A backpacker’s exotic paradise, the capital of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is located in a valley in the Tianshan mountain range. Historically known as Dihua, Urumqi – as it is now called – means a ‘beautiful prairie in Mongolian. If you’re a nature lover, the breathtaking scenery of Urumqi makes it an excellent trekking destination.
An off-the-beaten-track holiday choice due to its remote location, Urumqi is also a cultural gem. China, contrary to popular opinion, is far from culturally monogamous. Urumqi showcases this dynamic beautifully, with ethnic influences from the minorities giving the city a vibe that is different from other parts of China.
Here you’ll find the Han people (the largest ethnic group in China), Hui (predominantly Muslim) and Uygur (considered one of the Turkic peoples). You’ll also find the colourful cultures of the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Mongols, each with its own unique history and way of life.
We’ve put together our top picks on how to explore Urumqi and its surrounding areas.
A cultural introduction to Urumqi
A great way to learn about Urumqi’s culture and history is to start with a museum. The Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Museum is well worth a visit for its ancient mummies. Said to be those of Caucasians dating 1500 to 4000 years ago, the mummies establish a historical link between Central Asia and Europe that was unknown even a few decades ago. Even more interesting is the fact that these mummies – unlike Egyptian ones that have been embalmed – were preserved naturally in their environment! The best part is the museum is free to visit.
If a colourful outdoor market is more your style, the Urumqi Grand Bazaar is heaven for lovers of rustic, cultural finds. Here you’ll find products from nearby Russia and Mongolia such as carpets, Uygur-style hats, traditional musical instruments, knitted sweaters, ethnic costumes, handmade embroideries and carvings. If you’ve just arrived and are looking to orientate yourself, this is a great place to start, with a big mosque nearby (also a tourist attraction) and tons of food options!
Rub shoulders with the locals
For a unique local experience, stay in a yurt – a portable circular tent covered with felt or skins, a common dwelling for nomads in Central Asia – with a local host family. You won’t find something like this in too many parts of the world, so experiencing living in one is an adventure in itself. If you’re looking for a private accommodation option just to sleep, this may not be suitable. But if you want to take part in herding yak, preparing traditional food, collecting yak dung for fuel and sleeping on thick blankets on the ground, a yurt stay will make an excellent story to tell friends back home.
While options for yurt stays in Urumqi are few, there are several places you can stay at within Xinjiang. Check out the yurts along the Karakoram Highway (Karakul Lake). The Yili region (Sailimu Lake) and the Altai region (Kanas Lake) also offer some great options. According to a Xinjiang resident who operates the FarWestChina site, the closer you get to the western border of Xinjiang, the more authentic the yurt experience.
If meeting yaks doesn’t appeal to you, another option is to stay with a local through Couchsurfing or Airbnb for unique insights into the city’s hotspots and must-have experiences. Couchsurfing links travellers to locals who are willing to host them for free, while Airbnb offers paid accommodation (room/apartment) by locals instead of just a couch or floor space. Both websites require a profile plus some time and luck to find a host, so plan ahead!
An unparalleled treat for your tastebuds
No city visit is ever complete without a proper food tour. Skip the expensive restaurants and find hidden treasures in nameless snack bars and local alley fare. Note that the Han people use chopsticks to eat, while the Kazakhs use their hands – bear this in mind when you visit either kind of establishment.
Uyghur food is characterised by mutton and other red meats, as well as chicken and goose. The gravies are typically flavoured with carrots, tomatoes and onions. Some must-try dishes include the Uygur lamian (Chinese ‘pulled noodles’ served with stir-fried meat and vegetables in sauce), dapanji (quite literally ‘big plate chicken’ or spicy chicken stew made with potatoes and peppers) and polu (fried rice with mutton). Also don’t leave without trying a kebab from a street stall!
Witness a traditional festival
Timing your trip to coincide with a local festival is another way to get a taste of Urumqi’s cultures. Qurban (also called Corban) is the Muslim ‘festival of sacrifice’. The dates for this event follow the Islamic calendar and change every year. During this time, one can witness thousands of lambs being brought into the city to be sacrificed.
Lesser Bairam is another festival to look out for. Celebrating the breaking of fast in the holy month of Ramadan, it is the one of the biggest Islamic festivals in Urumqi. Expect to see local people clean their houses, whip up tantalising dishes and don new garb. Thousands of Muslims also gather in front of the Khan Tenqri Temple to pray.
Timing your trip to coincide with a local festival is another way to get a taste of Urumqi’s cultures.
Delight yourself with some day-tripping
If you have time for some out-of-city activities, get out and explore the areas around Urumqi.
One of the first places you should visit is Turpan. A two-and-a-half-hour drive or more than an hour by train from Urumqi, Turpan is hot and dry with temperatures sometimes soaring above 40°C. It is home to China’s famous Flaming Mountains (oh the heat!), ancient city ruins and the locally developed karez (underground irrigation system).
If you like to spend some time in nature, the Heavenly Lake of Tianshan should definitely be on your must-see list. The alpine lake boasts crystal clear water, with melted snow as its source. A picturesque trek in good weather, it lies about two hours away from Urumqi.
The farthest destination among this list, Kashgar is located in the southwest extreme of Xinjiang. A train ride to Kashgar from Urumqi can take an entire day, so if you are short on time, it’s best to fly (two hours). A historical Silk Road stop, the city boasts more than 2,000 years of history, and is known today for its Sunday market and huge 15th-century Id Kah Mosque.
With so much to do, Urumqi is truly an undiscovered jewel. Take advantage of West Air’s daily flights from Singapore Changi Airport and visit the beautiful historic city now.
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Best Time to visit
Between the months of May and October, Urumqi is simply divine. Flowers are in bloom and fruits are ripe for the picking.
During these months, the temperature ranges from 8–24°C, the warmest that it gets in Urumqi, so just pack a light jacket.
Due to its location, Urumqi can also be dry – bring along your moisturiser and stay hydrated!
Urumqi is well connected to the rest of China by train, and you’ll find connections to major cities easily. Within Xinjiang, the best way to get around (if you’re not pressed by time) is by bus, with highways being fairly well made.
Taxis and city buses are also affordable and readily available.
Chinese renminbi (RMB for short) is the official and legal currency in circulation.
Urumqi Diwopu International Airport and most four- or five-star hotels offer currency exchange, as do the Bank of China and other large banks.
Book a West Air flight to Urumqi via Chongqing now!