At first glance, Turpan seems like an unlikely place for grapes.
Surrounded by mostly barren desert, it’s more like a wasteland—a scene out of the Mad Max universe. Homes are made out of coarse mud bricks and until the last decade, locals traveled via donkey cart. The city is gravely dry and streets are perpetually covered in a film sand and dust.
When I arrived in late July, it was 117 degrees. You could easily cook an egg on the street; many people do. Located in the province of Xinjiang, Turpan is the hottest city in China and the third lowest exposed point on the earth’s surface. Temperatures average around 114 degrees in July; there is very little rain.
By all accounts and measures, Turpan is a desolate place, located in one of the most hostile environments on Earth. A good chunk of the city is positioned inside the Flaming Mountains, named after their red sandstone bedrock and ridiculous heat. In 2008, the mountains registered a temperature of 152 degrees.
But despite the odds, Turpan is an oasis in a flaming desert. Its saving grace is an impressive ancient karez irrigation system that routes water from the neighboring Tian Shan Mountains.
The irrigation system is composed of vertically dug wells, linked by horizontal canals to collect water from the snow runoff in the mountains. The engineering is simple: it uses gravity and the natural slope of the land to sustain the water flow. There are about a thousand karez wells in Turpan alone; at its peak, the irrigation system was 3,106 miles long.
These hand-dug wells were the lifeline of Turpan and was responsible for making it into the rich basin it is today. While most of the water is now brought in via modern pumps, Turpan remains an oasis and is known throughout China as the grape capital of the country. It has been a fruit-farming region for over two millennia; grapes were reportedly brought over from Western Asia and the Mediterranean.
“The low altitude and the high temperatures in the summer makes our grapes especially sweet,” says Rumanguli, a local grape farmer of Uyghur descent.
A Eurasian ethnic group of Turkic people, the Uyghurs are native to Xinjiang, and in Turpan they are a majority.
I find Rumanguli on the sidewalk selling ice cream to tourists. She went to school for agriculture and is from a grape-producing family that has been farming for half a century now. They reside in Turpan’s Grape Valley, which is situated inside the Flaming Mountains.
“Grapes are the lifeblood of the people in Grape Valley. We have the most diverse varieties of grapes in Turpan,” she says. The valley is said to be ground zero of grape farming in China, and there are more than a dozen varieties grown in the valley alone. Generous amounts of sunlight and little rain are said to make the fruit extremely sweet.
“Seedless white grapes are the most popular,” Rumanguli says. Known as wuhebai in Chinese, the seedless white grapes of Turpan have the highest sugar content in the world at 20 to 24 percent. Raisins from the grapes have a sugar content of more than 60 percent.
Today, Turpan is the largest green raisin producer in the world. According to a 2015 report by the USDA, China’s raisin production is 190,000 tons annually. China is the world’s third largest producer of raisins behind the United States and Turkey.
Turpan dominates the country’s raisin production; its grape volume accounts for more than 80 percent of China’s total.
“The raisins here in the valley are the most expensive in Turpan,” Renagu, a raisin maker, says. Raisins are dried in a chunche— a grape-drying apparatus specific to the area. They’re large adobe structures with holes, built on top of windy hills. The grapes are air-dried for 40 days; the shade in the chunche gives the grapes a lighter hue and sweeter taste than grapes that are dried in direct sunlight.
“I have a cousin who buys grapes from [the town of] Hami and brings them to Turpan to dry,” says Alitash, owner of Uighur Tour, a Xinjiang-based tour operator. Grapes are cheaper in the town of Hami, but it’s the drying process in Turpan that makes all the difference in raisin quality.
The chunche has become an icon in Turpan. Every grape farmer has at least one.
Summer is table grape season, while autumn is when the first batch of fresh raisins come out. Wine is another byproduct, but that’s an industry largely dominated by corporations, not individual farmers. In fact, wine production only accounts for 15 percent of grape use in China. Xinjiang is China’s biggest producer of wine, though most of the viticulture takes place in the cities right outside of Turpan.
“It’s hard work,” Sidike, another grape farmer, says. I find Sidike on the side of the street in Grape Valley selling his grapes and raisins. He has two grapes for sale: white seedless and a variety called manaizi (which translates as “horse nipples”), known for its long and pointed shape.
“We have to bury the grapevines in the winter and there’s only one harvest a year. The rest of the year, we rely on raisins for income. We use every part of the grape,” he says.
Vendors even sell dried grape seeds, which are steeped into a tea that is said to help with circulation and high cholesterol.
In the summer, grapes are literally everywhere in Grape Valley. Most of the restaurants are outdoors and are shaded by a ceiling of thick grapevines. Plump fruit hang down within arm’s reach. Grapes are the backbone of the Uyghurs in Turpan, and they are unapologetically proud of them.
“We don’t just farm grapes for the sake of making a profit. We do it to continue the precious traditions of our ancestors,” Rumanguli says.