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Urumqi (Wulumuqi) – just another Chinese city

Urumqi, China

View over Urumqi from Hongshan Park

After traveling to the far west and later to the very north of Xinjiang we decided to end our trip with a visit to the capital Urumqi. I slept most of the 45 minute flight from Kanasi and woke up during the descent above the desert a few minutes before landing in Urumqi. At the airport I got my backpack and we then waited for a taxi. It took a few minutes before one arrived and then we were off to our downtown hotel. The driver refused to use his meter, but the RMB 70 that he proposed seemed reasonable considering the distance from the airport to the city.

Hong Fu Hotel, Urumqi, China

Room in Hong Fu Hotel, Urumqi

We arrived at the Hong Fu Hotel about 30 minutes later, it was by far the best hotel we had this trip. And relatively cheap, I think we paid something like RMB 700 per room. Both our rooms were at the top floor so we had a good view over the city.

View from Hong Fu Hotel over Urumqi, China

View over Urumqi to the north from Hong Fu Hotel

After checking in we went for a walk, we were quite hungry after just a simple lunch at a local nomad family in the Hemu valley. We opted for a muslim restaurant and were surprised to even see pork on the menu! People were drinking alcohol as well, so it was immediately clear that muslims here were not as fanatic about their religion as in some other parts of Xinjiang. It probably also has to do with the fact that about 80% of the Urumqi population is now Han Chinese and therefore likely non-muslim.

The food was nice and prices here were back to normal again after the heavily inflated costs of everything in Kanasi. After a nice spicy dinner (partly Sichuan food) with some cold beers we went for a walk around the city. In Urumqi Beijing time is being used and like in the rest of Xinjiang the time is therefore at least 2 hours off from the real time, so it only gets dark after 10 PM.

Entrance to Renmin Park (People's Park), Urumqi, China

Entrance of Renmin Park, Urumqi

We first walked to Renmin Park (People’s Park) along some treelined streets. The streets reminded me a bit of the French Concession in Shanghai, but also of some of the smaller streets in Beijing from 10-12 years ago. It felt a bit like a time warp, it was relatively quiet on the streets and there were not many cars around either, exactly like the old days in Beijing. Because of that I started to like the city right away, but I also realized that this is not the Urumqi that it used to be: the muslims are a minority now in their own region and the old town is long gone. It was just a normal Chinese city, but one where it’s not as busy yet as on the east coast of China.

Renmin Park (People's Park), Urumqi, China

Renmin Park, Urumqi

Renmin Park reminded me a lot of Beijing parks, with some classic Chinese buildings, lots of attractions for kids, and of course the obligatory Mao quote on a statue. People in the park seemed quite happy to be there. Lots of them were dancing at several of the squares and others were chatting with their friends on one of the many grass fields.

Renmin Park (People's Park), Urumqi, China

Renmin Park, Urumqi

The weather was very nice: sunny and not too warm (about 28 degrees around 7 pm), so perfect for a walk. The air is very dry because Urumqi is surrounded by deserts, so it’s much nicer than the sticky, humid air in Shanghai.

From Renmin Park we walked to Hongshan Park (Red Hill Park), which is located just 200 meters to the north of Renmin Park. Hongshan Park is built on a hill with a temple and a pagoda on top of it, and from there you have a great view over most of the city.

Hongshan (Red Hill) Park, Urumqi

Pagoda in Hongshan Park, Urumqi

After the walk we decided to have a beer to cool down a bit, and we ended up at Fubar. This bar, located on the west side of Renmin Park in a street lined with clubs and bars, is supposedly the only western bar in Urumqi. And indeed, when you come in you immediately feel that you entered a different world. The bar reminded me a bit of the old Minder’s Cafe on Sanlitun South Street (which was demolished around 2004), with a bar, some high and low tables and mixed clientele of locals and foreigners. We had a couple of nice beers, first a German Weizenbeer, then a black Sinkiang beer (local beer), and finally  some nice dark Belgium beers.

Gary and I discussed a lot of things while every now and then glancing at the Olympics on one of the screens in the bar. This was the only place in Urumqi where I saw some other foreigners, and the first time that I saw non-Chinese in about 3 days. Not that I am so keen on seeing Westerners, but it just hardly ever happens to me that I only see Chinese for more than a day.

After the beers we decided to take a taxi back to the hotel, but that was a bit harder than we thought. It was impossible to find a taxi on the streets, even after midnight. Urumqi just doesn’t have enough taxis it seems, and that’s likely caused by the fact that they are too cheap. The price starts at RMB 6, which is half the price of Shanghai, meaning that supply and demand are probably not in equilibrium. That’s what you get when prices are set instead of determined by the market… At first we wanted to walk back to the hotel, but because it was still quite warm we eventually took a black cab (an illegal taxi) that was willing to drive us to our hotel for RMB 15. On the way we saw lots of people waiting for taxis, I felt bad for them.

Urumqi street scenes

Lots of places sell naan or kebab on the streets of Urumqi

After a good sleep we had breakfast in the hotel and then I went for a walk while Gary did some emails. I had about an hour before we had to go to the airport, and I walked around some of the smaller streets around the hotel. Here you could still feel the muslim influence, with many people baking naan bread in ovens on the street and lots of fruit stalls full of grapes and other fruit. I loved the walk and it was a pity I had to cut it short to catch my plane.

Tons of grapes for sale on the streets of Urumqi

Roadside fruit stalls are all over Urumqi

At the hotel it was once again very hard to find a taxi, but just before we decided to rent a car with driver from the hotel a taxi dropped off some guests at the hotel, and we were able to take that taxi. At the airport I checked in and had a coffee with Gary (he had to go to Beijing and his flight was a bit later) before boarding a plane back to Shanghai.

I had an amazing time in Xinjiang, we did so many things in less than a week. I am happy I took this trip just in time to still see some parts of the Old City in Kashgar. The nature in this province is amazing, I have seen a lot of the world over the years but the scenery in Xinjiang was among the most beautiful sights that I have seen on this planet, especially in the area along the Karakoram Highway. If you live in China and have some time I would certainly suggest you to check out Xinjiang as well. Kanasi is probably not as interesting because of the military and the commercialization, but the area around Kashgar is something you should not miss. And if you have to change planes in Urumqi you may as well spend a day in that city as well, it’s quite pleasant even though there are hardly any sights nor historical buildings in the city.

This was the last post in a series of 4 articles about my trip to Xinjiang in July 2012. The others posts are here (Kashgar), here (Karakoram Highway) and here (Kanasi/Lake Kanas). Some of the pictures that I took can be seen in this set on Flickr

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  1. I’m not sure I agree with that. On the surface its very similar to many other Chiense cities – bland steel and glass white tiled buildings. But Urumqi still has its old muslim quarter which is much more interesting, and an excellent Silk Road musuem. Plus if you get out to the trading area you’ll find all the warehouses, Russian, Turkic languages and drivers, passengers and lorries to, and from Kabul, Baku, Samarkand, Bishkek, Tashkent…you don’t have to scratch the surface too much to find you’re really in Central Asia. If you’re still there go check out Jon Tomlin’s Fubar, that’s where everyone hangs out. I’ll be there myself in 10 days researching my new book…