I watched the old man for about an hour before I approached him. He sat on a dirty blanket on the street corner, bent like a sextant with age, rats scuttling in the gutter below his feet. That was his spot; I had seen so many like him throughout China, those without status who survive by their wits.
His clothes were tattered and his four-cornered hat identified him as a Uyghur, one of the displaced Eastern European Muslims trapped on the wrong side of a line on a map. China has declared Xinxiang province to be a ‘Uyghur Autonomous Area’, but that is only lip service to a minority that is scorned by the ruling Han majority. The Uyghur are Chinese on paper only.
He might have been a great sculptor, but in today’s China, he was but one of those who do not officially exist
I watched him work with infinite care, carving with a tiny penknife. He was oblivious to the uninterested masses passing him by, focused only on his work. No-one stopped to buy or even look at his wares, delicate wooden combs, spoons and whimsical creatures. He was an artist by any reasonable standards, but his birth status had relegated him to the streets. His leathery skin looked like an aerial map of old dried river beds, and his whippet-thin arms ended in gnarled hands bulging with purple veins. They were craftsman’s hands that liberated beauty from old blocks of wood. In another time and place, he might have been a great sculptor, but in today’s China, he was but one of those who do not officially exist. These are the people I want to talk to.
In rural China, Westerners are a curiosity, especially those of us who stand over 6ft tall and weigh 200lbs, so my approach brought with it a crowd, and crowds always bring the police. I sat on his blanket, fingering his works, while he cocked his head studying this strange foreigner who was giving him face by sitting near him. Within a minute we were surrounded by a pushing mass of onlookers, including two young policemen who were obviously out of their league in dealing with such a situation. They seemed as curious about me as I was about the old man.
He spoke halting English with a strange accent, so, intrigued, I invited him to join me in a local tea house. I knew that under normal circumstances he would not be allowed to enter. But the Chinese get jittery in the presence of Westerners, especially those with cameras, and I suspected they would not challenge me if he entered as my guest.
All heads turned and eyes stared as we took seats on the patio, while necks craned to hear the strange language being exchanged between this unlikely pair. The waiter served my tea, but placed the pot on the table without pouring the old man’s, so I picked it up and made a show of pouring his, as a gasp of astonishment spread across the tables. Then to counter the local arrogance, I called the waiter back and ordered two bagels, knowing them to be a Uyghur favourite, and put them in front of the old man while the waiter glared. The two young policemen just stood, blankly staring, hoping no trouble would start.
The old gentleman tore into the bagels with relish and told me his name was Bingwen, which translates roughly to ‘someone having wisdom’. Then, eyeing the room about us, he asked why I wanted to talk to him. I told him his story just might be one of those lost epics that fall through the cracks of society, lost forever except for chance encounters. I told him I chase around the world looking for stories like that. That made him smile and he shifted in his seat, trying to decide if I was worth talking to, or maybe a government plant sent to trip him up somehow.
He grew silent, and briefly went elsewhere while his body remained. Then he looked up slowly and held my gaze. “If you want to know, I will tell you,” he said, “But it was so long ago.” He delivered that last line with such world-weariness that I felt he was finally casting off a burden.
He said that his father had been one of the last great merchants of the northern Silk Road camel caravans out of Kashgar, and that while quite young, he had been travelling with his father for the first time when bandits attacked in the mountains of Afghanistan at a caravanserai on a moonless night. They killed everyone except Bingwen, who smeared himself with blood and hid under a dead camel until the carnage and looting was over. Now a homeless orphan, alone for the first time, he made his way to Kabul in a journey worthy of a Kipling novel, begging for food and sleeping on the streets amid packs of roving feral dogs.
He was a street urchin until a furniture-maker took pity on him and allowed him to sweep out his shop at night in exchange for a little food and a blanket to sleep on. It was in that tiny shop, immersed in the smell of wood, that his muse found him. He knew immediately that wood was his destined medium, just as stone had been Michelangelo’s and paint had been Leonardo’s. The carving tools felt like extensions of his hands and he instinctively knew what to do with them. One night, using a cast-off block, and with no training whatsoever, he worked through dawn, answering a call from deep within himself. For him, carving wood was the same as prayer. In the morning he astonished his master with a beautifully rendered horse, rearing on its hind legs, perfectly balanced and anatomically correct in every detail. When asked how he did it, he just stared at his hands, wondering the same question himself. He had only seen horses in pictures before.
The carving tools felt like extensions of his hands and he instinctively knew what to do with them
Within a year he had his own studio and a full list of clientele that expanded greatly after the Soviet invasion of 1979. Feeling no allegiance to his imposed home, he was apolitical at first, but grateful that his carvings were popular souvenirs with the Soviet troops who filled the streets of Kabul and who bought everything he could produce. Life was not bad under the Soviets.
At this point he stopped and I could tell the words were coming hard. I poured him another cup of tea as he began to speak of a young girl who cleaned and cooked for him in exchange for a place to sleep, a kindred spirit, child of the street, just as he had been. One night, three drunken soldiers broke in for a night of debauchery. When he came to her defence, they beat him senseless with camel whips. He awoke the following morning in a pool of blood beside her lifeless body. He stared at her for most of a day, and that night he set fire to his studio and walked off into the hills to find the Mujahidin.
In the purple mountains that cradle Kabul, he swore allegiance to a local warlord who sensed a rage in his new fighter that few of his own men possessed. He was there to kill Soviets, and he would disappear each night, alone, returning in the morning with proof of his kills, an ear, a finger, an officer’s sidearm, driven by the image of the girl in his studio. He was a proficient enough killer to have the Soviets place a price on his head.
Who knows what powers determine our life paths
One night he attacked the crew of a Soviet tank who were sitting under their vehicle around a sterno fire. He killed three before the last one managed to slide a bayonet between his ribs as his final act. Bingwen packed the wound with mud made from dirt and his own blood, then crawled into a dry gully to die. That night was the first time he had noticed the stars since he was a small boy. Their beauty took his pain away and he stared at them, smiling, waiting for the end.
A shepherd found him the next morning, barely alive, and dragged him to his village where the Mujahidin tended to him until he was ready to fight again. But something had happened that night under the stars.
Who knows what powers determine our life paths? Certainly, as a child, Bingwen never imagined himself a killer. Our choices can be decided by the toss of a coin, a momentary whim, a sign by the road or a knife in the gut in a remote desert. Lying under the stars, Bingwen knew that no matter how many soldiers he killed, he could not change the past. It was time to move on.
He left on a moonless night without provisions or money, AWOL from both sides of the endless war, wandering like a biblical mendicant, unwashed, unshaven, unknown, seeking silent forgiveness from all he met for deeds he dragged around like a stone. His only possession was the small penknife he used to whittle tree branches, his personal meditation.
Perhaps it was divine guidance or just serendipity that led him to the central Afghanistan town of Bamiyan. There he sat in the famous caves with sadhus until they accepted him as one of their own. It had never been his intent to become a hermit, especially a religious one, but his grief was too overwhelming to allow any other life. Living at the foot of a 150ft-tall stone Buddha, he soaked up Buddhism the way a sponge gathers water.
The smell of wood called him like a drug, a scent imprinted in his soul
After spending months in self-reflection, he eventually came to terms with his past, and in time, he left the caves. He felt the need to visit his childhood home, to chase after memories of a life left undone. For a year he wandered the 890km back to his birth city of Kashgar, China, living off the kindness of those he passed, looking like a wild man with uncut hair and tattered rags. After he arrived, he found that he no longer knew the city. He could not even find the place where he had lived, but while searching for it he passed a carpentry shop, and the smell of wood called him like a drug, a scent imprinted in his soul.
The owner gave him a small block and he carried it to the park, savouring its feel. There, the memory returning to his fingers, his penknife removed all excess shavings to reveal a beautiful little camel that had been hiding inside. He had not carved in years and he felt his soul beginning to awaken. He carved like a starving man eats until he fell asleep there in the park, at peace with himself and the world for the first time in memory. When he awoke in the morning, his carving was gone but there was a note in his pocket with some money, thanking him for the beautiful creature and asking if he would carve more.
So that was his story that ended in a Kashgar tea house with an American writer. He had reduced his world to a small square blanket and that was all he wanted. He thanked me for the tea and bagels, but I could tell he was uneasy in our situation. He had said all he had to say, and now that street corner was his home and wood was his religion and salvation. His creatures were a fantasy world where there was no violence, no war, no rapes, and he was in control.
He had come full circle, from a young child to an old man. Perhaps his childhood home was only a few metres from where he now spent his days, but he would never know for sure, nor did he care. He wanted nothing more from life than oblivion within his blocks of wood, and I think I understood that. For many, there may be a fine line between oblivion and nirvana.
Travel has taught me that the world is full of Bingwens who go unnoticed every day. Everyone has a story worth telling. That is why I start conversations with strangers when I travel, because sometimes, something as simple as tea and a bagel can bring an epic tale in return.
I am probably the only person who has ever heard Bingwen’s story, and I still wonder why he chose to tell it to me. Perhaps, I sometimes think, our meeting was just a part of some larger carving.
By James Michael Dorsey