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 like 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 utensils to locals and tourists alike 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 trembling hands on; a stunning 30cm machete that would replace my old and weary Gerber from years of bush-craft abuse in the UK and beyond. I ran my 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 plodded with our journey 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 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 about 30 minutes to cross, nothing too stressful or dramatic. However, in recent days there had been a fairly 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. I 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 Tashkurgan. We shut off the engine and stepped out the car with nothing but desert, cliffs and a tiny shack full of heavily armed grunts for company.

A thorough sweep of the car revealed nothing of interest to the stationed 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, and there in all its splendor laid one of the finest crafted machetes the guards had ever seen.

A concealed weapon is pretty 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 I 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 could 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 flick, except the lead role was played by a sunburnt photographer 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. Let’s just say that the ethnic minorities within China aren’t on particularly good terms with the ubiquitous Han.

The blade was quickly 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, my heart sank. I resisted the urge to argue, mainly because the shotgun was still firmly in place, but raising my eyes I realised my wife had disappeared, she’d instead followed the blade to the ammo 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 and no amount of heavy Chinese ordnance was going to stop her trying. Half an hour later she returned somewhat triumphantly with an empty sheath. Small victories.

Arrested, fined, guide license and driving license confiscated. We were taken to the local police station and charged with a warning with yet another fine. Not a fun 48 hours but we emerged unscathed with all our limbs intact, so I guess it was a win.

I miss that knife.

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