Flashgun vs Shotgun

What started with an innocent purchase on the outskirts of Kashgar’s bustling cattle market, ended with a full-frontal shotgun submission in the farthest reaches of China’s western borderlands.

Growing up, I watched the Moomins on television, read the Tove Jansen books and generally obsessed over the Norwegian valley-dwellers for a lot longer than I’d openly to admit. So it was, perhaps, fate that led me to find a metal worker going by the name of Mumin selling his beautifully crafted knives on the outskirts of Kashgar, a key outpost on China’s vast western border.

Fumbling in my pocket for a few hundred RMB, I eagerly bought the largest knife I could lay my hands on – a stunning 30cm machete that would replace my old and weary Gerber. I ran a hand along the sharp blade, my fingers following the contours of an inscription towards the hilt; Mumin. A fine purchase indeed.

As a precaution I placed the sheathed blade in my portable flash case – a matte-black Pelicase that might have gone unnoticed if it wasn’t so plain and innocent looking. And that was that, onward we rode without a second thought to the stashed purchase. It wasn’t until we were entering the borderlands of Tashkurgan, China’s very own Wild West frontier town, only a few miles short of the Pakistani border crossing, that I might have thought to hide it a bit better.

Police checkpoints are common in this area of China. Every 100 or so miles you get out the car and wait for 30 minutes to cross, nothing too stressful or dramatic. However in recent days there had been a serious domestic plane hijacking from Urumqi to Hotan by a couple of “extremist” Uighurs who wanted to make a point, so the Han Chinese were rather jittery. We didn’t know this fact at the time but it probably explained the shotguns aimed at our car as we approached a remote and desolate checkpoint overlooking the desert. We shut off the engine and stepped out the car with nothing but sand, cliffs and a tiny shack full of heavily armed grunts for company.

A thorough sweep of the car revealed nothing of interest to the guards, their mood almost lightning a little, no trouble here. We popped the boot, bags searched and there in the corner was a smallish, innocent-looking matte-black Pelicase. A recently archived memory jolted through my brain as the case lid gracefully opened, there in all its splendour laid one of the finest crafted machetes the guards had ever seen. I still swear a ray of light briefly emitted.

A concealed weapon is serious business in these parts, especially a massive machete hid by a pasty white guy in a clapped out Sedan with Uighur guides just days after a Uighur plane hijacking. Today wasn’t going to pan out the way we’d intended. Within a split second I had the business end of a fully loaded shotgun point blank in my chest, mandarin screams echoing off the cliffs while my wife hung her head in her hands silently laughing hysterically at my epic fail. Or crying, I couldn’t quite tell which.

More ordinance poured out the wooden shack, surrounded, shotguns cocked and our entry into the Wild West soon resembled a scene from a Hollywood action film, except the lead roles were played by a sun burnt photographer and dehydrated geography teacher, both reluctant to give up his prized possession. First order of the day was not to die, which our guide luckily agreed with, but two Uighurs were not the best allies to have at this point. Ethnic minorities within China aren’t on particularly good terms with the ubiquitous Han.

The blade was immediately confiscated and whisked off to the hut where, I assumed, it was inspected as a potential WMD, manhandled for secret messages and likely ogled over as the finest metalwork this side of China. My head hung low as my heart sank. I resisted the urge to argue, mainly because the loaded shotgun was still firmly planted in my sternum, but also because I didn’t want to get anyone else in trouble. Raising my eyes I suddenly realised my wife had disappeared, she’d instead followed the blade to the ordinance hut and had started up one of the loudest arguments I’ve ever heard. Now, I’m not one to argue with loaded shotguns but it seemed my wife had no such concerns, she wanted that knife back. Half an hour later she returned somewhat triumphantly with an empty sheath. Small victories, but still my hero.

We were all arrested and fined, whilst our Uighur guide had his guide license and driving license confiscated. Then we were taken to the nearest police station and charged with a warning and yet more  fines. My wife argued all the way.

I miss that knife.

BARNABY JACO SKINNER

Photographer & Artist

All content copyright Barnaby Jaco Skinner 2018

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