Urumqi (written Wulumuqi in Chinese) is the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur (also Uighur) Autonomous Region in the far northwest of China. It was a major hub on the Ancient Silk Road, but today it is mostly known as the world’s most inland city, meaning it is the farthest city on earth from any ocean. Urumqi is a fascinating place, with a large mix of ethnicities and some great food. It serves as a base for exploring the stunning Xinjiang region, including the remote market town of Kashgar and China’s hottest city (temperature-wise only), Turpan.
Best Time to Go
Urumqi has very hot summers and incredibly cold winters. Due to the lack of humidity, the extreme heat in the summer isn’t as uncomfortable as in most other cities in China. Nevertheless, early autumn is the best time to visit; late spring is nice as well.
Getting to Urumqi
Urumqi Diwopu International Airport is located 20 km outside the city. To get downtown, take the Airport Shuttle for 15 Yuan. Taxis will try to get some pretty ridiculous fares, but if you insist they use the meter a ride will cost around 50 RMB.
As the gateway to Xinjiang Province, the Urumqi Railway Station (located on Qingfeng Road) serves trains from as far away as Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu, as well as closer destinations (relatively speaking, of course) like Xi’an, Lanzhou or Dunhuang.
The Northern Long Distance Bus Station is at Heilongjiang Road and the Southern Long Distance Bus Station lies across from the Shuishang Amusement Park. Both bus stations and the train station are well-connected by bus, but taxis are cheap here too.
Public buses are the best way to get around the city, especially the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) lines, which run on a segregated busway and are thus much faster than regular buses. Taxis start at 6 Yuan and you should never pay more than 20, even if taking an illegal black taxi (that’s actually the color of the car). They’re fine, but you’ll have to bargain for a fair rate.
As usual, the cheapest hotels are located near the train station. Most of them are not technically allowed to accept foreign guests, but if you speak a little Chinese, you might be able to get a room. Even if you don’t know a word, you’ll probably be able to find something. Whether you want one of these rooms is another matter—they’re generally pretty basic.
There are supposedly two hostels, but I couldn’t even find the Maitian International Hostel. I found the White Birch International Hostel and spent one night there on my first visit to the city, before finding something better. It was not nice and not conveniently located. Nevertheless, these are probably your easiest options for cheap accommodation in the city (assuming the Maitian exists).
I ended up staying at a hotel about 2 kilometers from the train station, where I paid 50 Yuan for a single, which is only slightly more than a dorm bed. I wish I remembered the name of this place or where exactly it was, but there are many like it around town. The trick, as always, is finding one that will allow foreigners.
If you don’t mind paying a bit more, it becomes easier. I’d go with the Green Tree chain. They have branches all over the city, but the Green Tree on South Xinehua Road is the best. Don’t expect to be wowed by the rooms here, but the location is great and you’ll pay under $25 per night.
Eating & Drinking
The food in Xinjiang is my favorite in all of China, with fresh bread, kebabs and hand-stretched noodles being the most famous dishes. You’ll find Uyghur restaurants all over the city, but the biggest concentration is around the Grand Bazaar (see ‘Things to Do’ below). You’ll find a lot of street food stalls, too and these will be the cheapest options.
When I was in Urumqi, I ate mostly Uyghur food from street stalls. The few times I wanted some variety, I went to food courts in department stores and got something from a different area of China.
Urumqi is a safe place and you’ll mostly have to worry about petty crimes like pickpocketing. Just pay attention to your valuables, especially on crowded buses and at the markets and you should be fine.
There is always a small danger of riots breaking out. The last major rioting took place in 2009 and since then, police presence has been extremely heavy (Wikipedia article on the riots). When I was last in Urumqi (Aug 2011), you couldn’t walk 5 minutes without running into a patrol in full riot gear.
Things to Do
- Grand Bazaar (Erdaoqiao Market): traditional Islamic market area (the largest on earth by scale) and the main Uyghur neighborhood; great for food and people-watching, especially in the evenings; near Erdaoqiao at South Jiefang Road
- People’s Park: great for people-watching, especially in the early mornings and the evenings; between Guangming Road and Hellongliang Road
- Tianshan Tianchi National Park: scenic area which includes the beautiful, alpine ‘Heavenly Lake’; take a bus from the north end of People’s Park, leaving every morning at at 9:00 (note: this will be a Chinese tour, which is quite a surreal experience); ¥130 for the bus, ¥140 for entrance to the park; alternatively, go on your own by taking a bus to Fu Kang (1 hour 15 min, 12Y) then getting a bus to the lake (about 30 minutes 5Y), which opens up the possibility of spending a night in a local yurt at the lake for 50 RMB
- Nan Shan: beautiful mountains south of Wulumuqi, including the Number One Glacier; great for hiking or horseback riding; in summer you can stay in Kazakh Yurts for ¥50-100 per night including food; buses are ¥8-25 and leave from the bus station south of People’s Park (Renmin Gongyuan)
Money Saving Tips
- do not take a taxi from the airport or the stations; take the bus instead
- use the public buses to get around and avoid taxis
- eat at the street food stalls, at local restaurants or at the food courts in department stores; avoid western food—it’s either cheap and bad or decent and expensive
- you can’t bargain much in the hostel, but if you’re staying in a hotel, you can usually lower the price quite a bit
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, author: Josesan.