Story and photos by Marvin Moses

We all search for marijuana, and we find it everywhere: on the street, at a friend’s house, in small towns and big cities on six continents. It’s as much a part of daily life as eating or sleeping. Yet despite the enthusiasm we all have for our favorite plant, most of us know very little about marijuana’s basic origins. Who were the first people to smoke pot? When did they first get high? Where is the cradle of stoned civilization?

There are, of course, some popular images: the Indian saddhu puffing away at his chillum, or a Nepalese monk hand-rolling temple balls of hashish high in the mountains. But while these images focus on the Himalayas as the source of the original mother plant, experts have also identified a different mountain range, 1,500 miles to the north, as the possible birthplace of ganja.

Located in the heart of Central Asia, the Altai Mountains define the borders of four countries not typically associated with the term stoner’s paradise: China, Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia. The mountains bustle with the comings and goings of semi-nomadic sheep and goat herders during the summer, but are nearly deserted during the harsh winters. Located farther from the ocean than any other place on earth, Altai is a region that’s difficult to get to and seldom visited by foreigners.

Today the Altai Mountains mark the northernmost point of China’s Xinjiang Province, which apart from its mountainous north is mostly a vast, uninhabitable desert—a place at the ass end of China, smack in the middle of nowhere. This is where I chose to begin my search for the birthplace of cannabis.

Along with Tibet, which borders it to the south, Xinjiang (pronounced shin-JEE-ang) is one of the newest parts of China, an area that experienced little or no control from Beijing before the Communist takeover in 1949. Also like Tibet, Xinjiang is an area not traditionally inhabited by the Han people (who constitute over 90 percent of the population of China) but by ethnic minorities, many of whom would prefer political independence to their often-difficult lives under the watchful eye of a totalitarian government. The natives of southern Xinjiang are a Muslim, ethnically Turkic people known as Uyghurs (pronounced WEE-grs), while northern Xinjiang is home to Kazakhs, Mongols and Tajiks.

My quest began in Xinjiang’s capital city of Ãœrümqi, a quaint village of more than two million people—which sounds like a hell of a lot of people for the middle of nowhere, until you factor in the massive scale of China and its one and a half billion citizens. While there are only nine American cities with a population of over one million, in China, Ãœrümqi is one of 166 cities with more than a million people.

Arriving in Ãœrümqi as a tourist, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find any damayan (marijuana)—and since this was China, I felt the need to be especially careful while seeking it out. There’s no such thing as “too paranoid” in a country that brutally enforces its strict drug laws, frequently executing smugglers, dealers and users. Precise figures aren’t available, but human-rights groups estimate that annually more than 500 people in China are sentenced to a bullet in the back of the head for drug-related crimes. Still, it was encouraging when Uyghurs began offering me nisha (hash) as I wandered through bazaars and pool halls in the first days of my search. Soon I sat in a small, dusty apartment, passing around the bong with my newfound friends, knowing I was on the right path.

From Ãœrümqi, an overnight bus took me to Buerjin, the jumping-off point for the Altai Mountains. I wasn’t sure whether or where I’d find wild ganja, so I decided that I’d have to check out a few different locations in the region. My first investigation would be along China’s border with Kazakhstan. During the ride to the border, I searched in vain for any trace of marijuana growing alongside the road. Even as we climbed to higher altitudes, the environment didn’t seem right for cannabis. It was all rolling hills covered with low, golden grasses. The only green in sight was the occasional tree that somehow managed to find an underground source of water.