Strain Hunting – Pakistan, 2007

Lucas has a new photographic piece that expands on his adventures in the Hindu Kush and northern Afghanistan, which – if you haven’t already – you can follow in his new illustrated edition of Afghanistan: Fortress of Cannabis and his interview with Conor on CANNAMANtv.

What I’d forgotten is that Lucas’s 2018 trip to Mazar-i-Sharif and Balkh – when he collected the accession named ‘Tashkurgan’ – goes back to a 2008 rooftop chat we had in Delhi, toking spliffs of Afghan charas while pondering how it’s possible to cross southward over the Amu Darya (‘Oxus River’) from Samarkand, Uzbekistan to Mazar-i-Sharif.

Perched on that rooftop over the alleys of Paharganj, both of us were ruing not taking our chance to get into Afghanistan the previous year. We’d met in Peshawar at a smoke-up at the notorious Tourists Inn Motel of Pathan old-timer Bahadur Khan. But I’d headed up to the highest valleys of the Chitrali Hindu Kush and Lucas pressed on to the Tribal Agencies and Swat Valley – in the midst of 2007’s Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan rampage both very risky trips, some of which you can hear more about in the CANNAMANtv interview. Plant hunting in Pakistan that year was full on mayhem and paranoia, and the plants were only partly to blame.

My ‘cunning plan’ was that by strain hunting in the Yarkhun and Laspur valleys of Upper Chitral, where folk are pretty laid-back and mostly Ismailis, I could avoid the violence exploding across Pakistan. This worked out well until I returned to ‘Down Pakistan’ – as Chitralis call it – and my afternoon hashish nap on my first day in Islamabad got interrupted by gunfights breaking out just down the road from the hotel: through the window burst the sound of automatics, grenades, and powerful explosions as the Rangers (Pakistan’s special forces) took on militants at the Red Mosque.

Cable news broadcast the militants’ calls to storm Islamabad’s hotels and slaughter foreign guests. I raced downstairs to reception where pump-actions were being pulled from a locker by staff and started haggling for a weapon. Outside, two security guards with AKs absently passed a cigarette of Afghan charas. Across town, more motivated and enterprising militants meanwhile hauled an anti-aircraft gun onto the roof of a towerblock by the national airport with a view to blowing President Musharraf’s jet out of the air on take-off. They failed and the Red Mosque Siege ended in horrific slaughter.

Tragically, after a few quite peaceful years, Northwest Pakistan is rapidly descending back into chaos and violence like that of 2007. In no small part this is thanks to a bizarre scheme implemented by former President Imran Khan – Mayfair playboy turned West-basher – in which five thousand Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan fighters newly returned from Afghanistan were resettled around Peshawar and the Tribal Agencies. I mention this because folks who may be considering their own strain hunting trips to the region need to be aware of the increased risk of violence. The main reason I wound up in the not entirely cool situation of listening to nutcases’ calls to ‘storm the hotels and kill the westerners’ – while I, definitely a westerner and stuck in an Islamabad hotel, waited on an India visa – was because I’d not kept an eye on the news.

All this said, Pakistan remains a wonderful country of wonderful people and among the greatest places to travel. The mountains of the north and northwest are the most sublimely beautiful in the world and are vital centres of cannabis biodiversity. The vast majority of Pakistanis are not just welcoming but exemplary in their hospitality and friendliness. Alpine regions such as Chitral and Hunza continue to be very safe. So too do dhamals at shrines such as Shah Jamal and Sehwan Sharif – Sehwan being the shrine of the greatest of the qalandars, Lal Shabaz Qalandar himself, who taught the message of Islam through whirling cannabis-fuelled ecstatic trance and thunderous beats of the dhol drum, as still celebrated each Thursday night at his dhamal.

What this means for travellers is you can go and take part in this living sacramental tradition at the most profoundly important centres in the sacred geography of our emerging global cannabis culture…. and collect and preserve pristine wild and landrace cannabis while it still exists…


Photo by Lucas Strazzeri from his second trip into the Tribal Agencies, this time with a police escort.