Travel Alert: The security situation in Xīnjiāng is now under control but the potential for further violence remains; travellers are advised to exercise caution. Check the BBC for news updates or the Thorn Tree for advice from other travellers.
Ürümqi’s Silk Road history does dominate the perceptions. Travellers disembark half-expecting oasis tents and hawkers bellowing their kebab quality. With all that cartographical earth-tone indicating desert nearby (trivia alert: it’s the furthest place in the world from an ocean – 2250km), perhaps they also expect the odd camel or two chewing contentedly. Thus, many are not a little bit surprised when they find it a modern and relatively efficient city. With a few kebab sellers.
Its Mongolian name, Ürümqi (Wūlǔmùqí or Wūshì in Modern Standard Chinese), hints at a place of fertile pastureland. Those halcyon days have said bye-bye in this teeming city, jump-started in the late 1990s by the Chinese government’s efforts to relocate skilled Han here to solidify it as a strategic and economic bulwark of China’s west (read: oil exploration and extraction). Its skyscraper quotient may be modest compared to eastern megalopolises, but the city definitely has a hotwired economy fast becoming a Central Asian hotshot.
Apart from the provincial museum and nearby Tiān Chí, Ürümqi is basically a practical hub, from where you can make all the necessary preparations for various trips through Xīnjiāng, Central Asia or back into China.