An old man selling spoons painstakingly carved with a pocketknife on the street in Kashgar.
  • An old man selling spoons painstakingly carved with a pocketknife on the street in Kashgar.
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It was my final day in Kashgar, China.

I had all the photos I needed and was ready for a good meal before catching my flight out, when I noticed a tiny man sitting outside, alone on a street corner.

He had a face as rugged as the local mountains and probably near as old. He had an equally old rag spread in front of him and was selling wooden spoons that he carved on the spot with an ancient pocket knife.

I watched as people stepped over his wares, sometimes kicking them out of the way or stepping directly on them. At one point, two young boys grabbed some of his spoons and ran off, taunting the old man who obviously could not chase them, and this angered me. It was no way to treat an elderly man trying to make an honest living.

Located in the far western reaches of China, Kashgar is not yet a major tourist destination, although in my estimation it should be. My presence alone attracted attention – but when I knelt down to examine the old man’s spoons it created quite a stir. A crowd gathered, and this in turn immediately drew the police, who formed a barrier around us, as curious about what was happening as the rest of the people.

I approached him and sat on the concrete opposite him, looking over his spoons, and found them to be exquisite, considering they were all carved by a simple pocketknife. I chose several of his wares that I thought had a rugged elegance, and paid him quite a bit more than he was asking, even though it is proper to bargain over price in such places. This sent an audible murmur through the crowd, who were now wondering why this mysterious Westerner would be so interested in an old man’s spoons.

With a couple dozen onlookers, including two curious policemen, I took the old man’s photo and thanked him profusely for selling me his spoons even though he did not understand a word I said. I gave him a slight bow of courtesy as I left.

After walking away, I watched from across the street and saw the crowd still surrounding the old man, but now they were buying his spoons, since they had obvious value, for me, a foreigner, to pay so much for them.

More importantly, my simple act gave the man great face – and in China that is beyond price.

For more on James Michael Dorsey's travel writing and photography, see his website:

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