Private museum in China's Xinjiang chronicles bygone era

Ugabula Ahmat's rural house looks nothing unique from outside, but walking into the 300-square-meter yard in Ruoqiang County, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, feels like a travel through time.

On the right side of the lush grape trellis at the center of the yard are rooms where Ugabula, a retired cultural worker, lives a comfortable modern life, with daily home appliances and neat furniture. And on the other side, there are rooms housing life in sharp contrast with the present.

Wooden basins for kneading dough, oil lamps, a TV about the size of a tissue box and dog-eared pocket comic books are among the antiques displaying daily life utensils, farming tools and recreation devices collected by Ugabula during his 37-year cultural work career.

"Life has been changing at a fast clip over the past few decades. Collecting these antiques will help keep the bitter memory of the old days alive and showcase the progress to the hard-won modern life," he said.

Ugabula, 59, still feels poignant when recalling the past. His family lived in an earthen shelter and slept on an earth bed. "It was a luxury to have naan (a local bread-like staple food) made of flour, and we had to hang them high to make sure they were beyond mice's reach."

Opened to the public in May 2017, Ugabula's private museum has received over 3,000 trips made by students, civil servants, construction workers, among others.

"My family also had some of the antiques when I was a child. It's a transcending experience to see them again," said Eskal Ahmat, a 23-year-old college student who visits the museum during summer vacation.

Besides antique pieces, Ugabula's life-long hobby is as well on display in the exhibition room. He has created some 200 watercolor paintings since childhood, offering glimpses of the changing local life and economy as their themes varied in different periods.

His early works mainly cover farming, herding, mining and local sceneries. A consistent topic emerged in 2001 when Ruoqiang started to target growing jujube, or Chinese date, as the county's major way out of poverty.

From jujube planting to watering and harvesting, Ugabula has painted almost every aspect of the popular dried fruit in China.

The work titled "The Golden Tree" is what he deems his masterpiece. In the painting, a man is seen telling his daughter about the happy life ushered in by cultivating jujube, a gold-generating giant fruit in the picture that enabled locals to go on trips, build new houses and buy new cars.

After about two decades, the red date sector has sweetened local people's life. Growing jujube contributes over 70 percent to local farmers' net income, which rose from about 2,200 yuan (about 322 U.S. dollars) in 2001 to over 33,000 yuan in 2019.

The jujube trees in Ugabula's yard are covered with green dates that would turn red and gather sweetness in autumn. "Like the Chinese dates, life here is getting sweeter," Ugabula said under a tree.