M, 2, 虎跳峡Tiger Leaping Gorge

On the Marijuana Mountain Mammas along the Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan

It’s almost midnight and I’m stargazing on the roof of my hostel along the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan, south China. I’m somewhere along the 3,790m (12,434ft) between the Jinsha River and the highest mountain peak. The smell of marijuana, in Chinese, 大麻 dà má, wafts in my direction, and two Australians ask if I want to join them for a “fat doobie” – in English a joint, and in Chinese a 大麻烟卷 dà má yān juàn. I politely decline and go back to my dorm; my legs tremble as I clamber into my bed after hiking almost entirely vertically for hours in the heat, and I fall asleep gazing up at a Bob Marley flag that covers most of the ceiling.

I was shocked to see marijuana so openly sold and smoked along the Tiger Leaping Gorge. When I was on exchange at Tsinghua University in Beijing, we were told the university had a zero-tolerance policy on drug abuse. The punishment – immediate expulsion. With reports of a 23-year-old American student facing the death penalty for having been (wrongly) accused of distributing marijuana, along with 10 people being sentenced to death in front of thousands of onlookers in 2017 in southern Guangdong for drug-related crimes … it’s safe to say the majority of Chinese, and non-Chinese residents don’t dabble in fat doobies.

According to the law of the People’s Republic of China, “individuals who smuggle, traffic, transport or manufacture narcotic drugs are sentenced to either 15 years of prison, life imprisonment or death, and suffer confiscation of property.”

On the contrary, China has a long and illustrious history of marijuana. A 2,700-year-old stash found in the Yanghai Tombs excavated in the Gobi Desert is “the oldest documentation of marijuana as a pharmacologically active agent”. The emperor Shen-Nung (c.2700 B.C.) cited marijuana in his medical encyclopedia, the Pen Ts’ao – noting its uniqueness for representing both yin and yang. When yin and yang are balanced, the body is in harmony.


According to local Chinese news, “Yunnan is one of the world’s largest sources of marijuana and it’s also one of the most suitable areas for industrial cultivation … In recent years, large-scale planting has been carried out in more than ten counties and cities in Yunnan including: Kunming, Yuxi, Honghe, Wenshan, Chuxiong, Lijiang, Baoshan, Qujing and Xishuangbanna, with an annual planting area of nearly 100,000 mu (approximately 16,500 acres)”.

In Chinese the Tiger Leaping Gorge 虎跳峡hǔ tiào xiá, is named after a legendary tale which narrates a hunter chasing a tiger through the gorge until it reaches the narrowest point. The tiger, trapped between the Jinsha River and the hunter, leapt 25m (82 ft) to safety. After hiking for 1.5 days, you can continue down to the river to see the commemorative statue.

During my hike, I came across two little elderly Chinese ladies selling marijuana. Let’s call them Maggie and Marge. Maggie was sat perched an hour or so after the first leg of the hike and was offering donkey rides up the mountain. She was selling small bags of marijuana for 20RMB (£2.28). Marge was sat perched just after the infamously grueling 28 bends, a vertical climb up 28 bends of loose rocks – and selling identical bags of marijuana for 50RM (£5.73).


“You should buy this marijuana because I grew it myself in my very own garden, just beyond that field over there! You can use it as seasoning for some special Yunnan dishes or smoke it if you want. Lots of foreign people like to buy my marijuana, but Chinese people rarely buy it as they aren’t used to rolling it up into a joint. It’s legal for me to grow here, but don’t take it on public transport, and especially planes, as it can be extremely dangerous”. (She mimicked slashing her throat with her index finger and laughed hysterically)


“You should buy this marijuana because I carried it all the way up 28 bends to sell. I get up at 7am, bring up all of this stuff to sell (big 1.5 litre bottles of water, snickers bars and  bananas), and then leave to go home at 5pm. Everyday I earn only 50RMB because not many people come along this route. I have two children aged 24 and 28. My life is very toilsome辛苦 xīn kǔ. This marijuana will make you feel happy … forget your problems, forget your problems.”

One Chinese netizen that hiked the same trial as I did said “大麻籽在云南是零食,成熟季节街上随处可见,可以想象种植的广度… 大烟壳和大烟籽是调料,菜市场都可买到。大烟幼苗是可口的青菜,很多人房前屋后都种植 – In Yunnan, marijuana seeds are a snack. In the mature season, you can see them everywhere along the streets. You can only imagine the breadth of cultivation. Big smoky shells and seeds are used as seasoning that can be bought at the vegetable market; many people grow them in front of their house.”

In 2018, Forbes reported “Chinese companies have 309 out of the 606 patents filed around the world that relate to cannabis”. Industrial marijuana production seems to be booming in China, and the world’s marijuana industry might consider starting to seriously size China up as a competitor, regardless of the government’s strict drug policy. Hence, RADII reports “the plant’s cultivation is strict and highly-monitored; only Yunnan (and Heilongjiang) provinces have the green light to produce it”. At present, Yunnan Industrial Cannabis (云南工业大麻股份有限公司) established in 2001, is claimed to be the only legal institution in China to grow and process marijuana products on a large scale.

It seems for Chinese students, exploring beyond the social and legal boundaries of the People’s Republic of China in search of marijuana, varies dramatically. A male Chinese student in the USA said “快乐的阈值越来越高,从最基本的开始,所有毒品都要尝一遍 – the threshold for happiness is getting higher, from the beginning all drugs have to be tried”. Yet a female Chinese student in the UK said “女生容易将自己暴露在危险之下 (但)我们是可以拒绝的。。。我是中国人啊,中国人都知道毒品这玩意儿不能碰 – Girls can easily expose themselves to danger, (but) we can refuse. I am Chinese, (and) Chinese people know drugs can’t be touched”.

“Should have got the smoke and a horse” – graffiti from hikers just before the grueling 28 bends. 

Maybe in the distant future, Yunnan could become the Amsterdam of Europe, or the California of the USA. A China in which you can get high under the stars on a rooftop along the Tiger Leaping Gorge with two Marijuana Mountain Mammas? Yes please. But realistically, it’s more likely you’ll have to light up a fat doobie of Yunnan marijuana somewhere legal, and not in Yunnan itself.



*No marijuana was purchased or consumed during the research for this article. All opinions are my own, and do not reflect those of my past, present, or future employers.

**No copyright infringement is intended.

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