SYNOPSIS:  About a train ride into the death kettle of China.  About a youth hostel, a self appointed taxi driver, grapes, and a stroll through “grape town”.

At my little guest house in the remote desert town of Turfan (also known as Turpan), I was greeted with — you could call it “Still life with Helmet”.  A police shield was leaning against the receptionist’s table, a steel helmet decorated the desk and a scanner such as the ones used at the airport, as well as a club to beat down on rioting crowds, waited nearby.  They weren’t serious?!  Oh yes, they were.  I had seen some of this in Urumqi, but I had not expected it in faraway Turfan.  I finally had arrived.  That had taken 2 unexpected additional hours.

A quick stroll to round up some groceries and necessities for the next three days taught me that even out here, every little store owner was equipped with at least one of those shields and a club.  Every hotel, every market, every parking lot had a guard checking every car for… Explosives?  Terrorists?  Criminals?  Every major intersection had a makeshift police station housed in metal containers of varying sizes, just like in the big city.

Turfan was once a major hub on the Silk Road  in the middle of the Gobi Desert and still has remnants of those bygone days in the area.  That is what I had come to visit.  I had pictured Turfan as a small little town with one-storied buildings and a sleepy little market somewhere.  Wrong!  This was a metropolis by far not as big as Urumqi, but on the ground it felt just the same.  Four-lane roads crossing town in a grid system, 5-10 storied high-rises, and densely populated neighborhoods.  But there is more.

This town sports two train stations; one old one, about 45 km away and the other, a modern, more recent one, about 10 km away.  That one is fit for a metropolis!  A humongous plaza lies in front of it.  On the left a palace-like structure may be a hotel.  The building on the right, no less humongous, might be a government center?  All of this sits in the middle of nowhere, about 10 km away from downtown.  Dusty desert surrounds it.  I guess, there is a 50 year plan in place here.  Or is it just a 5-year plan?  With the Chinese you never know.  But they obviously designed this station and its plaza with enormous growth in mind.  Before long, the town might actually have reached the station and one generation later nobody will remember it any other way.

Every hour at least one, if not two, affordable regular and high-speed trains leave in each direction.  I could not help to compare that with our train service between Chicago and Detroit… 

Without internet access to information, and without the huge and heavy Lonely Planet of China — which I had decided to leave at home — I had not realized that Turfan had those two stations.  My luck had it that I had arrived at the older and farther one…  But as I did not know otherwise, I was convinced that I was in town.  It was Friday afternoon and I was looking around for a bank to exchange money before looking for my guesthouse.  There was just one main street going up the hill from the station and a crossroad.  Well, that was not quite how small I had pictured Turfan.  Nobody knew the word “bank”, but finally, a local guy took pity on me and walked around with me. It took almost another hour for me to figure out that I was nowhere. 

The friendly local offered his taxi services to downtown.  A young guy assured me that it was OK for me to ride with him.  And so I got into his car.  My self-appointed taxi driver took off.  Taxis around here reliably turn on their meters when you get in.  You never have to worry about being cheated.  Tipping is not customary.  Neither after a taxi ride, nor at a restaurant.  But this guy had no meter.  I had taken enough taxis to be confident that I could figure out approximately what I owed.

It was hot in Turfan!  Coming from the 30’s and rain in Urumqi, I had not expected that much of a climate change after less than a 2-hour train ride.  But soon enough I found out that I had arrived at the equivalence of Death Valley.  This was one of the lowest points on earth!   In the summer, the thermometer could easily climb to 120+ degrees.  April was one of the best months to visit.  It was only in the 90’s; winter for the locals; bearable for visitors.

We soon left the one street which I had taken for Turfan and rode through the dusty desert.  In the distance, a green spot of trees appeared. That must be it!  But as we approached, it was a mere single lane of homes.  A town surrounded by vineyards, the single most important crop of the area.  This is raisin country!  I had read that somewhere.  As the consumption of raisins worldwide is dropping, this area is hard hit and struggling for alternatives.  I am just amazed that in the middle of the desert grapes are the culture of choice.  Don’t they need water?  Lots of it?

We went back into the desert.  Where the hell was Turfan?  By now we had been on the road, paved two- and four-lane highways, surrounded by dust, for nearly 40 minutes.  Two more oases appeared but we passed them by.  And finally, there it was:  Turfan.  Nothing like I had pictured it, but a huge, big, modern, buzzing, dusty, Chinese town.   This trip cost 6 times the train ticket!  I obviously had done something wrong.  This commute was meant to be done in large shuttle vans, or share taxis, not a single passenger via a self-appointed driver.  Oh, well.  Things happen. 

My White Camel Youth Hostel was deserted.  The security officer dozed off most of the time and obviously had stripped himself of the cumbersome helmet and staff.  The grounds were neglected and dusty, and aside from a few workers, I seem to be the only guest.  My room was dirty but big.  It could have looked almost impressive with its vaulted arched and stuccoed ceiling.  I had hoped for some other foreign travelers.  Who knows why there was nobody around. 

I was not keen on traipsing through a dusty modern Chinese town.  But imagine dozens of alleys with green foliage, and grapes dangling above your head.  The grapes were not quite in season yet, but the foliage was sprouting.  The Turfans had come up with an ingenious solution to offset their unbearable climate with what they had in abundance:  grapes.   Some of these alleys were full-scale asphalted streets with traffic.  Some were polished marble, lined with sculptures and benches, and for pedestrians only.  And yet some were plastered full of posters and propaganda.  And so Turfan, aside from the generically Chinese downtown, had a unique, lovely, and human feel after all, only disturbed by the outlandish number of police containers that put the finishing touch on every street corner.

Just down the road from the hostel, there was a Uighur bazaar.  That was more like it!  Dozens of stalls with the necessities of life, strange herbal remedies, baked goods, and food stalls held my attention.  I was hungry. But would I dare the soup this one guy prepared from a metal pan filled with goat heads?  That must be some local specialty!  Maybe some other day.

I resorted to more ordinary looking dumplings.  And with a full belly and a driver arranged for the next couple of days, I returned to my dirty room for a much needed rest.

Good night.

6 comments so far

Add Your Comment
  1. Oooh- that spice shop looks glorious!

  2. I remember having our car stop when we spotted a group of grape farmers and their families gathered together around huge piles of grapes mounded on tarps out in the dusty desert and how fascinating we were to each other- communicating with smiles, sign language and our cell phone pictures .

  3. Hi

    Turpan/Turfan: I’m so glad you got to experience it at last. I thought it was one of the most beautiful, atmospheric places I have ever visited, tinged with history, legend, romance and the melancholy of knowing I would almost certainly never return……N

  4. Please, I want to come to your house when you’re back for some Goat Head Soup. Yummy stuff.
    Question: Is this room in China as bad as the one you had in Mali…in Djenne? There is a picture of the bathroom in your book…wow. Or did you repress that already?

    • Not even close. This was a big room with a comfortable and clean bed, electricity and… yes, dirty floors, a drippy pipe, no chair and that sort of stuff. Djenne… no, I will NEVER forget that! It was a spider-webbed small cubicle with NOTHING in it and the bathroom was a sloped floor with a hole in it to be shared by 7 families. Worlds apart.

  5. don ‘t forget to get the recipe for that soup! How would you describe the architectural style,
    ‘ Chinese Totalitarianism chic ? ‘