Pierre and I watched the old man for about an hour, meticulously carving his spoons while seemingly invisible to the sea of people passing him by. He was weathered and bent with a long gray beard, sitting in a heap on a dirty blanket, legs folded under him, sheathed in knee-high boots with ragged peasant pants tucked inside. He wore a striped jacket reminiscent of a death camp survivor, one of millions of faceless street people who somehow manage to get through each day in a police state that shows no mercy.
His four cornered hat and beard identified him as a Uyghur, one of the Eastern European Muslims who are the majority in western China but looked down on by their class conscious rulers, the Han. While officially Chinese they could not be more culturally different, victims of ever changing lines on governments maps. Uyghurs have occupied western China for centuries but will never be Chinese.
They had been in open revolt over their treatment for several weeks prior to our arrival, bombing numerous police stations, demanding the autonomy the Chinese government has granted them on paper but never gave in reality. That is what we had come to document. The old man was beyond fighting age but never too old to be a victim of prejudice.
Victim for a Lifetime
We watched from a distance as people passed his blanket, some kicking his spoons away while others stepped on them. China has always been cruel to its people and indifferent to its poor, but being born a Uyghur is the bottom of the heap. One teenage punk grabbed a spoon and ran before the old man knew what was happening, but this was his life and you do not reach old age in this land without accepting abuse.
Pierre and I were both old China hands, used to being charged foreigners prices and having guns stuck in our faces, the price one pays for solo travel in a culture that feeds on paranoia. I could identify with the old man.
It was our last day in Kashgar and just for the hell of it Pierre and I had wandered to the public square in front of the big yellow mosque. It had been ten years since Pierre had met the old man on the same corner, whittling wooden spoons for a few pennies, never making enough to prosper, but obviously making enough to survive, which is in itself an accomplishment for the lower masses of China.
Pierre has a nose for such nuances of humanity, ferreting out the unsung street people and getting them to share epic tales that most travelers simply pass by without noticing. So neither of us was surprised to see the old man sitting there now, a little grayer, a little more bent than remembered, but he still held his ancient pen knife and a pile of hand carved wooden spoons still shared his blanket on the street curb. We watched him from a bench while Pierre told me of that meeting so long ago when he had bought some of the old man's spoons, paying ten times his asking price because that is what Pierre does for those less fortunate.
Pierre had brought me one of those spoons, intricate, delicate, a utensil so finely wrought that it should never be used; only admired. The old man was an artist. Had he been born anywhere else he would probably have an atelier and clients, but in China, he was issued from the wrong womb and trapped within his cultural group.
Pierre thought the old man to be over 90 at that first meeting which would make him a centurion now and I wondered how many of those years he had been a wood carver.
Both Pierre's and my home are filled with the detritus of years of remote travel and I wanted my own artifact from this spoon carver. I wanted to shake his hand and tell him I travel to seek stories about people like him, stories from the collective memory of mankind that enlighten all of us, and I wanted a piece of this man's life for my shelf at home that holds so many other stories brought back from the corners of this earth. But neither of us spoke Chinese so the words went unsaid. What we could do though was give the man face.
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