Chu Know It!

Zipping around perilous desert roads in the back of a Russian-made SUV. (Photograph by Carl Schreck)
Jan 01, 2010
High Times

By Carl Schreck

In the mountains of Kazakhstan
The caravans drive on
With Chu Valley ganja
Late at night until the dawn

—Kazakh rap group D-Rap

For pot smokers in the Russian-speaking world, there’s no more hallowed ground than the rolling, arid plains of the Chu Valley, a sprawling steppe where cannabis grows wild across 540 square miles. A good friend from Kazakhstan once described it to me as a magical place where one can frolic in acres of brilliant green pot fields. So when the kind folks at the Kazakh Interior Ministry offered me a guided tour of this cannabis Eden—albeit conducted by narcotics officers—it was, obviously, an offer I couldn’t refuse, whatever my qualms about the criminalization policies that my hosts were paid to enforce.

Oleg Gorbunov, who publishes under the name “OlegWeedy,” is the author of the Cannabis Encyclopedia, the only volume of its kind in the Russian language.

He grew up in Soviet Ukraine but has lived in Belgium for the past 15 years. According to Gorbunov, the natural potency of Chu Valley pot was legendary all across the Soviet Union.

“When I was growing up, everyone knew that the best stuff comes from the Chu Valley. It was very rare and not so cheap. You could get local weed, but Chu weed—that was the real shit,” he recalled. “Everyone knew that just a tiny bit of Chu Valley hash sprinkled into a papirosa cigarette was enough to get three or four guys high for hours.”

The years go on and the mystery never stops
How did Chu end up with these wondrous crops?


No one knows exactly how long cannabis has been growing in the Chu Valley. Some locals speculate that traders brought the seeds centuries ago from modern-day Pakistan while traveling along the Silk Road.

“The wind supposedly blew the seeds all over the place, and it’s been growing around our parts ever since,” said Kuat Zhapabayev, an affable senior drug-enforcement officer, speaking to me over a lunch of horse meat, traditional ribbon noodles and more horse meat. “It’s grown here all these years, and there is no way to destroy it.”

Indeed, the authorities’ efforts to eradicate Chu Valley pot have consistently proven futile. There have been sporadic burning operations, but the plants simply sprout up again thanks to their deep roots. Using pesticides would seriously threaten the local ecology, experts said.

Many accuse the police of being financially involved in the Chu Valley drug racket and say they have little interest in seeing Chu pot disappear. Numerous law-enforcement officials interviewed for this report denied profiting off the drug trade, though several sources told me that the cops’ paltry wages—anywhere between $300 and $500 per month for drug cops in the region—do make corruption a tempting means to feed the family.

Most of the Chu Valley’s weed is wild cannabis known locally as dichka, whose THC content reaches a moderate 3.5 percent. Chu weed connoisseurs, however, praise the dichka for its pleasant high and minimal “hangover.” A few days before I discovered these traits for myself, I mentioned to a regular pot smoker in Almaty—Kazakhstan’s cultural and economic capital—that I rarely smoke pot because of the mental sluggishness that usually overwhelms me the following morning.

“You’ve clearly never smoked our weed,” she said alluringly.

Local authorities first registered the presence of cultivated Cannabis sativa imported to the Chu Valley from India in 1926. Soviet officials saw little need to criminalize Chu Valley pot until 1969, when getting stoned became an increasingly popular pastime among the local youth. By the 1980s, much more powerful strains of cultivated sativa from India and Pakistan began flourishing there.

The Kazakh Interior Ministry estimates that the Chu Valley currently produces around 140,000 tons of marijuana and 5,000 to 6,000 tons of hashish each year, most of which is used locally or trafficked to Russia, typically via the nearby city of Shu, one of Kazakhstan’s key railway hubs. It’s unclear exactly how far west the herb makes it, though officials told me that a drug runner recently arrested in the Russian republic of Tatarstan was carrying Chu Valley hash destined for Western Europe.

But there was a catch.

“The bricks of hash had the image of a camel stamped onto them. Turns out that our hashish makes it to Europe and is sold there as Pakistani hashish—our Chu hash!” said Zhapabayev, who currently heads up the “Delta Valley” unit in Kazakhstan’s Dzhambul region. This is a team of fewer than 30 drug cops charged with patrolling the 500-plus square miles in the valley where wild cannabis grows.

With so few men, only a couple of vehicles and a single helicopter that’s prohibitively costly to keep fueled at their disposal, it’s virtually impossible for Zhapabayev’s unit to put a dent in the drug trade that thrives in the Chu Valley.

In the winter the Rastas wait for spring
When the little buds emerge
And in fall the killer weed


The most prized product of Chu Valley cannabis is known as ruchnik, and it’s made from the resin harvested by lightly rubbing the leaves of the plants between one’s hands. This resin is subsequently molded into a clay-like mass and then packed into matchboxes for sale. Smokers typically break off a tiny chunk of the powerful resin and mix it into a cigarette.

The harvest season begins in May, when droves of small-time entrepreneurs infiltrate the valley and collect the stalks using scythes and sickles. Because the Kazakh drug police bolster their numbers in the valley during the harvest for their annual “Operation Poppy”—which runs through October—these illicit farmers have developed numerous strategies and tactics to avoid detection.

Instead of moving the product out of the valley immediately, the harvesters dry the stalks in the sun on the spot, wrap them in large plastic bags—sometimes 10 to 15 on a given run—and bury them in the sand. Beginning in November, after Operation Poppy has ended and most of the police checkpoints have been dismantled, the traffickers return to dig up their buried booty to convert into smokeable marijuana and hash.

According to the clean-cut, steely-eyed Kazakh drug cop who drove me from Almaty to Shu, the harvesters commonly dig foxholes in the steppe in which they hide—complete with foliage to cover their primitive underground forts—in order to evade police detection when they’re not hacking down stalks. Earlier, my guides had taken me to a police precinct in one of the valley’s most fertile areas, where wild pot grows on approximately 330 square miles of sand.

Local drug police, together with border-patrol officers, had detained a man and a woman who had been caught harvesting the local weed out in the pot fields. They had crossed the border from Kyrgyzstan and walked dozens of kilometers into the Chu Valley, where they had been living illegally while collecting the stalks and packing them into bags.

I had to avert my eyes as the suspects were peppered with questions, so depressing was the scene of two dirty, impoverished migrants drawn into the business in the hope of earning some chump change from traffickers. Both said they had collected the stash—some 500 kilograms between the two of them—for personal use, though a border guard said they were merely trying to fend off trafficking charges.

“They live short lives,” the border guard told me grimly. “There’s no other work for them.”

President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the iron-fisted leader of this mainly Muslim republic, is one of the few post-Soviet politicians to publicly propose examining the merits of decriminalization. In 2002, Nazarbayev’s justice minister said that the Kazakh president had ordered his subordinates to “study the experience of several countries where there has been a gradual legalization of drugs, including in Holland, where there are cafes openly selling marijuana,” the Russian state news agency Interfax reported.

Given the notoriety of Chu Valley pot across Eurasia, the Kazakh government could seriously bolster its coffers and local economy by setting up a cannabis-tourism industry complete with Amsterdam-style coffeehouses, according to Naubet Bisenov, a trained nuclear physicist and independent economic analyst based in Almaty. Hundreds of thousands of wealthy tourists from China and Russia, where the drug laws are severe, would flock to Kazakhstan to smoke Chu Valley weed.

“We’re talking about an annual billion-dollar industry,” Bisenov said. “That’s not even including rich Russians from Moscow and St. Petersburg—just the Russians from Siberia would bring in $500 million a year.”

In an online interview last year, however, one of President Nazarbayev’s key confidants, Ermukhamet Ertysbayev, the Minister of Culture and Information, seemed to put a damper on that by insisting that cannabis legalization ran counter to Kazakh “values and mentality.”

“In Holland, for example, they’ve introduced same-sex marriages, the sale of marijuana and euthanasia,” Ertysbayev said. “That would be impossible for us.”
Like most post-Soviet countries, Kazakhstan has maintained its harsh drug laws, though the government stresses that its strategy is aimed at preventing and treating drug addiction while throwing the book at traffickers, who can face life sentences for large-scale smuggling and other serious drug offenses.

There are no precise figures on how many of Kazakhstan’s 17 million citizens are regular cannabis users. In and around the Chu Valley, however, locals say almost everyone smokes.

“I would say around four in every five people in our city use it, regardless of social status, religious beliefs or race. It’s what unites all of us,” said Grand, a Russian-language musician with the group D-Rap, a kind of Central Asian Cypress Hill based in the city of Taraz, on the southwest end of the Chu Valley cannabis belt. “The beauty of Chu pot is that it helps you relax at the end of the workday, eases stress, puts you in a good mood—and in the morning, you feel clear-headed and rejuvenated. You can’t say the same for alcohol.”

The champions of smoking kick-ass chronic,
Live right here in Kazakhstan, that’s not ironic.


No one has done more to simultaneously slander and advertise Kazakhstan in the West than British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen in his role as the cretinous, roaming Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev, most famously in the 2006 film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

Not surprisingly, the movie’s vicious portrayal of the country pissed off a lot of people here, among them Jantemir Baimukhamedov, a popular musician and entertainer known simply as Jantik.

A former Kazakh Foreign Ministry translator, Jantik, 37, has been promising for almost four years now to give us a cinematic response to Borat. But he needed an intriguing hook, something that would help boost his project’s popularity beyond the enormous borders of the sparsely populated Kazakhstan. Enter the Chu Valley and its psychotropic produce.

“Chu is a brand,” Jantik said in an interview in a posh resort village in the mountains above Almaty. “So many of our directors have spent millions of dollars on movies that never made it anywhere, because the world isn’t interested in the Kazakh people—what do they care? But when you bring herb into the picture, suddenly everyone is interested.”

Now in post-production, Jantik’s labor of love is called Shu-Chu, a play on the respective Kazakh and Russian spellings of “Chu” as well as a phrase that means “I’m joking” in Russian. Slated for release by the end of 2009, Shu-Chu will chronicle the chaos and lawlessness that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, focusing on a group of street punks who get involved in the Chu Valley drug trade.

In researching the screenplay, Jantik collected dozens of tales about the valley from locals. But separating legend from fact isn’t always easy in the Chu Valley. Take, for example, the most famous harvesting technique associated with the valley: running naked through the pot fields and using every inch of exposed flesh to collect smokeable resin from the leaves. It’s an enticing image—one that jibes with the popular image of the valley as a paradise of nubile virgins running bare-breasted through verdant fields of pot so dense that it’s impossible to wade through them without a readymade hallucinogen sticking to your skin.

That was precisely my vision of the place, but laying my eyes on the valley for the first time, I discovered a much more austere reality. Most of the cannabis here grows sporadically in small patches all over the desert steppe, alongside scrub foliage and small stretches of sand dunes.

“You can see, it would be impossible to run naked through here and collect any resin on your body,” said a senior search-operations officer name Bais, who took me, in the local parlance, “into the sands.”

In his 13 years as a drug cop in the region, Bais—whose resemblance to a Latin American junta leader belies his incredible generosity and hospitality—said he’s never seen the storied nude runners in action, though local citizens and other drug-enforcement officers insist on the veracity of the tale.

The Chu Valley cannabis crop was unusually poor this year, Bais and his fellow officers told me, speculating that heavy rains earlier in the year had prompted competing vegetation to sprout up quickly and crowd out the pot.

We spent most of the day in the valley, zipping around a network of dirt roads at dangerous speeds and traveling from farmhouse to farmhouse, where the cannabis was growing better than in uninhabited spots thanks to the manure left by grazing animals.

During their inspections of the farmhouses, the officers would examine the pot patches to see if any of the stems had been sliced off, indicating harvesting either by the farmers themselves or by nighttime raiders. Shepherds roaming the valley can prove particularly problematic for the police to apprehend. Using a sickle, they harvest the Chu Valley weed while still on horseback and then disappear into the steppe like a mirage.

The farmers we visited were less than excited to see our two vehicles pull up, though they always offered refreshment from the large tin barrels they used to store water drawn from their deep desert wells.

As evening approached and a surreptitious high I’d copped earlier in the day began to dissipate, we set up camp in a clearing next to a small patch of two-meter-tall cannabis plants. A beefy officer named Sergei skinned a rabbit that he had shot and proceeded to make stew in small iron cauldron over an open fire.

We sat around taking vodka shots and sopping up stray broth from the stew with thick chunks of white bread. Then we loaded up the gear and drove 80 kilometers through the valley to the main road and on into town.

Several kilometers from our hotel, we stopped off at a roadside convenience store to pick up some beers. As we got back in the car, I noticed a single small stalk of Chu Valley cannabis that one of the cops had wedged under the windshield wiper earlier in the day to demonstrate how easily drug users could dry fresh pot for illicit purposes.

The wind was blowing, but the stem didn’t budge as we peeled out of the parking lot and sped toward the distant lights of the city.

© 2017 Carl Schreck. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

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