We walked over and squatted in front of him noticing that one opaque eye no longer took in the world around him, but then again, his spoons showed such workmanship that I think perhaps this artist limited his vision to his immediate surroundings long ago. He looked up warily at our approach, while his gnarled hands continued to work the wood with the assurance of a master sculptor.
Kashgar is still far off the beaten tourist path so two tall occidentals kneeling on what appeared to be a beggars blanket in the town square immediately attracted attention. The curious began to gather as Pierre reached into his jacket and produced a spoon he had bought from the old man a decade ago. He handed it to him, whose fingers immediately began to caress the surface and a toothless smile spread across the ancient face. A work of art had returned to its master and he knew we were friends, reaching out a hand to both of us.
By this time a significant crowd had gathered and in China a crowd also brings the police. The two officers were visibly surprised to see Pierre and I at the center of this gathering and I have no doubt they would have been cruel to the old man had we round eyes not been there. Nothing rattles the bureaucratic goons of the Chinese hinterlands like the presence of an outsider. If you stand up to their ingrained bullying tactics they usually back down, often making fools of themselves. They simply do not know how to act around foreigners, terrified of the truth we may carry back to the outside world.
It was showtime.
A Transformative Transaction
Pierre and I each picked up a spoon, making a great display of admiring them. With people pushing and shoving to get close to this strange performance we made a point of pulling out a large roll of bills. With all eyes on him, Pierre began to count out money, slowly so all could see. As the count grew an audible murmur spread through the crowd. At about US$20, Pierre handed the wad to the old man, a fair price to us but a veritable fortune in rural China. We heard the incredulous comments needing no interpreter. "How could these foreigners give so much money to this old Uyghur?"
With that we both stood up, bowed to him deeply, and turned to walk away, leaving two gaping policemen and a stunned crowd of people on the corner.
It was a simple act, but in Kashgar it was open defiance against the status quo that only a foreigner could get away with. The old man was smiling from ear to ear.
We retreated across the street, into a store where no one could see us to watch what came next. The police who normally would have routed the old man with their batons were ordering people to walk around him, and everyone began to give him a wide berth. They were no longer trampling on his wares and in fact a few of them dropped money onto his blanket without taking any spoons. The Han are such programmed automatons that they would now show the old man respect, whether they felt it or not, understood why or not, simply because their masters had ordered it.
Our simple act had given the man great face and that crosses all barriers in the paradox that is China.
Kashgar is a place of routines, where people go through the motions of life each day without really living because there are no other options. I am sure the story of two strange Americans honoring an old Uyghur spread quickly, changing with each telling while the facts recede into myth.
Today the old man's photo sits on my den shelf with his spoon, and that day is a story I relive over and over.
James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, and photographer who has traveled extensively in 43 countries, mostly far off the beaten path. His primary interest is in documenting indigenous people in Asia and Africa. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a member and former director of the Adventurers Club. See more at www.jamesdorsey.com.
A Banquet of Creepy Crawlies in China by James Michael Dorsey
The Great Divide of China by Megan Eaves
Nomads' Land by Michael Buckley
Hijacking the Shangri-La Brand by Michael Buckley
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