In my previous writing on Turpan, I alluded to the area being famous for its grapes… Well, they’ve had a lot of time to get it right. There is evidence of grapes being grown around Turpan since at least the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD).
And the high esteem in which grapes from Turpan are held is not undeserved. I’ve been to a lot of places and eaten a lot of grapes along the way (who doesn’t like grapes?) and I can say that no grapes I’ve tried in Napa or France or Italy compare to those I sampled in Turpan.
I’m not a foodie and so I’m not really equipped with the proper vocabulary to describe them, but the sweetness of the grapes is perfectly in balance and there are no seeds to act as spoilers when one bites into the skin and the fruit itself, which are the perfect texture. As with fine art and fine wine, it is a fine fruit.
The only comparable grapes I have tasted are from Afghanistan. And everything is better in Afghanistan…
Driving through the outskirts of Turpan, one will pass column after column of crates stacked high with grapes:
Most families here have their own grape plots. Some are very small and others are enormous.
Rows of grapes on trellises in one of the larger grape fields:
On the surface, it may not appear that there are many grapes in these fields, but underneath those canopies is a veritable sea of grapes:
Readers may well recall the searing heat of the Turpan region… Given the heat and dry, barren conditions, the water-intensive production of grapes may seem somewhat unexpected here. The secret is in the karez water system – the underground water channels that irrigate the region.
The below is an extreme example of thriving in difficult conditions that we observed in the Flaming Mountains and demonstrates well the power of the karez system:
And, in fact, it is the very heat of the Turpan region that is responsible for the sweetness and the quality of the grapes. The combination of heat, long periods of sunshine, temperature swings (the desert can get cold at night) and very slight precipitation produces massive quantities of high-quality fruit.
In the close up (below) of the farm pictured above, you’ll notice several strange-looking rectangular buildings that look as if they are composed of mud brick latticework. These have a lot of different names. Grapes houses. Grape huts. Raisin huts. Grape drying houses…
As you, dear readers, can probably guess from the names, the purpose of these buildings is simple. After the grapes are harvested, they are taken into these houses and hung from poles to dry:
Driving through the outskirts of Turpan and in the villages of the surrounding area, one will pass countless grape houses.
Sometimes these “grape houses” are in better shape than the “people houses”:
A view out over the grape fields of Turpan… Notice the many grape houses stretching out toward the horizon.
New grape houses under construction:
Open poles waiting for grapes inside a grape house:
Stepping from the hot, dusty desert surrounding Turpan into a grape house is a comparable experience to being teleported from the deserts of Sudan to the cool rain forests of the mountains of Colombia.
The temperature drop can be twenty degrees or more. Outside the air is hot and oppressive and one is always squinting to keep some of the sun and grit out of their eyes. Inside, the air is cool, fragrant and the greenery removed from the glare of the harsh sun is soothing to the eyes. It’s a very pleasant experience.
Turpan grapes drying on the poles in a grape house:
I don’t know a lot about the different species of grapes and so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of these (or the translations), but I wrote down a list of the types of grapes our driver said were grown in and around Turpan:
1) Seedless white grapes
2) Manaizi – more commonly known as “mare’s nipple grapes” (And, yes, I made sure to get the translation right on that one)
3) Red grapes
4) Black grapes
5) Kashihar grapes
6) Bijiagan grapes
7) Rose-pink grapes
8) Suosuo grapes