Slums, flecks of foliage, and dirt. Lots of dirt. This was Turpan. A deserted Mumbai (which I’ve included as the center image for comparison). In fact, the name “吐魯番” [tu ru fan], Turpan in Chinese, was chosen to reflect the geography. “吐” is dirt, “魯” means wild, and “番” is “to flip”. So Turpan basically means “dirt flipping wildly”.
Turpan people are rumored to have incredible longevity. Our tour guide spent our bus ride telling us a story about a journalist who once traveled to Xinjiang in search Turpan’s secrets to old age. He stumbled upon the city of Turpan, where he found an 86-year-old woman knitting outside her home. In spite of her age, she still appeared youthful. Her waist-length hair was kept neatly braided, and her clothes had nary a speck of dirt. The journalist asked for her secret to such good health in old age. She simply laughed in reply: “Oh I don’t know anything about that; you should ask my mother.” More intrigued, he asked the old woman if he could see her mother. The woman snorted, “my mother has no time.” Yet he was determined to meet the mother. After a slurry of requests, the old woman sighed, “You misunderstand. My mother is out of town.” Now the journalist was confused. “When will she be back? Soon? I must see her.” This was met with a heavier sigh. “Oh I don’t know; like I said, she’s busy. Her mother, my grandmother, has been rather ill recently. She’s taking care of her.”
The story ends there. We never really find out how Turpan people manage to live so far past 100-years. Maybe the fact that Turpan is China’s lowest, driest, and hottest point has led its people to develop some supernatural toughness. Annual precipitation is barely over half an inch. On the other hand, it is this exact arid and unbearable hot climate that produces the infamous Xinjiang melons and grapes. It’s also the “wine country” of China. Grapes grow best in hot, unshaded areas without competition from trees or brush for moisture, Turpan provides plenty of.
The vineyards are irrigated by the karez, “坎兒井” [ka er jing], a system of wells and underground canals that date back to the Han Dynasty. Length of the wells and channels combined reaches over 3,000 miles. Karez is able to provide an otherwise barren land with ample water all-year round. Traveling caravans on the Silk Road would rest at Turpan to use the karez before tackling the brutal Taklamakan Desert. The channels of karez reach as far as the base of the Tian Shan mountains, to catch the melted ice waters.
Lunch was served after touring karez: another “specialty” or “特餐” meal, like the one in Urumqi. Except this was exceptional. This was the meal most of the tour members had been waiting for: the “烤全羊” [kao chuan yang], whole-roasted lamb on a spit. Xinjiang is considered to have the best lamb in China, so the fact that they served two whole-roasted lambs had all the carnivores in our tour salivating. We were all honored by a performance from the Hui and Uyghur people. Dressed in customary garb, the performers put on quite a show of their traditional dances. At one point, they even dragged a few of us up on stage to dance with them. I just flailed my arms wildly hoping it’d look like…something.
The one dish I took away from this meal was this really great mushroom soup. And more naan bread! Every place makes its naan bread differently; this was by far my favorite. It was thinner than the ones we had earlier, and crispier. Most of the other vegetarian dishes served were consistent with the rest of our meals: eggplant, tofu, black fungus, some salad. We did have noodles, which was a nice change. Broccoli, too.