Saturday, April 13, 2013

Travel destinations: Urumqi, China

The most land-locked city in the world: that’s Urumqi’s claim to fame. Urumqi’s remoteness discourages visitors to China who are short on time from visiting it. They stick to the well worn paths to Beijing, Xi’an and Guilin. But two days on the train from Beijing reward the determined tourist with a picture of China quite unlike other regions.

Urumqi is capital of Xinjiang province, China’s north west frontier, a harsh arid zone, scorching in summer and freezing in winter. China’s largest desert, the inhospitable Taklamakan, lies between Urumqi and Tibet. Camel trains and date palms are reminders that the northern Silk Road passed by here.

The modern city that is Urumqi today took its name from a word in the Mongolian language of the Dzungar people meaning beautiful pasture. It is distinguished from other cities in China by the large number of ethnic Uighur people who live here. Historically, they were an overwhelming majority in the province as a whole, but a tidal wave of Han immigration since 1949 now threatens their traditional culture. So much so that this led to the worst ethnic violence in recent years, leaving around 200 dead. If planning a trip to Urumqi, you would be well advised to check the current situation, and if tense, postpone your visit until a safer time.

There is not too much to see in Urumqi itself. The single most important place to visit is the Grand Bazaar, supposedly the largest of its kind in the world. An enormous indoor market selling everything from Persian carpets, ethnic crafts, and daggers to several different types of raisins, you can browse for hours. Perhaps the real highlight of Urumqi is its food. Very different from eastern China, here the Uighur people grill lamb kebabs and eat them with large round naan bread; there are also freshly made noodles, and delicious watermelon to munch on, or pomegranate juice served in glasses beside the road.

For travelers used to other Chinese cities, it can be disconcerting in Urumqi to be addressed in Russian or Uighur before Mandarin. The local population sometimes have blue eyes, and often speak Russian. When encountering a Western looking tourist, they are uncertain what language to use. While culturally and ethnically Turkish, they are Muslim by faith, and you will find hundreds of mosques throughout the city.

Urumqi is over 2000 kilometers west of Beijing, and yet the whole of China runs on Beijing time. Given that this is somewhat impractical, Urumqi chooses to organise itself on an informal local time which is two hours ahead of Beijing time. Shops tend to open between 10 and 12, then 3.30 to 7.30. You need to adjust your body clock to run on this time while you are here, but don’t forget that air, train and bus schedules continue to run on Beijing time.

There are many other interesting places to visit in Xinjiang province, and Urumqi is often a stepping stone to get there. Visit the fascinating Silk Road town of Kashgar, or Yining, where the Xibe minority group live, not far from the Kazakhstan border. Take a bus 320 km north of Urumqi and you can say you have visited the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility, the point in Eurasia which is furthest from any ocean.

With regular flights, and a high speed rail link under construction, this remote destination is becoming easier than ever to visit. Urumqi is starting to get on the map.

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