Turpan Story


The wirey man in the small room did not sit at a desk, but stood at a small metal stand — perhaps a music stand? – holding paperwork and my and Alison’s passports. He seemed young – smooth faced, long and lean, almost feline – but it’s often difficult for me to estimate age in Han men. He wore an all black uniform along with a black cloth baseball cap that had a short brim and Chinese characters stitched into the front.

“What is your name?”

“Eric Rector?” I replied as a question, obviously nervous.

“What is the purpose of your visit?” He had not yet looked at me, and continued working through the paperwork on his stand whether I replied or not. Perhaps he was filling in the blanks of a Rural Village Visa application, I wasn’t sure.

“I am touring Turpan for pleasure.” I said using the terms available in the list of options on the imagined visa form.

He laughed, which did not make sense because I’m sure he wasn’t reading any irony into this situation. My host family had tried to register our visit to their home with the village police, and the local police wanted nothing to do with us. They insisted that my hosts call the city police and follow their lead. In the village station my host called and was told: bring them to the city headquarters – we want to talk to the visitors. We also want them to check into a hotel in the city; there are not adequate facilities for them in your village.

“What is the purpose of your visit to _____ Village?” he clarified.

This time I laughed. I thought about telling him that the mere fact that we had arrived in the village was a miracle considering the unrest in Xinjiang that had been reported that summer, and that our arrival itself had been the purpose. I also knew that the unrest we had read in Western news service reports probably reflected perhaps 10% of the facts on the ground, and that the word “unrest” probably translated to “chaos” in this fellow’s mind, and I knew that if there was one thing the Chinese government hated talking about – especially with an American – it was chaos.

Instead: “My wife and I have traveled from America hoping to learn how the world-famous Turpan raisins are produced so that I can return to American and educate those who enjoy and appreciate their Famous Time Honored flavors and qualities. I want to tell America about the tremendous work and unique environment that produces such mysterious lucky golden and ruby jewels that are like edible jade.”

I stumbled through this answer madly leafing through the imaginary thesaurus that I thought many Chinese translators use when writing the English description of prized Chinese products.

He didn’t laugh, but he did stop shifting through his paperwork and turn and look at me for the first time. “We want to invite you to improve the hotel and stay in the city at a place with things you will like.”

“The hospitality we have been given by our hosts has been exceptional and I can’t imagine how it could be improved. Surely you would not want us to insult our hosts by telling them we would prefer a hotel?” I said this slowly so that he could translate each word, and I hoped that “hospitality” and “exceptional” were a part of the Simple English dictionary. The point of our trip had been to live for a few days with a raisin farmer to learn this local art, and moving to a city 30 kilometers away would complicate this for a family that did not have a car, only a three-wheeled motorized cart. I also wanted him to understand that I understood that it would cause our Uighur hosts to “lose face” should we move out of their provided lodging and into the nearest business hotel away in the city. I understood that the police could be cruel at times in their treatment of the local people, but I hoped that this would be a step too far even for them.

The security fellow did not look up from writing in his shuffle of paperwork, but he appeared to be pausing, to be thinking. He leafed through several pages making notes. He was definitely thinking. Finally he opened up my passport, flipped it to the Chinese visa page, copied my visa number on one of the sheets of paper, then turned and handed both of the passports to me without looking up. “You may go.”

I took them and backed out of the room. Alison was in the hall chatting with our host who looked up — “What now?”

I looked around. No one was looking at us, almost purposefully. “I guess we can go?” My host smiled and hurried us out of the station to find a taxi.


This was the imaginary scene I played out in my head as I lay on our courtyard bed in the pre-dawn hours staring up at a scalloped cloud formation shining in the moonlight. I kept editing the scene for clarity, reining in my bravado in the face of this fictional confrontation. As my possible adversary I had chosen an obviously powerful young lieutenant in the black clad security detail I watched commanding one of the road blocks and car searches we had passed through on our drive between Urumqi and Toksun.

Everything was true except the visit to the police station. After we arrived in the village and attempting on his own to register us with the village police, being referred to the city police directly who then instructed our host to bring us to a hotel in the city and then into the police headquarters where they could interview us, our host was very shaken up. He returned to his parents’ house and handed us back our passports. We sat around the carpet-strewn platform that served as furniture in their lovely grape vine covered courtyard and our host relayed the instructions to us in English, and then to his parents in Uighur.

Immediately his father engaged him and they went back and forth in Uighur with what seemed greater urgency in each statement though their faces never lost their composure. Finally our host turn to me and said, “My father is of the opinion that we will not go to the city police. He says that the village police don’t want responsibility for the Americans, and neither do the city police. My father says the city police will be disappointed if we show up. My father says the best thing to do is ignore the instructions. As long as nothing happens no one cares about the Americans here. If something happens, the police will both say they issued instructions which we ignored, so they won’t get in trouble with the district police. But if something happens that involves police it’s safe to say ignoring instructions will not be our big problem.”

Alison and I had traveled to the Turpan basin on a guided tour four years before, and although we enjoyed touring the official sites — the Emin Minaret, the Jiaohe ruins, the Budda Caves in the Flaming Mountains, the Astana graveyards, the Tuyuk Demonstration Village — we were fascinated by the multitudes of fresh grapes and then the rainbow of different raisin varieties. We knew that agriculture was happening all around us, though most was invisible but for the few “demonstration” plots next to the highways. Later, flying back to Shanghai we noted that all the Chinese tourist on our flight were checking boxes and boxes of fresh fruit as their luggage, not suitcases of clothes. Obviously this was a special agricultural area. By keeping in touch with one of our guides after we got home we had arranged to discover where food happened in this part of China on this trip. Now we also got to discover where the police state happened, and how the citizens manage it, which was an unexpected but interesting point of interest.

It turned out that our greatest challenge was to get comfortable with our “hotel” for the next few days: our host’s parents owned another house around the corner from their home in the village back streets, and we were installed there by ourselves. It was a typical dwelling in the town: a “U” shaped plan of single rooms surrounding a courtyard planted with trees for shade, and a double gate on one end that could open wide to allow a moto-cart inside, or open only a door for normal entry. We followed a train of people carrying bedding and carpets (we carried our luggage) to the house after dark — perhaps to attract the least attention. Inside the gate there was a bare plywood platform about two-feet off the ground. Onto this they first spread the carpets, and then they spread the bedding to create a double-bed in the middle of the larger platform. They showed us out back where the family grew vegetables inside a walled garden and where, in the far corner, there was the outhouse we would use. The rooms inside the buildings were bare and unlived-in. They included a sink and a shower room, though the water was turned off, and were much warmer than the weather outside, so it made sense that we would sleep outside. (Each day during our visit the temperature topped 40°C though it cooled down as soon as the sun disappeared; it appeared that MOST people in the village slept outside as a result — those without courtyards had beds in the roads and streets.)

They left us with a pot of tea for drinking and a big bottle of water for washing and told us to lock the gate behind them. Alison sat down on the platform and I took her picture in the moonlight. “We were looking for an adventure!” I reminded her. Thirty years ago this living arrangement would have been fun. Now in our 50s we looked at it as a challenge, but one that we hoped to make as comfortable as possible.

I had been waken by the dawn call to prayer echoing around the village — a distant lilting but insistent human voice telling the desert that we humans were still alive. Alison and I had been warned about possible mosquitos during the night, but we heard very few and both of us had managed to get a bit of sleep. I got up and used the outhouse which even had an electric light available. It was a one-holer through a wooden floor over a shallow pit. Ashes from a bucket applied after every use kept the sewage smell very faint. There was a magazine with ripped out pages available, but they had provided us with a roll of squishy toilet paper as well.

About an hour after the call to prayer — around 5:00am — our host knocked on the door in the gate: “Are you up? I’ll be back in 15 minutes to bring you to breakfast.”

We both were up and dressed and just washing our faces and brushing teeth. When our host returned he helped us fold up the bedding and carpets into two bundles which we set inside one of the empty rooms, hid our suitcases in a closet, and then we took only what we needed for the day with us as we left the house locked behind us. We walked around the corner to his parent’s home where we were asked to take off our shoes and sit on their carpet covered platform — augmented (for Westerners?) with additional cushions — around a low table to wait for breakfast. His wife was busy sweeping the courtyard for the day, after which she threw ladles of water over all of the paving to keep the dust down. His mother worked at the wood-fired wok in one corner making breakfast.

In our first chance to see the whole courtyard it looked like a Broadway set designer’s fantasy of a desert home: above the considerable grape arbor “roof” — including ripe pendant grape clusters — rose a second “roof” of a giant walnut tree crown whose massive trunk sat in one corner of the yard and poked through the grape vines. A mirror was hung on the trunk at face height for regular use (the family washed their face and brushed their teeth in the courtyard, and encouraged us to do the same). A low brick wall separated this paved courtyard from a lower earthen space that featured pear, apple, and more walnut trees, all of them bearing ripe fruit. The double “roof” provided a deep pool of shade that was their only escape, in mid-day, from the heat of the sun. Few if any of the local houses had electric air conditioners.

His father sat with us, silent but smiling, along with our host who occasionally engaged someone in a discussion. Whatever the topic every Uighur discussion I witnessed seemed to escalate in urgency as it progressed until it reached some kind of conclusion and the conversation and verbal energy abruptly stopped. Between conversations in English and Uighur, even with the language barrier we sat behind, everyone seemed comfortable to be together in silence.

His mother brought us a wide pan filled with a white liquid. “Milk tea!” Our host announced. The tea was ladled into bowls his wife had set on the table in front of us around a large plate of two kinds of naan, the local bread. Our host showed us that we should break off pieces of the semi-stale bread and drop them into our bowl of tea and then let them get soft before eating them, along with drinking the tea as it cooled. The tea was the normal weak brick tea that they served all day and night together with an equal amount of milk. This version also included cream, which showed up as a slick of melted butter on the surface. It was salted, as I had heard about the butter/milk teas in Tibet and Mongolia. At first it was an unusual combination for my palate, but satisfying when it became just breakfast. It was warm and filling.

Naturally we were encouraged to have seconds and thirds, getting automatic refills in our bowls as we ate. This was nice initially but became a running theme as two families fought to feed us well, made more difficult by the variety and tastiness of each dish. At the end of our first day we were taut and trembling balloons of good food; we vowed to cut back on our portions moving forward, insisting to our host that we *could not* eat as much as they wanted us to, that they were “killing us with kindness.” He understood, and several of our meals featured him urgently arguing with our chef — his mother, his wife, or his mother-in-law — that they stop refilling our bowls. We knew that we risked offending the chefs by refusing additional servings, but we also knew that our stomachs had limits.

After breakfast our host took us out to explore the village, which is a satellite community of 25,000 people near the city of Toksun, which itself is a small city (75,000) on the western edge of the Turpan basin anchored by the city of the same name on the north edge. The entire basin is an oasis in the middle of a great desert stretching from Gansu province in the east all the way to the far western Chinese border with Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Kyrgyztan. Oases like this line the mountain ranges that form the boundaries of this massive desert, each one fed by run off from the snow-capped peaks above them. They were the green dots that connected the Silk Road in its most archetypal form. When you look at Toksun and the surrounding countryside on Google Earth you see a splotch of green with hard and clear borders of grey rubble to the north, west, and south.

Inside the green splotch it is still recognizably dry and desert-like, but there are trees along most of the back streets, grapes in almost every courtyard, and then fields primarily of corn, millet, and cotton stretching behind the houses out to that hard and clear border with the real desert. This morning we took the moto-cart (Alison, me, and his wife sitting in the back, all of us eating dried apricots) north along the main road through the village until the houses thinned and there were only fields bordered by their irrigation ditches. Then the fields ended abruptly in a hill of stones.

Our host pulled the moto-cart over beside the dirt road leading farther north through these rubble hills. As we got out his wife collected our apricot pits. Our host explained that we were on the very edge (“the verge”) of the Turpan basin oasis, his wife squatted and banged away with a rock beside the road, then brought us each a handful of apricot kernels, shelled from the pits to continue snacking on. The sun was still climbing in the sky as we hiked to the top of the hill of stones, perhaps 50 meters high, to look at more gray hills and stones stretching into the distance. Far away (60 Km? 100 Km?) stood the mountain ranges that sent their water down to the oasis. I noticed a heavy dump truck that had passed us when we pulled over was now a little cube rumbling along the road several kilometers away, kicking up a cloud behind it. Then the truck dipped over a ridge and the desert fell silent again.

Back at the parent’s courtyard his mother prepared us a second morning meal: laghman, the ubiquitous (and favorite) noodle dish in Xinjiang. I’ve come to realize that just like “ramen” in Japan, “laghman” is a phonetic corruption of the Mandarin term “lo mein” meaning long noodles. The sauce, however, is different from what you would find in “mainland China:” onions and mutton chunks cooked in oil, then joined by vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, and green beans during our visit) and a splash of black vinegar. The noodles are the star of the show, traditionally hand-pulled in a very dramatic fashion, with smaller strands pulled out of larger strands until a skein of dough is wrapped around two hands to be stretched and pounded THWUMP THWUMP THWUMP on the work surface until they’re thin enough to be thrown in the boiling water, one bowl of noodles at a time. When the noodles are cooked, the sauce is spooned over and they’re immediately served. You are welcome to add additional black vinegar to your batch, which I like to do. Alison gamely offered to help pull the noodles for her own bowl, but it is an art to pulling them just so to keep them even, stretch them as thin as spaghetti, and not break them. We are spoiled by our pasta machine at home, but will probably practice this technique as well.

Thus re-fortified (and after several refusals and counter-proposals for more helpings) we headed out to join our host’s in-laws at their farm several kilometers east of the village. We arrived just as a neighbor is buying that morning’s milking of the family cow to take away in an old cooking oil jug. Their compound was a single building with a grape vine covered porch in front of it. The was a complete second story on top of the building which serves as a raisin drying space, and also keeps the heat out of the inside rooms where we spent most of our time here. Trees on both sides shaded the house, and beyond their covered yard was a square farm plot of around two or three acres, two-thirds devoted to grapes, but the rest interplanted in cotton and a special variety of millet found only in Toksun. Around the edges of the fields on all sides they had planted Chinese date trees (also called Jujube) now ripe with yellow and red oval fruit. Beside all the paths and along the edges of the ditches where the grape vines were watered they had planted different kinds of melons. The in-laws also farmed many other fields throughout town that were not near residences. This was their summer home and it was where they raided their prized crop of grapes.

Just as we arrived the outdoor wok was fired up with dried branches, grape prunings, and dry trash to create the next meal — another Uighur traditional dish — called “polo” (though it’s pronounced more like “pull-uh”): a rice dish with vegetables and mutton. The wife explained that when she was growing up they would eat polo very rarely, only at weddings or other big celebrations, because rice was expensive and rare. Now that rice is easy to buy people make it more often. In restaurants the versions of polo that I had eaten were quite rich, with the rice seemingly coated with oil and fat, and very few vegetables. The wife’s version was nice and light, and she added more carrots than I had normally seen, along with soaked black-eyed peas and mung beans for a number of different flavors and textures. I liked her version quite a bit but this was our third meal that day and it was just noon! I suspect, however, that this was her parent’s first meal after a milk tea breakfast, and they and her sister really enjoyed bowl after bowl — it didn’t go to waste.

The raisin house above the rooms was empty at the moment as the father-in-law negotiated with fresh fruit buyers for a good price on his crop. He grew varieties, green and red, that would be good for fresh eating or raisins to give him the flexibility during the harvest of selling to his best advantage. It was early in the buying season for fresh grapes, however, and he was still trying to decide where the market would go this year. In a week or so, if he could not secure a good price for the fresh crop, he would begin putting them up in the raisin house where he could dry them and then spend up to several months to find the best deal.

While we visited the farm a neighbor had spread about 100 meters of black polyethylene tarp out in his open sun-drenched driveway and began laying out baskets and baskets of fresh green grapes to dry in the open sun. Our host talked to him and told us that each basket had been soaked in “salt water” (probably containing sulfites to prevent browning) that would draw out some of the water and help them dry faster. Drying them out in the open would also dry the grapes in half the time it took to dry in the traditional raisin house where they were shielded from the sun (10 days vs. four weeks). Our host said this man was taking a chance of getting NEW harvest raisins to market first, and therefore getting a better price than if he waited and properly dried them and then had to compete with everyone else. Our host betrayed a lopsided smile as he told us this, and later he said that the neighbor would not have very good raisins to sell. “He may get a good price,” he summarized, “but only because a stupid buyer isn’t patient and can’t wait for good raisins.”

His father-in-law’s grapes are grown on trellises parallel to the ground about one meter high creating a space underneath for the clusters to hang down into, protected from the sun and the birds, and through which pickers could crawl to harvest them. On one side of the trellis all the vines were anchored in a ditch that could be watered. And although the Turpan basin has lots of heat and water in the summer to make lots of sugar in its grapes, it is very far north in the grape’s comfort zone, so each fall the grape farmers must disassemble their trellises and lay the pruned vines down on the ground so they can be BURIED under a foot or so of earth to protect them from the very cold winters. That means that these grapes, prized fresh throughout China, and prized as raisins throughout the world, are truly a labor of love — a LOT of labor. It is quite different from the rows of grapes trained to run in rows perpendicular to the ground that we generally see in the wine regions — rows that are easily worked standing up, that never have to be buried, and that can be mechanically tended if necessary.

Both my host and his father-in-law were very proud of their grapes, and each time we ventured out into the field we returned with an armful of them that were insistently offered to us throughout the day. Our host would not leave the farm without a box of grapes either for his family (who prized them over the shaded grapes they grew in their courtyard) or to a local merchant or driver that we would deal with during our stay. It was a way of saying “thank you” as well as a way of saying “look what we accomplished!”

Cotton was another cash crop for the father-in-law. Some of it grew in their back plot along with the millet they grew for feeding themselves over the winter, but most of it grew elsewhere in plots that he leased. The brittle boles were just breaking into fluffy balls of fiber on the lower stems of the waist-high plants while simple pale yellow flowers open at the top.

I was aware (in fact I had insisted to my host) that the families be compensated with money in exchange for letting us intrude, especially during such a busy time. Still we felt a bit guilty eating and napping through the day, and we insisted on helping a little. The father-in-law allowed as how we could pick what cotton had opened already which might not cause much damage to the later crop. As the shadows started to spill across into the field we went out with empty feed bags and picked for about an hour. We didn’t quite fill all three bags, but we also got a sense of how much work was involved in the agriculture of this area.

During our stay in the village I saw perhaps only two or three tractors of any kind on the streets, in the open courtyards we walked by, or out in the fields surrounding the village. There just doesn’t appear to be any mechanization on any scale devoted to the thousands of acres around us — they appear to be worked by hand from digging and planting seeds in the spring to digging and burying vines in the winter. Their layout suggests this as well because they are divided into very small runs for a tractor, but manageable for a person. We know the cotton is harvested by hand because we saw in the China Daily newspaper pictures and stories of the annual migration of workers out to Xinjiang, people lined up at train stations throughout “mainland China” waiting to get out there to earn some money. Of course once the cotton is harvested it is ginned, baled, and transported mechanically. Once the raisins are dried they are winnowed, graded, and packed mechanically. This isn’t a stone-age agricultural system, but it’s clear that farmers work directly on the land, every day, and it is hard. In my travel notebook I wrote at one point: “In Turpan farmers taste the earth every day but at the end of the season the taste can be very sweet.”

Toward sunset our host loaded us back into the moto-cart and he took us out to see some of the other fields his father-in-law tended: mostly cotton, some corn, and more of the Jujube trees. Bombing along the back dirt roads dividing large sets of fields he suddenly stopped the cart at a pump house gushing water into the irrigation ditch between it and the road. “This is very good water,” he said, jumped off the seat, squatted down and washed his dusty face in the cold water, followed by drinking a few handfuls. We all followed his lead and it was good water — clean and cold with a bracing minerality. Most of the Turpan basins water comes down from the mountains in surface canals, but a good portion is also pumped from underground. The pumps and the irrigation gates are all controlled by the municipality — farmers cannot water unless the officials have turned on the local pump or opened the nearby gate. (One morning we arrived at the farmhouse and were told the father-in-law had been up all night because the water for his cotton fields had been turned on very late.) Even though the water resources could be managed for the long-term by a central authority our host said that the water table underground is receding, and he feared for the future of his wife’s family business, as well as all of Turpan. (Of course the oil and gas drilling throughout Xinjiang requires enormous amounts of water as well…) Right now the municipality is telling farmers to plant more drought tolerant crops like the Jujube trees, but their tradition and livelihood still depends on the grape and cotton crops which require a great deal of water.

At sunset our host motored us west to another “verge” where the green met the gray. Pulling off the highway we crossed over one of the surface irrigation canals that was full of bright sparkling green water flowing swiftly into the village, on to Toksun and beyond. It looked as pure as the glacial run-off I have seen in pictures from the Himalayas or Rockies. I looked up to it source, a crazy distance on the far horizon, now flooded with the red and orange glow of the end of another day.

It was almost dark when we arrived back at our host’s courtyard and his parents. We had bought fresh naan at a bakery in the village center, and the father had harvested a few “turnips” which looked just like daikon radishes. Almost as fast as we could take off our shoes and arrange ourselves on the platform cushions around the table, there was a big platter of shredded turnip, tomato, and pepper salad together with the naan with its characteristic circles of needle holes studded through the center of each flat disk to keep it from puffing up and off the tandoor oven wall. As we talked and ate and drank bowls of weak black tea under a bare hanging light bulb, our world now reduced to the glow around us, a woman walked in through the open door in the gate with a ten year old girl and a boy half that age. It was a neighbor who had heard there were Americans staying with our host’s family, and she wanted them to say “HELLO!” to us. Naturally both children clammed up and wouldn’t even look at us and it became a game to get one of them to say “HELLO!” Neither did, but they still got a bowl of yogurt (which I had helped make) for a snack which they ran off with to eat behind the big walnut tree trunk.

We enjoyed spending time under that light bulb each night, after a light dinner — the main meals eaten early in the day. At one point our host asked if Alison would demonstrate how to make a drawing, and to the delight of everyone (the neighbor returned with more neighbors as the word spread around the village) she drew portraits. Someone played some Uighur music on their smartphone and the first neighbor jumped up to begin a traditional dance, challenging anyone to join her — our host was happy to show off. By the time we said good night each night and walked around the corner to our private courtyard, we were tired and full of good food. Best of all we knew we were having an adventure.


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