Monday, September 7, 2009

Grape Alley, Wine Tourism, and Journey Home

(8/25-26/09) On our last day in Turpan, we were also pleased to be able to visit the famous Grape Alley. This is one of their major tourist attractions, and, after visiting, I agree! You enter through a very large and impressive gate (paying a small fee) and then drive along the river with huge sandstone cliffs on the right side, and charming adobe houses with the colorful painted doors on the left. If you look closely you can see the indoor patios with the grape arbors overhead and small bald children playing. (According to our guide, the Uyghurs believe in shaving the heads of their children until they reach the age of 7. This helps keep them cool in the summer, and prevents the hassle of fighting with kids over brushing their hair – smart!).

Eventually you come to an indoor market with many restaurants covered in grape arbors, and shops selling dried fruits of all types. It is very colorful and quite tempting. From there you enter Grape Alley which is a series of walkways which large overhead grape trellises (Thompson Seedless). These go on for quite a way, and it is very beautiful with dappled sunlight coming through the grapevines; a stream; waterfalls; small shops; ponds; and eventually a wine bar at the far end with some interesting antique wine presses. Unfortunately it is only one winery and they only sell rather expensive glasses (no tastes) at around 40 to 60 RMB each ($6 to $10!). Why they are not selling small 1 ounce tastes – when that is the tradition here – is beyond me? They also should be selling bottles, and doing a refundable tasting fee. Needless to say, we didn’t stop to taste wine.

Instead, we headed to a wonderful Arabic restaurant where you could actually lay down on pillows near the table and look at the grapes overhead. There was a waterfall, and servers dressed in beautiful Uyghurs clothing. We had lamb kabobs, fresh melon and grapes, rice, many small vegetable dishes, and tea. It was very exotic, and once again, I felt like I was in ancient Persia or Arabia, instead of China!

As we finished our day of visiting fascinating tourist sites, Qin told us our presence was requested at a 9-11pm meeting to provide our input on what the region could do to improve its grape and wine industry. When I received the same question about wine tourism, I was ready with an answer.

It seems to me that given the long distance between the 12 wineries; plus some serious infrastructure issues– that the best approach is to establish a XinJiang Wine Education and Tourism Center in Turpan. This reasoning includes the fact that currently more than 400,000 Chinese and Japanese tourists visit this city each year to see the ancient sites and attend the famous Grape Festival. A regional wine center would be an additional tourist attraction for this population. Because of the political unrest, it is not feasible that many Western tourists will visit this region until it is resolved.

Furthermore, the 12 wineries could collaborate in a Xinjiang Wine Region Association and all feature their wines within the one center. This could include educational tours, videos, tastings, blending seminars, a demonstration vineyards etc. More importantly, they could sell wine -- including packaging to take on the airplane. By charging a small fee (10RMB; $2) for a tasting of 5 different wines with a refund of the fee if a bottle is purchased, they could encourage sales. Different tasting flights could be established, e.g. white, red, reserve, etc. at varying pricing schemes. Apparently Loulan has a nice wine tasting center in Urumqi, but as yet there is not a regional wine center – this might help to jumpstart the concept and help to build Xinjiang wine brand recognition.

After our late night conference, the 7 of us headed to the lake bar for one last beer. It was a sweet good-bye, and an even shorter night of sleep. Finally climbing into my rock hard bed around midnight, we receive a wake-up call at 4:30am and climbed on the van to drive back to the Urumqi Airport at 5:10am. Our plane left on time at 9:10am and we were back in Beijing by 12:30pm.

After a 30 minute taxi ride and checking back into the Taiwan Hotel, we had one last celebratory lunch of Peking duck, pork, beef, chicken – and you guessed it – beer! Next a 2 hour power nap; shower; and then back to the airport at 6pm in order to catch my 9pm flight home. A very long day…….but a once in a lifetime incredible trip! I’m very grateful to have been given the opportunity, and to have met such fabulous people – especially my travel mates, plus Qin and Demei. This trip will remain one of the highlights of my life.

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