By W Goodwin
We’re covering ground along a challenging trail, not so much walking as striding, sometimes even scrambling. It’s been a pretty good day so far and it’s not even noon.
We began this day, our fourth day out from Pokhara, by slipping out of our down-filled bags at first light. Even though our legs were sore and our bodies feeling the altitude, we were amped. We arose in the predawn darkness hoping the cloud cover of the past three days had evaporated during the night and unwilling to lose a second of any predawn view of the mountains. Stumbling across the dirt floor of our primitive “guest house,” we hurried out into the cold mountain air without putting on our boots. Not a trace of the clouds from the previous days remained in the vast Himalayan sky.
At slightly over ten thousand feet high, we were still immersed in darkness, but several miles above us the peaks were already in the bright sun. Dark at ten thousand feet, dawn at twenty-two thousand!
Visible for the first time since leaving Pokara, several of the world’s highest mountain peaks loomed over us. The astonishing mass of Dhaulagiri, her eastern face well over two miles above our heads, was already brightly lit by the sun. Stiff from the cold, we did about-faces to stare at the craggy silhouette of the Annapurna massif, stark, monochrome and complex. From below us came the rumble of the Kali Gandaki deep in its gorge.
We booted-up and stowed all our shit in our packs. Slugging water and eating the last hunks of some cheese made at a monastery we had passed, we hit the trail. Today our march would take us into the mysterious region of Mustang at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau.
We had been trekking for an hour when we came upon a covey of British birders behind a blind of natural vegetation. They were all eye-to-scope and watching ragged skeins of Siberian cranes traveling north toward Tibet. The birds were a mile above our heads but we could easily hear the amazing sounds they were making as they flew. The English birders were occupied with eyeballing, jabbering and clicking their phallic Nikons and Canons when my trail-friend and I simultaneously noticed the nature of their blind. It was a tall stand of mature Cannabis indica, seedy but ripe.
We introduced ourselves to the birders. After listening to a brief discourse on the migrations of winged Siberians, I commented on the strong fragrance wafting from the cannabis that was literally in my face. Those fine representatives of the British Empire soon revealed they had no beef with a couple of Yanks wielding Buck knives and topping a few bits from their blind.
Traveling connoisseurs know cannabis is consumed by good folks around the planet, so it came as no surprise that the British birders were complicit in the world’s secret weed thing. Charas was plentiful both here in Nepal and in the thoroughly-populated subcontinent to the south but we had never expected to find it growing wild along this high mountain trail.
When we returned to our northward trek, six long, field-trimmed colas dangled from each of our packs. It was our fond hope they would desiccate sufficiently by evening to provide an entrancing adjunct to moonrise over the Himalaya.
As we walked we were always within earshot of the Kali Gandaki river raging through its gorge below us. The deepest river gorge in the world, the Kali Gandaki split the backbone of the Himalaya more than 18,000 feet below the peaks of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna.
The trail through that gorge has been in continuous human use for at least four millennia. Traversing that trail, we came upon barefoot porters carrying things like filing cabinets on their backs, women with fifty pounds of wood on their backs, lines of Buddhist monks lost in prayer, itinerant Hindu sadhus with flashing eyes, and a seemingly endless variety of merchants. We also squeezed past yak trains and waded through herds of delightfully long-haired goats on that trail. Every person we met stared with playful eyes at our clothes, my friend’s blond hair, our boots, the weed hanging from our packs and even the hair on my arms.
As we emerged from the gorge and into the stark light of the high Tibetan plateau, the river slowed and spread out. Now we were in the rain shadow of the Himalaya and the cliffs and hills of the Tibetan plateau were arid and brown. Only the manmade terraces were green, the growing rice irrigated with channels drawing water from the Kali Gandaki.
We had been walking for several hours that morning when two monks in orange robes approached us going the opposite direction. They were walking with a honey-brown yak that had six large woven bags on its back. The two monks and the yak stopped and the men attempted to speak with us. They knew about four words of English and we knew not a single word of whatever language they spoke. At some point the monks noticed the cannabis hanging from our backpacks, and their eyebrows went up. One of them reached into a bag on the yak’s back and extracted what looked like a corn husk-covered tamale wrapped tightly with coarse twine.
With a twinkle in his eye, the monk untied and removed the twine from the dry packet. He then carefully pulled back the husk to reveal a core of extremely dry plant material. To my eye it looked like very old marijuana. With a serious, almost formal look on his face, the monk handed the “tamale” to me. I took it in my hands where my friend and I peered closely at it. It looked like a number of rather anemic cannabis plants had been crushed together, stems, seeds and all, and dried for years. Breaking the bundle open a little, I sniffed it. No scent whatsoever. It was pressed together very densely and so dried-out I could not even separate out a single stem. It was the worst-looking pot I had ever seen.
The monks managed to convey they would like to sell us some. Their asking price was so low we bought a couple of the odd super-dried “tamales” just to be sporting. They jabbered at us and smiled, teeth missing. We jabbered back and smiled. Then we parted ways.
As they disappeared behind us, I almost threw that corn husk-wrapped junk away, but I looked around at the spectacular vista surrounding us, including several of the ten highest peaks in the world, and something made me decide to hold onto the “tamales” a little longer.
Later that day we decided to get high, but the colas hanging all day from our packs were still too moist to smoke. I suggested we try the Buddha Grass, a name I made up on the spot. I suspected it would be good for a laugh and most likely a lot of coughing, but nothing else.
I pulled back the husk and easily crumbled off enough material to pack a pipe. We fired it up and each of us took a hit. It was surprisingly smooth but tasteless. I held the smoke for ten seconds and blew it out. Hallucinations began immediately. I fell into some sort of waking dream and a few hours later I found myself in a local animist’s cave with no recollection of how I got there. It was another hour before I found my buddy. That Buddha Grass was the most insanely strong cannabis I have ever smoked to this day.
We tried to find more. Maybe it was the language barrier, maybe those two monks were the only people on the planet with a stash of that innocent-looking stuff, but those two parcels we bought for about two cents turned out to be the only Buddha Grass I ever saw.