Lading in Ürümqi is like traveling back in time in Chinese history to see my first visit to Beijing in 1997. Our route took us by air from Beijing to Ürümqi, and the contrast on the approach from these two cities is significant. For me, Beijing a decade-and-a-half ago used to be defined by pollution the same way Ürümqi in winter is now. Although it was sunny the winter days I was in Ürümqi, the pollution cloud kept the city in a world of haze and smog. As one of the top polluted cities in China in the winter, it may be worth a visit just for the sights (and smell) of pollution out-of-control. The infrastructure is also less developed from eastern Chinese cities, with buildings (and costs) distinctly out-of-proportion from Beijing (for example, taxis with 6 RMB starting fare).
There is a lot to love about Ürümqi, however (though arguably not much in terms of the other gems in the region, and, you’ll inevitably find yourself in the city if you intend to do any Central Asia traveling). The city has a distinctly multicultural feel unlike anywhere else in China, and is composed of a mix of Uighurs, Han, Hui, and the usual mix of Central Asian ethnicities. Perhaps most telling is the sound of a Uighur speaking Mandarin Chinese in an accent usually only reserved for Caucasians learning the language. We did not get a chance to sightsee much in Ürümqi, but rather got a feel of the multicultural ambiance traveling through the city. There was also surprisingly little ethnic tension or hostility while we were there, which caught us off guard. We were helped throughout by Han, Uighurs, Russians, Kyrgyzs, and a Kazakh couple – the kindness of the people of Ürümqi stands in stark contrast to the violence of 7-5, and had there not been a huge police presence I would not have believed the city to be capable of producing such ethnic tension.
I recommend exploring the southern section of the city (around Hetian Lu), where the Uighur and Russian/Central Asian parts of town are for sensory overload. Food in the city is of particular note; do not leave without trying the lamb kababs sold on the street and lamian, a Xinjiang speciality (although these two are usually adapted to the Chinese palate).
If using Ürümqi as a base for travel, some notes:
- You will want to know Chinese to navigate this city, or at least bring a Chinese friend; English does not go far, and even Mandarin is difficult to use in Uighur-only communities.
- The Lonely Planet: China book is notoriously inaccurate for this chapter!
- Buses to city center cost 10 RMB p/p; taxis no more than 50 RMB.
- For flights to Kyrgyzstan (Bishkek), there are nondaily flights on China Southern and AC Kyrgyzstan as of Dec 2009. One may get a slight discount through a China Southern travel agent, but the cheapest option when we were there was 2100 RMB o/w. Flights on AC Kyrgyzstan were less than 1500 RMB o/w, but extremely unreliable. The booking office for AC Kyrgyzstan consisted of two people (one of which spoke no Chinese) working out of a hotel, and we were informed all flights were canceled over December due to low turnout. There are also flights to Osh; in Central Asia, Kayak is rather useless, but finding out all departures/arrivals from airport pages will net you timetables to work off of. To book the AC Kyrgyzstan flight, contact Эрбол at Xinhua Nanlu 786 (Huaqiao Binguan) [ask the receptionist], tel: 0991 8529061, 0991-8528062, or 13999935658. The Lonely Planet information on this is wrong. The above hotel is also good for arranging all things Kazakh and Russian, including overnight buses (it is the hub for business from Central Asia and Russia).