I've been hosting some US based coworkers this week, and doing so always involves a trip into old town to shop for cheap souvenirs the expats call "China junk." It's the same stuff everywhere: silk, bags, watches, green tea, embroidery and these things:
When it comes to China junk, bargaining is half the fun and sometimes it's all the fun. The value really isn't high but they are the sort of goods that are unique enough to bring back to the states to prove you really went.
The seller noticed our honest uncertainty about buying shady looking cigars and sweetened the deal without even asking. She threw in a free smoke to make it 4 for a buck-fifty. SOLD!
Upon closer inspection, I found some sort of light colored material wrapped in a leaf - presumably a tobacco leaf. The smell wasn't like a cigarette and certainly wasn't anything like a cigar. The label featured an elephant and some writing that wasn't Chinese or English. A true mystery!
At home on the balcony I wasn't sure if I'd get high or worse. Nonetheless, I blazed one and saw no hallucinations but I did find a harsh taste. It wasn't entirely unpleasant and not really very good at the same time. An earthy taste, something like tobacco with a hint of burning paper. I doused it after a few puffs, went inside and ripped one apart - starting at the mouthpiece.
Under the leaf wrapper I found a layer of newspaper surrounding a substance that resembles the stuff you peal off corn cobs and tamales. It looked like they wrapped corn husk with paper, then covered it with a tobacco leaf. Intrigued, I investigated further.
The portion I burned didn't include any newspaper or corn husk. I was happy about that. Apparently, the paper and corn husk act as a filter of sorts - while not actually a filter, it's something too keep the finely shredded filling in place. The portion I smoked include bits of shredded tobacco leaf and.....wait for it.....wood. Little pieces of wood. That explained the flavor.
And such is the story of my most recent cultural experience. Will I do it again? No. Do I regret it? Not at all.