I have to confess I did not know much about Turpan. We first heard the name from a fellow traveler we met trekking in the Mongolian Altai Mountains. But the mention of the Silk Road quickly me sold me. We had to head to Turpan. But as we discovered this delightful town, it’s not the fantastic ruins or Buddhism history that surprised us, but the importance of grapes on its identity.
Turpan – A Silk Road City with Millennia-Old Origins
Known Turpan in its Uyghur name, the Chinese call it Tufan or Tulufan. Located in the far west region of China, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Province, Turpan sits on the famous Silk Road. As such, the city provides excellent access to several millennia-old ruins, with its history spanning over 6,000 years.
The origin of the name Turpan is unclear, but two possible meanings are ‘the lowest place’ in Uyghur, but also ‘the fertile land’ in Turki (Uyghur originated from a Turki language). Though the name and current location of Turpan originated from the Ming Dynasty around the 16th century, the importance of the area goes back to ancient time. Indeed, the ancient towns of Yarkhoto (or Jiaohe) date from 108 BC, and Gaochang from 328AD, when each in their epoch ruled and expanded their trade along the Silk Road.
Thanks to its hot and dry conditions, as well an impressive irrigation system via the Karez Wells which brings melting snow water from Tianshan Mountains, Turpan is famous for its grapes. It is even considered the center of grape production in China, and the whole town is a living vineyard.
One of the better-known areas is Grape Valley located in the Flaming Mountains. It is considered the farm basket of the region, producing an impressive variety of fruits and vegetables. But vineyards is really what the region is about, as one can tell from its name.
Note that Grape Valley is a rather commercial endeavor. The 8-km long valley features hotels, restaurants, a theme park, shops and is overall described as a touristy place. Located on one of the sides of the Flaming Mountains, the area is surprisingly refreshing in comparison to the scorching heat of the mountains. Entrance to the Grape Valley is a 75 CYN, quite an expensive price tag.
For those looking for a more authentic feel, simply wander with the vineyards around Turpan, and appreciate the natural beauty without the crowd.
Beside this clutter of chunces, it was very common to see an individual chunce above a house. Chunces were also very prominent in the old town, a testament to the importance of raisins in the Turpan culture.
The depth of the grapes’ culture is present in every corner as almost all houses in the old town have vineyards.
Any little garden or backyard has its grapes, which makes also walking around the older part of the city a pleasant stroll. Even when walking by the mud houses down the narrow streets in downtown Turpan, we could see the green plants rising from the ground and covering doors, walls, and other construction.
As an example of local traditions, our hostel had a large vine-covered patio, which provided a welcome shade from the hot sun. It also produced with grapes ready for the picking. We passed many courtyards with similar traditional covers.
Raisins & Wine Tasting
Over ten different grapes specialties are sold through the different vineyards, though the most famous ones are the seedless white grape, the Manaizi (mare nipple grape) and the Wuhebai (white seedless grape) in Chinese. Today, the grapes production from around Turpan represent 80% of China’s total output.
Many stores sold the different varieties, from the park sites entries offering local raisins to the tourists, to main markets displaying piles after piles of dry raisins. We found the best raisins in one of the local supermarket, which was offering five different kinds. We tasted them all and decided to purchase three different types. Each had a different shape and color, from a short-shaped light green raisin to a longer thick brown one.
I have to say that since we tasted the raisins of Turpan, it spoiled our taste buds and we haven’t been able to find as delicious and flavorful raisins. Maybe we need to go back and set up a direct distribution line to satisfy our raisin cravings.
We also got to taste some of the local wine. Though it might not adequately compare to a European or California grand cru, we quite appreciated the nectar. We had been surprised to find wine in this Muslim region. We enjoyed the local drink together with the local bread and hard cheese “khuruud” from Mongolia. A very international wine tasting moment.
Harvest & Vineyard Work
As we strolled in the late afternoon hours through several vineyards close to Jiaohe Ruins, we came across several families pulling the vine out and piling it in shallow digs. My assumption was there were preparing for the cold of winter since we were in October, putting the wooden trunks under the earth.
Rejoining the old streets, we passed by many houses with bags after bags of dry raisins. Given the late time of the year, most of the vineyard activities were completed, as the harvest happened in the previous months.
We got lucky to observe the process of sorting the dry fruits from its wooden sticks. The machine looked rather ancient but seemed to get the job done. As we stopped and observed the farmers, they offered us a handful of raisins to taste.
These raisins tasted differently than what I used to eat in California or France. The hot and dry air makes it much sweeter, much more flavorful – it felt like I had flowers in my mouth. A delight for sure!
After harvesting the fresh grapes from June to September, the fruits are stored in a chunce. These are uniquely shaped building found in and around Turpan and whose usage is to dry the grapes into raisins.
The structures are traditionally made of mud bricks and built on a housetop or high on a hill to allow the wind to go through the walls and dry the fruit. Most houses have a tall chunce built over the house or wall. This allows the buildings to catch the windy breeze that helps to dry the fruit. It takes about 40 days for grapes to dry.
Most of the raisins that grow in Turpan are white grapes. Raisins that dry outside under the sun will turn darker, where those protected in the dark inside of the chunce usually become yellow or green. These chunce-dried raisins are considered a better grade of product.
We walked up the hills behind the old streets to reach dozens upon dozens of Chunces. Most of them were empty of the fruits since we were late in the season. Many had raisins laying on the grounds, remains of the past harvest. The buildings were fascinating, as well as some equipment used to dry the raisins.
Turpan is better known for its ancient ruins such as Gaochang Ruins and Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves. However, the laid-back aspect of the town, the numerous vineyards, the tranquil atmosphere, and the authentic display of traditions made it one of the highlights of our Xinjiang visit.
How to Get to Turpan
Most travelers first land at the Urumqi International Airport (URC), in Urumqi, Xinjiang Province, before they head to Turpan.
Note that Turpan has two train stations and two bus stations. The old bus and train stations are in Daheyan, about 50 km north of Turpan. It takes about one hour from Turpan to Daheyan, be it by bus or taxi.
Please note that there are two different train stations for Turpan.
- The Turpan Train Station is in Daheyan. Due to the distance, you can either take a taxi for about 80-100 RMB or a local bus for about 80 RMB. This is the train station to go if you are taking an overnight train to Kashgar (22 hours) or Lanzhou (22 hours), Xi’an (45 hours), or even Chengdu (45 hours).
- The new Turpan North Train Station, which is close to the Turpan Jiaohe Airport, is deserving bullet trains from Urumqi. This station is much closer to downtown, barely 15 km (9 miles) away. The bus is a regular local bus that stops very often, and therefore still takes about 40 minutes to get to the city center though it costs only 1 RMB. At the time of our visit (November 2016), Bus 202 connected downtown to this station. The speed train from Urumqi barely takes one hour in prime new trains. The station is on of the Lanzhou-Xinjiang High-Speed Railway, and connects Turpan to Urumqi, Hami (Kumul), up to Xining and Lanzhou.
- Long-distance buses from Urumqi usually running from 9 am to 8:30 pm daily and takes about 2:30 hours to drive the 230 km (143 miles). Most long-distance arrive and depart from Daheyan Bus station outside the Turpan Railway Station in Daheyan, heading to Kashgar (32 hours), Hami (Kumul) (7 hours), Hotan, Shanshan, or Aqsu.
- The Turpan Bus Station is in downtown Turpan, on the Old City Road. This station will have buses for local towns such as Tuyu Valley, Daheyan, Hami, Urumqi, and within Xinjiang in general. To Urumqi takes about 2:30 hours, with buses leaving between 7:30 am to 8 pm daily.
Where to Stay in Turpan
We stayed at the Dap Youth Hostel in the older part of Turpan, and we loved it. The hostel has several bunk rooms, a nice shower area, a traditional open courtyard with hanging grapes cover, and quiet and clean. The staff speaks English very well and has been very helpful with details and travel information.
This is the first article from our two-month stay in Chin. Stay tuned as we post new stories about our adventure travel and outdoor activities in this wonderful country. China was the second country of our round-the-world trip after Mongolia in 2016, our journey continuing to India.
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