&: Taking ketamine in China

Ketamine was an important part of my first couple years in China, made an appearance almost every night I went out, and I credit a synergistic combination of the PRC and blasts of K粉 with curing my depression and anxiety.

There’s not much of a ketamine culture left in China—never was, unless you count liberal Hong Kong and Taiwan, where references to the drug made it into song lyrics and novels (see: “Sit Down to Float: The Cultural Meaning of Ketamine Use in Hong Kong” by Karen Joe-Laidler and Geoffrey Hunt in Addiction Research & Theory, 2008, and also "Ketamine use in Taiwan: Moral panic, civilizing processes, and democratization" by Liang-Yin Hsu in International Journal of Drug Policy, July 2014, and then look up "The Great K-Hole of China" by Robert Foyle Hunwick on Motherboard)... There were QQ空间 pictures in passworded albums of girls you met out with lines of K in the shape of a heart, soundtracked by a 周杰伦 ballad autoplaying in the background, some Sina blogs that came off Go Ask Alice-ish. The subculture most identified with ketamine must be late-80后, early 90后 subcultural 非主流 kids—非主流 as it was used in the mid-2000s, less online cute and more Zhengzhou night market goth. But beyond those online scraps, there's not much, kind of like dextromethorphan, maybe (loosely associated with hardcore punk and early internet/IRC people but never really commemorated outside of Bluelight, Third Plateau's #dxm, Youtube videos with less than 1000 views).

Really, it could have been anything, benzodiazepines or methamphetamine or GHB, but ketamine came along first and it was a cheap way to get fucked up.

It’s easy enough to trace how ketamine became a major drug of abuse in China in the early- to mid-2000s, geographically, at least. The loose supply of ketamine across Asia helped the drug filter into international scenes, and in Hong Kong in the late-1990s, the drug was first used to cut ecstasy or issued as a comedown package, later in its pure form, an idea possibly adopted from expats coming back from raving in Goa. It spread from the club scene to working class karaoke chillout sessions (again, see: “Sit Down to Float: The Cultural Meaning of Ketamine Use in Hong Kong”). From there, the jump to Guangdong and out to the cities along the coast was simple. By the year 2000, with almost a hundred million migrant workers, many of them in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and other coastal centers, it didn’t take long for ketamine to be brought back inland.

Ketamine, for a brief time, enjoyed a reputation as a fairly safe social drug, openly laid out on club tables and offered to friends at KTV. Erowid lists some effects of ketamine: “Pleasant mental and/or body high / Increase in energy / Distortion or loss of sensory perceptions (common) / Closed- and open-eye visuals (common) / Dissociation of mind from body / Ataxia (loss of motor coordination) / Severe confusion, disorganised thinking.” Ketamine is a dissociative hallucinogen, not unlike phencyclidine (PCP), dextromethorphan (DXM, mentioned already, an antitussive that replaced heavier ingredients like morphine in cough syrups), or beloved research chemical methoxetamine (MXE). In low doses, there’s not much more than mild dissociative effects, decent euphoria—and if you go into the club to order the cheapest bottle on the menu (counterfeit Red Label or some sketchy vodka), ketamine and alcohol have a synergistic effect, making it a great way to save money.

At higher doses, ketamine is completely incapacitating and a heavy trip can mimic a near-death experience. In the West, its most notable booster was John C. Lilly, noted for taking ketamine to communicate with dolphins. Lilly took ketamine in an isolation tank and had visions of competing factions of aliens, the Earth Coincidence Control Office (ECCO) and the solid state entities that planned to put humanity on domed reservations (see: The Scientist: A Metaphysical Autobiography by John C. Lilly).

In the early days, the purity of ketamine was extremely high (“Sit Down to Float” quotes a Hong Kong Government Laboratory report that has ketamine at an average of 80% purity), since the majority of the drug was coming, at first, from labs in the Indian state of Maharashtra diverting pharmaceutical-grade product, through Hong Kong to the People’s Republic. When those smuggling routes were shut down, clandestine and legal operations along Guangdong’s east coast began pumping out their own.

By the mid-2000s, the ketamine boom was in full swing and I had just arrived in-country. The first time I took ketamine would have been in 2006, sometime in June or July, on a hot humid night in Nanjing. I took a bump in an empty lot outside a club. The edge of the lot had been strung with green lanterns advertising Carlsberg and a few carts had been set up, selling lamb skewers and grilled oysters topped with mixian and garlic. I didn’t know what I was taking. I thought it was cocaine or possibly methamphetamine. But the effects didn’t match what I imagined either of those two would be like. Years before, I fell in love with dextromethorphan-containing cough syrup, and it felt like a low dose of DXM: stoned warm and spacey, a bit silly, dumb. I put two and two together.

The second time I took ketamine would have been in a club in Xuzhou. I was sitting at a corner booth with two men who I had met that night over Red Label and iced tea. I forget the name of the club now and it didn’t stay open more than a year. The club had an Uzbek dancer who went up on the bar every few hours and when she took off her bikini bottoms, the bartender doused the Formica with baijiu and lit it, and she danced in front of a wall of wobbling blue flame. The music was the type of dumb club beats that have ruled clubs from Irkutsk to Changchun for a quarter century, hard bass and pop vocals, cranked up so that we left every night with ears hissing in the morning. There were clubs that kept a tighter leash on drug use but this club was not one of them . The tables were covered in powder. Each table was illuminated from within by a pale red bulb, so that the booth we were sitting in glowed red. One of the men, whose name I have long since forgotten, worked at the mound of jagged crystals, crushing them under the edge of a bank card and then chopping lines. The man that offered me the line of ketamine that night had a tattoo between his eyebrows, faded away to an indigo thumbprint. I snorted lines until I felt drunker and sloppier than I should have felt, and then I rolled out of the booth and danced. Frames started to go missing. William White's "flanging." I remember feeling my head float up and how it seemed to hover like helium balloon tied to my collarbone, and my body moving not under any conscious control. Time slowed down and there was a rush of euphoria.

After that, I started to organize expeditions to the first club I’d snorted, or buy my own supply and set up in any of the other clubs in the city, to initiate friends, some coming from as far away as Nanjing and Jinan, into the ketamine club. It was not a healthy habit. I remember once, swearing to my then-girlfriend that I was off ketamine completely and then, while she sat beside me, snorting a line offered to be on a plate by a local tough. I was mixing with bad company. Someone I knew had half his face paralyzed for a couple weeks. Someone I had done K with passed out in a road and got his head run over by a truck.

Because at that point, like I said, it could have been anything. But I started taking ketamine outside of clubs and went deeper. I bought it from a rich kid that lived a few streets over. He went out every night and hid his lines in an ashtray covered with a napkin. The booth beside him was always littered with popped blister packs. We went to his apartment in the morning, his room up on the third floor, to smoke cigarettes and listen to music. He must have been in his early-20s but seemed younger than me. I would buy from him Ziploc short grams, and take bumps in an internet cafe while listening to rap music on the big cushy headphones. It’s comparatively easier to describe the visual and auditory hallucinations that accompany a drug experience but harder to describe the way that your thoughts move differently. On ketamine, my thoughts felt smooth, moving like pebbles on the bottom of a river, or two pieces of hard candy in a cheek. I went home and cut lines on my bedside table, feeling the euphoria and the feeling of my head floating away, my limbs moving like they were on seized hinges, until I was moving but feeling as if was no longer in control of my body, until finally the room itself was replaced by another world. I don’t know how to describe the experience. The effect seemed to be unlike a psychedelic experience, though—and I’d never enjoyed psychedelics or experienced this—where there’s a spiritual epiphany, some overwhelming moment. I had taken high doses of psilocybin mushrooms and been catapulted somewhere, completely disconnected from reality and, later, unsure of where I was, even when I was conscious again. Even the deep experiences with ketamine were milder. I would describe it as like freezing to death, slowly fading out. None of the chaos of psychedelics but clean and ordered visions of grids and tables. All of these descriptions are a waste of time, probably, unless you’ve personally taken higher doses of ketamine or a similar compound.

As unhealthy as my experience sounds, I’ve come to believe that ketamine cured my anxiety and depression.

I had spent the years before going to China for the first time stumbling through the first years of an undergraduate degree, dropping out and being kicked out a few times, drifting between jobs cutting grass, stocking shelves, and in a slaughterhouse. After a disastrous experience with LSD, the anxiety and depression I had felt simmering at a low level for years boiled over and became something weirder and more fucked up. The feeling was like suddenly becoming aware of myself — a horrible anxiety at the feeling of my own consciousness, maybe, I guess. I took a combination of paroxetine and clonazepam, with zopiclone to fall asleep. I spent the time I was not working drinking Orange Crush, listening to The Life of Joseph W. McVey and playing Gran Turismo 4. I took a combination of paroxetine and clonazepam, with zopiclone to fall asleep.

The idea that ketamine can cure depression and anxiety has become accepted (see: “The Role of Ketamine in Treatment-Resistant Depression: A Systematic Review” in Current Neuropharmacology, September 2014, and “Oral Ketamine for the Rapid Treatment of Depression and Anxiety in Patients Receiving Hospice Care” in Journal of Palliative Medicine, July 2010, "Ketamine for the treatment of major depressive disorder and bipolar depression: A review of the literature" in Journal of Mental Health and Clinical Psychology, January 2017). I think there was more to it than that.

This is something that I think about, that with China and ketamine, there was some synergistic effect. There was China, this country that broke me with experiences I didn’t expect, broke my heart, and played for me twenty-four hours a day a soundtrack of cicadas and jackhammers, so that I had to escape to an island and abandoned village to gather my thoughts. There was no chance to slip inside myself, most of the time. There was no time to think—only act. I wish I could capture something of what I felt there and then, because it sounds ridiculous to even me now.

There’s a story that sticks with me and that I’ve written versions of so many times that I’m probably confusing fiction with reality. It was one of the last times I took ketamine and one of the closing episodes in that chapter of my life. I hope it suggests, I guess, how I was living at the time.

I caught a ride to Lianyungang and took a bus to the coast. I walked along the causeway out to Liandao. I’d come with no bag, just my CECT slide phone, a few bags of K, a few gelcaps of ground up psilocybin mushrooms muled in by a friend of a friend, some cash. I’d wanted to go to the island, alone, for a while, since visiting a year or so before. I took the mushrooms while going across the causeway. The ocean was yellow. It’s shallow there, and the rivers that empty into it are full of silt. I took the road that loops around the island. Fresh asphalt became grey cobblestones and then dust. Rock strata in shimmering quartz and dull lemon stacked. Sea breeze trees on the cliff above the cut rock. Fishing villages of stone houses, built carefully on top of one another, running down to rocky beaches. In a few of the villages, one or two houses remained alive, their red tiles still maintained, clothes drying on a line, a thin curl of smoke from a chimney. I walked back to one of the abandoned villages and picked my way down the wrecked path from the road. On a concrete pier, I sat and watched the sky darken and turn orange and then go dark. The mushrooms had kicked in, mildly, and the sound of the ocean slapping the pier sounded like an orchestra. I spread my jacket below me and sniffed K until I could pass out. I woke up late the next morning. There was a layer of dew on my clothes and my hair. I walked back across the causeway and took a taxi into the city.

Lianyungang looked like every other city in China, the same busy streets lined with grey buildings. I have walked around a hundred cities in China that all look the same and have never lost my fascination. Lianyungang looked like every other city in China, the messy apartment windows and then a leafy alley leading to a middle school and the echo of the morning exercises in the yard and the shiny haired students in tracksuit uniforms rushing to class and the chaos of a bus stop and the smell of a row of restaurants and the chalkboard menus and the styrofoam boxes of seafood and the men on the side of the street selling pineapples and notebooks and a wet market with its smell of blood and dust and the sidewalks of bumpy green and red tile. Even at the lowest, even when I was starving or freezing, walking down the street anywhere in China, I felt like I was where I wanted to be.

I don’t know how much of this is true, anymore. I know I’m conflating two stories here, at some point. I went down into an underground shopping arcade and into an internet bar. A girl walked down the row of computers and sat in the couch beside mine. She was wearing an Adidas tracksuit jacket, black and orange and a black shirt underneath and shiny black plastic pants. She had a necklace with a square gold background picture of the Virgin Mary cradling Jesus. The girl with the Virgin Mary pendant woke me by pulling my headphones away from my ear and letting them fall back. Her face was dark and she had fat cheekbones and a strong jaw. Her eyes were round and singlefolded. Her eyes were puffy and light brown. She had the features and accent of the people of rural coastal Subei.

We walked back up to the street. She walked beside me and leaned into shadows. She was tall and had long legs. She wore a short skirt and black tights that ended at her calves. The girl told me her name was He Ting. She told me that we could go to her home. Her village was outside Lianyungang. I live in the city now. Nobody lives in my village, she said. She lived in Lianyungang with three other girls. They had an apartment in the city. The girls were at home in their village, she said. They were from the same village as her. We walked there and went up the dusty stairs of a grey building. There was a heavy security door. From the window, I thought I could see the ocean through the haze. We stood at the window and passed a cigarette between us. We blew smoke into the haze. We sat for a while and then went out and bought takeout food from a restaurant. We bought chewy sticks of garlic shoots and pressed tofu, dried stringy dog meat with Sichuan peppercorn, cauliflower and potato, and carried it back to the apartment. We ate and then, when it was dark outside, we lay side by side on her blanket on the puzzle pieces. She said she wanted to go out. She stood and went to her suitcase and I turned my head away. She came back in a black dress with black leggings. The top of the dress had a frilly collar. Her neck was dark; and the skin across her collarbones was darker. I saw her nipples through the thin cotton. She lay beside me. She asked if I wanted to kiss her and did. The kiss was short and I felt out of breath. I felt nothing. Her friends booked a room at a KTV and we snorted ketamine—their powder and mine—off the glass table while drinking Qoo and vodka. The ketamine waves swept up to my ankles, maybe as high as my shins, and I felt the dumb glow of it without crushed.

And in the morning, the morning glowed like I’ve never seen a morning glow. We walked west and went along the ocean, where condo towers formed a wall along the edge of the city. The fishing villages had been swallowed by development and the few old homes along the water had been turned into restaurants and guest houses. Boats sat on flat muddy water. We went along a beach, climbing over sharp smashed rock and sandy cliffs. We came to a place where a creek trickled into the ocean. The sand was brown and cool. The ocean smelled like sewage. We sat on the rocks above the sand. He Ting asked if we wanted to swim. We undressed. In her clothes, she looked tight and long; but when she was naked, her breasts hung heavy and round. Her stomach was round. A dark line ran from her navel to the wild mess of her pubic hair. There were sharp tanlines over her upper arms.

That morning, after I said goodbye, before I got on a bus to Nanjing. On the way there, I probably wrote some version of that story, too, and that version, written in a notebook on the bus before taking a quick nap probably colors all versions written since. That was the last time I did ketamine. I knew I didn’t need it anymore.

(Until a few nights later, probably at Castle Bar. But that doesn’t count. And years later, on the roof of an artists residence in Guangzhou, while smoking a joint, standing around a bathtub that was filled with stinking rainwater. That doesn’t count either.)

I don’t know if the Lianyungang story says anything, but I hope it describes the break that China was with my previous life, the hammer blow of heavy ketamine experiences on top of it.

I left the country for the first time in 2007 and didn’t go back to live again until 2013. By that time, the scene had changed. I checked. There might have been flecks of ketamine in the 摇头丸, but pills and ice had mostly replaced K粉, and there no more tables covered in powder or dealers openly soliciting. I saw a friend get hooked on methamphetamine and haunted plenty of drug dens, but I never got offered a line of ketamine.

I've seen conflicting reports but it does seem that ketamine was missing around that time. Seeing a spike in synthetic drug use, anti-drug authorities in China had ramped up efforts to smash production facilities and distribution networks ("China's War on Drugs" by Shannon Tiezzi on The Diplomat, August 2014) and lock up dealers (see: "17% increase in foreigners caught for drug crimes" by Zhang Yan and Chen Mengwei, China Daily, June 2014). Labs that had turned out tons of ketamine in China’s south were busted (“China deploys 3,000 police, speedboats and helicopters in village drug raid,” The Guardian, January 2014).

Other manufacturers turned to foreign markets and compounds like methoxetamine, which has higher potency and less urotoxicity, as well as 3-MeO-PCP and 4-MeO-PCP. When MXE and other drugs were covered by a 2013 UK ban on arylcyclohexylamines and made it onto the radar of other drug enforcement agencies, a new class of dissociatives came on the market. These new drugs, including methoxphenidine, ephenidine and diphenidine displaced other dissociatives (see: “Pharmacological Investigations of the Dissociative ‘Legal Highs’ Diphenidine, Methoxphenidine and Analogues” in PLOS One). So—pure speculation—the ketamine drought that spread to the West probably also saw some substitution or cutting of ketamine and other drugs with other compounds like MXE (until it was banned in China in 2015), and any number of dissociatives that have popped up on the dark web, including eticyclidone also known as O-PCE, 2'-Oxo-PCM also known as deschloroketamine, 3-MeO-PCMo, and 2-FK, among others. With the pattern and location of busts these days, the continued popularity of ketamine, and talking to a few people in the know, it would seem that it’s coming in from Indian sources again, including huge labs in Gujarat and Goa, and transiting through Taiwan to Fujian ("More than 1 tonne of ketamine seized from fishing boat," Taipei Times, February 2018), or possibly from operations in Myanmar (“Golden Triangle's drug production expands, diversifies amid opioid concerns,” by Tom Allard for Reuters UK). But, again, pure speculation...

Either way, there’s still plenty of ketamine out there, these days. I’m told it’s as popular as ever, down south, but except for that night in Guangzhou, sometime around 2013 or 2014, I never came across ketamine again, outside of Wechat dealers. North of the Yangtze, in my own experience, methamphetamine, other stimulants like cathinones, research chemicals to mimic MDMA, and benzodiazepines have mostly replaced ketamine. As wages have risen, ketamine came to be considered a low-class and potentially dangerous alternative to better drugs; the availability and price of methamphetamine makes it even more attractive. The side effects of ketamine are unpleasant and nobody seems to be looking to head too deep into the waters. Even if ketamine is arguably safer than benzos or meth, it's probably easier to casually get into those.

I’d love to end this by relating my experience stumbling into the last bar in suburban Beijing where people still openly do blasts of ketamine to a remixed pitched up 易欣 ballad, but it didn’t happen. I’m sure I could live that life one more time down south, make friends at some rundown KTV in Nanchang or Shantou. This could close on the discovery of a Chinese psychonaut community trying to communicate with river dolphins.

I'm sorry. I just wanted to put this together before the whole thing sounds completely like bullshit to me.