Friday, August 28, 2009

Traveling from Beijing to Heshuo, Xinjiang - China

(8/19/09) Earlier this year, I was honored to receive another invitation to present at a conference in China – all expenses covered by the Chinese government, with the location being the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. As China is now the 6th largest wine producing country in the world and has over 600 wineries, I was very excited to attend.

When I arrived in Beijing on the non-stop United flight from San Francisco, I was amazed at how the city had changed since I had been there two years ago. Last time I arrived in an old crowded terminal and stayed near the Agriculture University in a rather run-down part of town with people camping out on the sidewalk. It was a colorful side of China, but we were cautioned not to walk the streets on our own. This time, we flew into the brand new international Terminal 3 built especially for the Olympics and took a taxi to the Taiwan Hotel downtown. The terminal is a work of art, and flawlessly clean with signs and announcements in multiple languages, including English. I was very impressed. The drive downtown had obviously been beautified with trees, gardens and lakes lining the modern freeway, as well as elegant Chinese buildings.

Professor Qin Ma had invited me, and she sent two of her students to meet me at the airport and escort me to the hotel. I landed at 2:15 and was in my hotel room by 4pm – about a 40 minute ride from the airport. The Taiwan Hotel is clean and basic, but situated in a good location in the heart of the city and near the famous outdoor eating stands. I unpacked, took a power nap, showered, and then met the rest of the team at 6pm in the lobby as planned. Qin had recruited 6 of us from around the world specializing in grapes and/or wine - with two professors from Israel, one each from Italy and Australia, and a wine writer originally from Canada who was living in Beijing. I was the only female, except for the wife of one of the Israeli professors and Qin. By the end of our 7 days together, we would know each other quite well.

Dinner was a happy affair at a local Chinese restaurant within walking distance, and then I went back to the hotel and promptly fell asleep in order to be ready for our 8am departure to Heshuo – the first stop on our itinerary. We caught a 3-hour Air China flight to Urumqi (the site of the ethnic riots where 197 people were killed 2 months ago – but we were assured it was still safe to travel), and then were treated to a banquet lunch at the newly opened Urumqi Airport Hotel by local wine government dignitaries. The food was fabulous (see photo of spicy mutton) with many local specialties such as mutton, pork, melons, and lamb pizza. However instead of wine, they served beer.

One of the dismaying aspects of arriving in Xinjiang is when we discovered that our cell phones and Internet access were blocked. This was due to the unrest in the area, and all of us were upset that we were not told this in advance. Demei, our guide for this portion of the trip called Qin, who had remained in Beijing and would join us several days later in Turpan, to voice our concerns. It turns out that Chinese cell phones were not blocked – just ours. Qin kindly phoned our families to let them know we were safe and that they would not hear from us for a week. It was strange to spend a whole week cut off from the Internet and all news from the rest of the world.

After the 2 hour lunch, we climbed into a mini-van and drove 5 hours through the desert and high mountains to Heshuo. The drive was part fascination and part hell as we passed windmills, camels, vendors selling table grapes – and stopped at the most appalling restrooms I’ve ever visited in my life. With the temperature hovering in the 90’s F, the open stall bathrooms stank so bad it was hard to enter – and looked like the scene from Slum Dog Millionaire. As we left the desert and started the climb through the mountains, the road became winding and it was easy to get carsick. The scenery reminded me a bit of the Badlands of South Dakota with no trees, grass, or animals – only huge rocky hills and giant sand-dunes rising on all sides. As the sun set and it grew darker, I prayed the journey would end, but we didn’t arrive at Heshuo until 9pm.

The Heshuo portion of the conference was hosted by the Aromatic Gardens Winery about 5 miles from the China’s largest freshwater Lake Bosten. The winery is one of the largest in the area, and also boasts huge gardens, a hotel, conference center, restaurant, and other agriculture crops such as tomatoes, red peppers, and wonderful fresh vegetables. The whole place is organic – in fact, all of Heshuo is. It is so isolated from the rest of the world, that there is no other industry but agriculture. Amazingly, it is so pristine that no herbicides, pesticides or fungicides are needed. They don’t even have to put sulfur (which is an organic substance) on their wine grapes, because the climate is dry and they don’t suffer from powdery mildew.

The inside of my hotel room was very nice – in fact, the best on the whole trip – but the outside of the building looked like an army barrack; very bare with paint chipping off the wall. They had tried to make the area look like a resort with a few yurts (Mongolian tents) and a swimming pool, but lining the drive-way with old tires didn’t help the overall appearance. The other downside is that during the 2 nights we stayed there, we never had hot water, so I didn’t get to shower and wash my hair for several days. Not enjoyable. On the positive side, however, was the hospitality – see next posts for details.

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