A full twenty four hours from Kashgar by rollicking train across the northern edge of the Taklamikan Desert lies the green oasis of Turpan, home to China’s best grapes, and our destination for the next few days. Except that, thanks to my thorough reading of the guidebook, I discover too late that the train isn’t actually arriving in Turpan, but in the rough and ready transit point of Daheyan, 60 km away and smack-bang in the middle of a dusty desert wasteland. It’s definitely not an oasis.
The road between Turapn and Daheyan threatens to be one long hour of monotonous flat grey gravel, broken only by the vicarious excitement of our driver overtaking trucks on the wrong side of the road while the truck is overtaking something slower, like a bus. Then back to gravel, lots and lots of gravel.
Then all of a sudden, the entire horizon changes from grey to red, and as far as the eye can see in every direction are acres and acres of long red chilies drying on the hot dry ground. I cajole the driver into pulling over so I can get a closer look, and as soon as I open the car door the pungent chili in the air makes my eyes smart and my nose sting just a little.
Nothing, and I mean nothing grows out here – not a blade of grass or a stunted tree, nothing – so I wonder where the trucks delivering the bags of fresh chilies have come from. Each truckload of chilies (and in a sweep of the horizon I count fifty or sixty trucks) is being tended by a small work group of four or five men with pitchforks. The chilies are poured out of sacks onto the ground and spread evenly by the men to a depth of about two inches. The men tell me it will take three days for them to dry, then they will be packed back into sacks and driven away again.
As we chat the men tell me they are non-local labourers, Han Chinese not Uighurs, from far afield. Despite the heat and the pungency they are enjoying the camaraderie and passing around cigarettes as they wait for the next truck’s arrival.
This is what I really get out of travelling across China – a better understanding of food, where it grows, how it’s processed, and how completely simple and unmechanised many of these processes still are, albeit on a massive scale.
So next time you buy a packet of dried chilies here in China and there’s a bit of grit in the bottom of the bag, and the chilies are on the dusty side, think of this post. That packet holds not just any old dirt but a little bit of the Taklamakan Desert, free of charge.
Travels on the Silk Road