which they made from newspaper. Take a quarter sheet of newspaper, make a triangle, roll the triangle into a cone (starting at the thin end), then add a kink at the thin end; load the cone with a mixture of tobacco and one or two grammes of powdery hash: voilà. As newspaper ink is so toxic, foreigners made joints with thin paper instead.
You would occasionally see old Uighur women or men squatting in markets in China puffing away on large, newspaper hash cones. In Hong Kong, Chinese hash was easily available.
Hash and the law in China
The Han Chinese police in Lhasa in 1987 had no idea what travellers were really up to, as they knew nothing at all about cannabis, but you could tell that they were highly suspicious. They knew that travellers were using ma (the main Chinese word for cannabis) but were unsure what it all meant. This was all new for them, as Tibetans usually didn’t smoke or use cannabis at all. At the time, Uighurs used to smoke openly and did not seem to be aware of any legal restrictions, even if there were any.
Some travellers in Lhasa were up to all sorts of mischief, apart from smoking hash; wheeling and dealing different foreign and Chinese currencies (RMB and Yuan) and doing other kinds of business. Someone in our hotel had been there for a couple of months and had made a small cheese factory. One day the police arrived and arrested him for doing business illegally. His punishment was to write out apologies to his ancestors in the police station. A couple of travellers had set up a press, heating and pressing hash to make black hash that was around three times more compressed and thus more potent (by quantity) to smoke.
Several years later I heard that the situation had changed dramatically in Xinjiang. Hash farmers were being shot.
Weed and the law in North Korea
The situation in China was similar to that in North Korea, described in a blog first published in 2013 by the British journalist Darmon Richter (2020). On a holiday tour of the country, Richter reports how in Rason, a Special Economic Zone in the north-east of North Korea, he saw piles of weed for sale in a local market, alongside other vegetables. North Korea has a large, active hemp industry and weed grows wild in parts of country. A North Korean goddess, Mago/Magu (derived from the Chinese word ma) is associated with the cannabis plant.
Richter bought some weed, known as yoksam in Korean, and straight away rolled a large joint, which he smoked in the market; no one had any particular interest. The tour continued, ending up at a dinner at a restaurant with party officials. The day and the dinner were punctuated with many more joints. The weed was weak, feral hemp but it had some mild effect. At dinner, the intelligence officer, who was the tour guide, politely inhaled with the foreign guest.
It seems that Korean officials, like their Chinese counterparts in Tibet in the 1980s, had for many decades been culturally shielded, through news censorship by the Communist Party, from information about cannabis in the wider, international world. They were simply unaware that the weed that peasants smoke, as a cheap substitute for tobacco, is in fact a drug, for which in other contexts you could theoretically have been shot for using.
Cannabis production in China
China has a very long history of cannabis use, for fibre, paper, textiles, medicine and intoxication. Northern China may be the area where cannabis was first cultivated. There is evidence of its use for fibre in the Neolithic period (3500–2500 BCE). Its numerous applications were discussed by the legendary emperor and patron saint of Chinese herbalism Shên-Nung (Divine Farmer) around 2800 BCE in a treatise on medicine attributed to him, The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic (Robinson 1996:44; Clarke and Merlin 2013:138). However, Shen Nung’s medical applications only much later appear, collected from fragments in the 2nd century CE, in one of the world’s earliest pharmacopoeias, the Pên-Ts’ao Ching. In this text it is observed that, taken in excess, cannabis can produce hallucinations and that taken for a long time it may allow communication with spirts (Li 1975:56).
When, in the late 18th century, British administrators first began properly researching the use of cannabis by Indians, they became aware of hashish, which was referred to as caras (charas), being imported into India in large quantities from Yarkand in the Xinjiang Province (Turkestan) of China. An inquiry in 1798 in Bengal considered a tax on all intoxicants, including alcohol, opium, tobacco, bhāṅg, gāñjā and caras (Simmington 2019:35).
Yarkand hash in the days of the British Empire
In Yarkand the powdery hashish was steamed and compressed and came in three grades of quality (Simmington 2019:39). High-quality hashish—referred to as caras (charas) even though it was actually hashish (see my blog ‘Various Preparations of Cannabis’)—had for centuries been transported from Yarkand over the Karakoram mountains into Chitral (also a hashish producing region) in northern Pakistan, from where it would go to cities in India, including Mumbai, Delhi and Calcutta. Alternatively, hash would be exported directly from Yarkand over dangerous mountain passes to Leh, the Himalayan capital of the state of Ladakh.
At the International Opium Convention held in Geneva in 1925, the cultivation of the opium poppy, coca plant and cannabis were internationally prohibited. However, at the time both India and China refused to sign it into national law. There was also a ‘loop-hole’ clause (Article 11, Section 1) in the 1925 Convention which permitted the export of the resin of cannabis, provided a licence was issued.
A report by the Indian government in 1928 noted the huge imports of caras from Yarkand. In 1923 nearly fifty-four tons had passed through the warehouse in Leh; and this was only the declared trade and did not account for smuggled, undeclared imports. Cannabis was also being smuggled from Afghanistan into India.
In an attempt to curb hash smuggling from China and elsewhere, a new warehouse was established in Chitral; and the North West Frontier Province border force was strengthened. Taxes on caras, which mostly came from Yarkand,were imposed in the Punjab, Balochistan, Dehli and the North West Frontier Province. Despite controls, hashish traffic continued unabated until the Chinese introduced strict controls on all ‘narcotics’, including cannabis, in the 1940s (Simmington 2019:53–55). That was the end of Yarkand hashish in India.
Clarke, Robert C., and Mark D. Merlin (2013). Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press.
Li, Hui-Lin (1975). ‘The Origins and Use of Cannabis in Eastern Asia’. In Vera Rubin (ed.), Cannabis and Culture, pp. 51–62. The Hague/Paris: Mouton Publishers.
Richter, Darmon (2020) . Bohemian blog: ‘On Smoking Weed in North Korea’.
Robinson, Rowan (1996). The Great Book of Hemp: A Complete Guide to the Environmental, Commercial, and Medicinal Uses of the World’s Most Extraordinary Plant. Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press.
Simmington, Rupert (2019). Cannabis: A Study of its History, Prohibition and Use. Pull No Punches Publications.