The Bag – Xiahe

A Picture Paints A Thousand Words: Here’s 532 about a picture

‘Bitch!’ I scream at the old woman. ‘Bitch. Bitch. Bitch.’

I continue to shower this frailest of flowers with cuss words right there in the middle of the shop –

‘Don’t you know we were meant to be together? Are you that F-ing stupid?’

She seems entirely oblivious to what she has done and continues to casually, mindlessly even, upturn china plates with one pudgy hand. I guess it’s unsurprising really, my rantings are non-verbal after all, kept within the seething purple-crayon-squiggle of raw anger that is my brain. The tan vintage scuffed-up leather satchel of supreme loveliness that she now clutches in her sausage-digits was meant to be mine.

I am in a charity shop in Gorse Hill in my home-town of Swindon. It is a strange pseudo-village within the town, where various nationalities and second-hand retailers converge. I am shopping for a pair of pre-owned shorts for my trip to Asia. I am on a tight budget. In truth, I don’t really have enough money to make the trip. And that is the reason why I put the leather satchel back on the display shelf after pressing it for several minutes to my chest like a six year old girl would a puppy gifted by her father. I returned to flicking through some highly-unfashionable short shorts, the type worn exclusively by German dads on walking holidays and paedophiles, when it occurred to me that, in the grand scheme of things, spending £4 on a bag that was infinitely cool didn’t matter a jot. ‘To hell with it,’ I thought and turned round. An empty shelf faced me.

Five months later. Dusk. The start of the Labrang Monastery kora, in Xiahe, Gansu Province, China.

There are a few Tibetans selling clothes on the dirt track adjacent to the first run of prayer wheels. The clothes and bags are piled high on tarpaulins on the ground. Next to the old ladies selling bread is a blue tarpaulin with bags piled on it. I watch as pilgrims quickly and expertly sift through the bags. I see one man toe at a handbag, dislodging a small pile and in turn revealing a leather satchel. I pick it up. I hold on to it. The trader lady looks at me strangely. We barter for a few minutes with hand signals – the Chinese have a hand shape for each number. Eventually we arrive at 13 Yuan, around £1.30. The locals who have been watching and listening intently start to laugh. I hope that they are laughing at the happy conclusion to the scene, rather than the fact that I’ve been ripped off.

The bag smells. It is heavy. Cumbersome even. I have no room for it in my backpack and it is too heavy to carry separately but history has taught me, if you see a good leather satchel buy the fecker, because some old woman is always waiting with baited breath to snatch it from you.

So, for posterity, for me, and for old ladies everywhere, here is the picture from Labrang, of the pile of bags minus the leather satchel that now hangs off my shoulder and swings to the rhythm of victory.

bags at xiahe market china

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Tom Spooner

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