Interestingly, wine tourism is one of the five prongs of the government 2015 vision for the area, along with: 1) doubling wine grape production; 2) training more people in viticulture, winemaking and wine hospitality; 3) collaboration with associations and universities; and 4) new product development to match consumer needs. The fact that this area still has many hectares of unused sand/gravel land, as well as water (though we questioned for how long), makes it an ideal place for wine vines. On the positive side, wine grapes require far less water than table grapes and prefer less fertile soil. The government wants to use the more fertile land for other crops, with a focus in Heshuo on tomatoes and chili peppers.
In my comments, I pointed out all of the positives of the region for tourism, as well as the challenges – including a very long distance from airports, infrastructure issues, medical care, lack of boutique wineries, etc. In addition to addressing these issues, I suggested that they begin by focusing on the Chinese tourists who usually come to see Lake Bosten. Except for adventure and eco-tourism travelers, there are very few Westerners who will be able to make the journey to this remote and pristine valley at this time. Furthermore the current political unrest in the area makes it even more unlikely.
We left after a celebratory lunch which included a shot of the grappa-like rice drink. Personally I found the sickly sweet rotting banana/mango smell to be quite off-putting, and it only took one small sip of the burning liquid before I set it back down on the table. However, the rest of the Chinese officials continued to use it to make gambey toasts throughout the lunch. By the time we were done, I became more accepting of the government’s stance to replace the drink with wine – even though it seems like an abuse of wine to me to gulp it.
Around 3pm we all piled back into the van to drive back through the mountains and across a new desert towards the ancient fabled city of Turpan (pronounced Turfan by the local). The journey took 4 hours, and it became much hotter as we approached what the Chinese told us was the 2nd lowest spot on earth after the Dead Sea. Turpan lies in an old lake bed at 500 feet below sea level, and is surrounded by tall snow-capped mountains ranging from 12,000 to 16,000 feet high. It is from these mountains that they receive their water using an ancient and amazing system of “karezes,” which are underground canals with air holes every few hundred yards. This creates an unusual crater formation along the desert floor. The result is that Turpan is an oasis city – one of the oldest along the ancient Silk Trail. It is also the birthplace of wine in China, with ancient residue confirming that vitus vinfera grapes were fermented into wine here more than 2300 years ago.
We checked into the 4-star Turpan Houzhou Hotel with its magnificent marble lobby, and the first thing I did upon reaching my modern room was to take a long shower. It felt so good to be clean again! Dinner was at 8pm -- a Chinese buffet with decent, but not the gourmet food we had been treated to in Heshuo. After dinner, 5 of our group decided to take a walk and see if we could find a bar that could make a cold gin & tonic. With the evening still hovering in the low 90’s F, we were craving something cool. Our hotel only served beer and warm wine, so we wandered around outside to find a lovely park with a man-made lake complete with fountains, boats, and music piped from fake rocks. There were elegant Chinese bridges on the lake and pink lotus blossoms in full bloom. The area was packed with many local families eating at outdoor restaurants and playing cards and drinking in outdoor bars.
We made our way around the lake to the 5-star Tufa Petroleum Hotel where we had been told there was a western bar. The hotel is very magnificent with even more marble than ours, plus a jewelry shop, swimming pool, restaurant, and a small bar tucked away on the 2nd floor. The bartender had to call for help when we ordered a gin and tonic off the menu, but eventually I was served a glass of gin, a can of tonic, a lemon wedge, and most satisfying – a large crystal bucket of ice. It was the only ice I was to receive on the whole trip, and I thought back on it longingly several times after that evening.
On the walk back to our hotel, we decided to bar hop and purchased a Chinese beer for only $1.30 at one of the sidewalk cafes. We then relaxed and watched kids playing on boats and people dancing in the outdoor pavilion. It was 11:30 on a Saturday night, and Turfan was hopping! Eventually, I made it to bed and discovered it was extremely hard and uncomfortable – but at least I had a hot shower.