Karez irrigation system and visiting the Turpanese

Trip Start Sep 04, 2007
Trip End Nov 20, 2007

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Thursday, September 27th

The train station for Turpan is some 40 kilometers northwest of Turpan, in an area that, from the window of a train, looks a lot like a lifeless wasteland. Our local guide for the remainder of the trip, a polyglot named Taher (pronounced tah HERE), met us at the station with a small bus early Thursday morning and took us to our hotel for that night, the Grand Turpan Hotel.

The day's jaunts began with a trip to the Emin minaret and the attached Su Gong Ta mosque. If there is an Allah and if he takes a dim view of violating the spirit of the law, I'm not getting my 70 virgins (or, by one translation, 70 white raisins). However, we were the only ones in the place, so I chose to strictly interpret the graphical sign indicating "no videos" to mean that still photography was all right and took at least my fair share of pictures, prompting yet another harangue from Chuck on the inferiority of digital photography.

A well-run tour can take you places that you couldn't find on your own, and that's where we went for lunch. Our bus driver has a friend whose home doubles as a vineyard and triples as a small restaurant that has no name, no menu, no hours, and no sign at the front door, meaning (I think) that it's more a neighborhood hangout than an established business. We walked through a double gate at the street and into a courtyard covered with a grape arbor, where we were seated on a low platform around one of four large tables. Our host, a handsome man in his mid or late 30s, brought us tea, several small bowls of different kinds of raisins, and a large platter filled with grapes. Mindful of the caution about eating fruit that had been washed in possibly contaminated water, several of us, feeling guilty for being ungrateful, nonetheless skipped the grapes. No matter. Before long, the platter of grapes was lost among a tableful of plates of mutton kabobs, pumpkin and mutton steamed dumplings, rice pilaf, assorted vegetable dishes, and melon for dessert. As we finished eating, our host brought out his 10- or 12-year-old daughter (he also has a younger daughter and son) and a small drum and played a tune while his daughter danced. Were she eight years older, this might have been a seductive dance but was instead a remarkable display of poise and coordination from someone so young.

From a tremendous experience in the home of a local restauranteur and grape grower, we ricocheted to the other extreme, to Turpan's low point, literally and figuratively. The Turpan Depression has the lowest elevation in China, at 154 meters below sea level, and if god has a sense of humor, surely the lowest point in the Depression is at the winery in Turpan's grape-promotion complex. This monument to capitalism includes restaurants, the usual tourist-junk vendors, Kodak moments with traditionally dressed young women who are glad to take your money for the thrill of being photographed with them, an American-West-style saloon and winery that served bad but expensive wine, and an amusement park that we were spared.

Taher redeemed this ill-considered trip with a stop to see an acquaintance of his who lived nearby. We walked down a dirt lane past grape fields and walled courtyards to the home of a man whose back yard is filled with grape vines and whose rooftop includes a brick structure for drying grapes, comparable to but much smaller than similar buildings that we'd seen all around Turpan. It's bigger than a utility shed, maybe 8' x 15', and each row of bricks is laid with a few inches of space between the bricks: brick space brick space brick. This allows air to circulate past the grapes but keeps them from being in direct sunlight, which would turn them black. He treated us to some of his grapes, and, through Taher, I asked some questions about the process of making raisins. (Moistening the grapes as they dry counterintuitively causes them to dry faster.)

Going to school in an education system that focuses on the successes and failures of the powers of the western hemisphere means you miss some astonishing achievements. We ended the day at an exhibit on the Karez irrigation system, which carries water from the mountains north of Turpan into the valley below. (Pakistan also has an irrigation system of the same name.) The Chinese consider the Karez system one of the three great achievements of Chinese engineering, along with the Great Wall and the Grand Canal, which connects the Yellow and Yangtzee rivers. I don't know enough Chinese history to know what the other contenders might be, but I was impressed with a system that once included 5000 kilometers (3000 miles) of hand-dug tunnels and 170,000 vertical wells, one every 30 meters or so (100 feet) of tunnel, to afford tunnel access. Construction began 2000 years ago, and some of the tunnels remain in use today.

Class dismissed.
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