As we drove out of Turpan on our way to the ancient ruins of Jiaohe when our guide in Turpan, Ahmad, learned in conversation that Alison was an artist, he got a twinkle in his eye and said, “I have a friend who is an artist — perhaps you would like to meet him and see his work?” “Yes!” Alison responded with curiosity. “Good! I will arrange it then.”
After our first Uygar dinner that night, as we strolled away from the restaurant into the warm evening along a tree lined boulevard, Ahmad brought it up again. “We will meet Osman at the evening food market and then we will take a taxi to his home where you can see his work.” We walked for several blocks then crossed the street to an open area where many people were gathered around food vendors who were cooking kebabs and noodles and pullo. It was kind of like a parking lot, but there were tables and chairs surrounding the vendors. As we walked into the crowd a tall thin man in a baseball cap came bounding out with a great smile, warmly greeted Ahmad, and then shook our hands as Ahmad introduced us to Osman (who didn’t speak English).
They then hailed a cab and we piled in, but then Ahmad and Osman began arguing with the driver in Uygar and after only a block the cab abruptly pulled over to the side of the road. “We must get out,” Ahmad said and led us out of the back seat, after which the cab sped away. “He wanted us to pay too much for our ride, so we will find a better taxi.” When the next taxi pulled up Osman and Ahmad argued with him before telling us it was OK to get in. This taxi driver agreed to a 5 RMB fare: US$0.75.
The taxi drove us out of the city on the main street, weaving in and out of cars including several jeeps filled with black uniformed policemen carrying guns. Only briefly did I think, “We’ve been in Xinjiang less than 12 hours and Alison and I are now *off* our itinerary, and we have no idea where we are going. Is this a smart thing to do?” Five minutes later the cab pulled over to the side of the main street, Ahmad paid the driver, and we all got out.
Osman walked through a beautiful blue door into a courtyard behind the wall that faced the sidewalk as Ahmad explained that Osman’s house was older construction that had been noted for it’s architectural style, then we walked in through the doors. Several rooms, and apparently several residences opened into the courtyard: to our left we could see through a window to where a family sat around a low table watching TV. Osman stood at the top of some stairs on the right on a porch in front of the rooms upstairs to the right holding a kettle in one hand. We followed Ahmad up the stairs where he bent over a small basin and Osman poured water on to Ahmad’s hands so he could wash them. After Ahmad dried his hand with a cloth Osman gave him, Ahmad said that we should do the same. Alison bent over the basin and rubbed her hands in the stream of water, then stood up and shook the excess water off. “NO!” Ahmad hopped up to her with the cloth. “It is very bad luck to shake water off your hands. It’s considered an insult to your host!” Alison turned read and was quiet embarrassed as Ahmad spoke to Osman in Uygar, probably telling him we had just arrived from Han China and didn’t know any better. When Osman poured water over my hands I was very careful not to shake them before he handed me the hand cloth.
Osman then opened a sliding glass door to a brightly lit room with a raised platform on which was a table surrounded by embroidered cushions. Ahmad naturally slipped off his shoes and climbed onto the platform to sit cross-legged around the table. “We should have a light snack first,” he said motioning for us to join him at the table after taking our shoes off.
The table had the special post-Ramadan fried bread as its centerpiece, along with other bread and crackers, as well as dried fruits and nuts. Osman soon came into the room from an interior room — probably the kitchen– with a plate of fresh grapes. “These are very good grapes,” Ahmad assured us, plucking a small cluster from the plate and eating them. I ate a few — they had seeds in them, which I decided to crunch instead of spit in this very formal dining room — and they were cool and refreshing. When Osman returned again he had four small bowls that he passed around, and then he poured cold tea from a kettle. “This is cold green tea, which is very good for digestion at night. Especially on hot nights.” Ahmad explained.
We sipped tea after Osman sat down with us at the table and attempted to make conversation. We thanked Osman for his hospitality, the tea, and the grapes, and for hosting us on the spur of the moment. He was very gracious and smiled a lot, nodding. He knew very few Engish words, but one of them was “Jorjdubboosh!” which he said with gusto and a big thumbs up when we said we were from the United States. We looked to Ahmad for a translation. “George Bush, your president?” He clarified. Reflexively Alison and I together said, “No, Bush is bad!” With a double thumbs down. Osman’s face went from beaming delight to sudden crestfallen sadness in a second. Worried that we had insulted our host again we tried to clarify, together again saying, “Obama good!” with a double thumbs up and big smiles. Osman’s face lit up again and he through up his thumb. “Barak Obama, yes!”
Thankfully we changed the subject from politics to Osman’s art, and Ahmad suggested we go downstairs to take a look at it. Osman taught art at one of the local high schools but his real passion was his own artwork: acrylic paintings of local scenes on gourds, tambourine-like drums, and a few on canvas. Downstairs in another room that opened off the courtyard, Osman began unpacking samples of his work as well as two books of photos of all his work. They were brightly colored and lively scenes well rendered, but that flat effect with hard barriers of colors that acrylics can sometimes cause. Alison praised him and encouraged him to continue with the the work, but it became a little awkward as both Alison and I wondered if we were expected to “make him an offer.” Our being able to buy this art had never been something Ahmad brought up, but he did go on quite a bit about how hard it was for Osman to sell his work, especially since July 17th. Ahmad did say to Alison in a low voice when Osman was in another room getting some more works to show us: “Osman needs encouragement — especially from another artist.” Whether that ‘encouragement’ should be in the form of a purchase was not specified, but we could feel that it wouldn’t be turned down. And the work was good, but not sparking that “I’d love to have that!” impulse that is good to have with art. Plus we were traveling light. After we saw all the works Osman had in his inventory, plus the pictures of other works, we thanked him very much, and Ahmad led us back out into the courtyard where we said good bye.
We walked out onto the sidewalk and directly in front of us a man was sitting on a donkey cart. He started speaking to us when he saw us. Ahmad said, “He wants us to get on his cart to ride back into the city.” I laughed as if that were a joke. “That would be too slow, no.” Ahmad instead crossed the street where a motorized tricycle was idling. He waved us over and said, “it’s a nice evening and this will be very cheap if you don’t mind riding in the air.” The back of the tricycle was a platform covered with a few rugs. We jumped on with our feet dangling off the side, and the driver revved the motor and took off down the main street back toward the city.
About five minutes later Ahmad shouted over the sound of the engine, “do you mind walking a bit?” We shook our heads no, and he motioned to the driver to let us off. He paid him 1 RMB — $0.15 — before the tricycle whizzed away.