Urumqi Travel Guide

Written by Sally Guo Updated Oct. 13, 2021

The city of Urumqi (alternately spelled Urumchi in older, Western texts, and transliterated "Ürümqi" in the language of the Uyghurs, meaning "beautiful pasture"), located in Xinjiang (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), is situated in a break, or valley, in the west-east oriented Tian Shan Mountian Range, toward the eastern end of the mountain range. The valley, which forms a natural corridor running roughly northwest to southeast through the Tian Shan Mountains, came to be known by the English name of the city at its center, Urumchi. The Urumchi Corridor, as it is thus called, eventually came to be part of one of the many branch routes along the Silk Road – in this case, a northern route, since it skirted northward around the Tian Shan Mountains via the Urumchi Corridor at whose southern extremity lies the Xinjiang city of Turpan (often written "Turfan" in older texts).

Thus, this alternative – and somewhat less-trafficked – northern Silk Road route can be described as a cul-de-sac, or closed-loop, that branched off the main northern Silk Road route which rims the northern edge of the Taklamakan Desert, or the route which follows the southern contours of the Tian Shan Mountains, if you will. This secondary northern route – located north of the main northern route in this particular part of Central Asia, and which passed through the present-day city of Urumqi – originated in the city of Turpan and ended in the city of Samarkand, Uzbekistan (or vice-versa, depending on one's direction, of course).

Prior to the emergence of the city that would become the present-day city of Urumqi, the first known village near the site of present-day Urumqi was called Urabo, and was the seat of the then Luntai County (present-day Luntai County is much larger and has shifted farther south, nearer to Lake Lop). The ruins of Urabo Ancient City lie about 10 kilometers south of the southern perimeter of Urumqi (as Urumqi expands, it will surely engulf this ancient city). The area was frequented, if not settled, by Neolithic Age hunter-gatherers, though little is known about them, and it appears that they had developed very little in the way of a culture that could be transmitted. We are on much more certain anthropological-historical ground when discussing the area's pre-Han (BCE 206 – CE 220) Dynasty history and its turbulent Chinese history, as the next section indicates.

A Brief History

The first historically known inhabitants of the area were nomads, referred to as the Jushi People (alternatively known as the Gushi People), who were apparently members of the same large flock – or perhaps wave after wave of flocks – of Caucasians who had migrated from Europe (Eastern Europe and southwestern Russia) to China across the Eurasian Steppe (think: Yuezhi cum Tocharians, such as the Tarim Mummies). Their largest city, Jiaohe (Yarghul, in Uyghur), was built beginning in the 2nd century BCE and survived until the 5th century CE (note that this end period coincides with the extreme aridification of the area around Lake Lop, which, today, is a lake in name only, and which aridification also spelled the end of the Tocharians).

The Gushi were conquered by the Western Han (BCE 206 – CE 009) Dynasty in BCE 107, but continued to rule locally as a vassal state, though it was eventually divided into a Kingdom of Nearer Jushi and a Kingdom of Further Jushi in BCE 60 by the Han Dynasty rulers. The Han Chinese influence in the region was not, however, uninterrupted throughout the period, for the ancient arch-enemy of the Han, the Xiongnu, eventually moved into the area and took control of various parts of it, losing some of these and regaining some or all of them – and losing them yet again, in a protracted tug-of-war with the Han Chinese. From BCE 60 and onward, the Han Chinese were finally on a better footing in the region.

The Kingdom of Gushi comprised an area that included the present-day Urumchi Corridor, but which was concentrated near the southern mouth of this corridor, in and around the present-day city of Turpan. Ancient Jiaohe lies some 15 kilometers west of Turpan.

The Gushi Culture apparently made use of cannabis as a pharmacological/ psychoactive substance, presumably in connection with their shamanistic religious practices. A modest portion of cannabis (almost a kilo) was found at the feet of a Gushi shaman of Caucasian origin whose tomb was discovered among the Yanghai Tombs in the vicinity of the village of Shanshan near Turpan, a site that it credited to the Gushi Culture. The remains of the shaman is dated to circa 700 BCE, the same time frame as the Spring and Autumn (BCE 770-476) Period of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty.

The cannabis might conceivably have been used for medicinal rather than religious purposes since shamans served as healers both in the physical as well as in the spiritual realm. In any case, the modest cache of "pot" that accompanied the earthly remains of the Gushi shaman was most likely either intended for the shaman's personal use on the journey toward the next life, or for his professional use in the next life, once he had arrived, so that the shaman could "hit the ground running", to put it in modern terms. The unusual find represents the oldest known use of hemp for purposes other than rope- and cloth-making.

After the demise of the Gushi Culture in the Urumqi Corridor area, including the southern mouth of the corridor, where it meets the northern rim of the Taklamakan Desert, nothing of consequence was heard of the area until Emperor Taizong of the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty, whose reign was from CE 627-649, built a new county seat here, Luntai Town (in Luntai County), near Urabo Ancient Town, the county's older seat.

Chinese emperors were becoming extremely tax-minded, and the Tang Dynasty was perhaps more focused on the "need" for taxes than most dynasties, given its extravagant court style (it should be noted that the Han Chinese empire – in precisely the form of the Tang Dynasty – pulled out of the "Western Regions" (including Xinjiang) for around a century (the vacuum was filled by the Tibetans), precisely due to the financial difficulties involved in funding its own military presence there, and rule by proxy via a vassal state was seen as an unattractive option at the time). Therefore the re-establishment of Luntai County, as it were, with Luntai Town as its new seat was part of the Tang Dynasty's effort to collect taxes on the lucrative Silk Road trade, wherever this trade led.

But even after the Tang Dynasty reestablished control over its former "Western Regions", with the aid, curiously, of the Uyghurs, little was heard of Luntai County. It was not until the Jürchens cum Manchus, yet another Turkic tribe, became the rulers of China in the form of the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty that the Chinese made their re-entry into Xinjiang in a demonstrative manner, suppressing the Dzungars and, as an unintended consequence, creating a bit of space for Uyghur influence to again spread across Xinjiang, as the second footnote below indicates.

When, in 1763, Xinjiang was definitively placed under direct Chinese rule, the city of Urumqi became the province's capital and the city's name was changed to Dihua ("to enlighten"). The reason for a large number of Russians in the city is owing to the fact that remnants of the White Russian Army fled to various parts of China, including to Urumqi, during the Russian Revolution of 1917. Thereafter Dihua came to be divided into three ethno-sectarian suburbs: one housing the city's Muslims, one housing the Han and other, non-Muslim Chinese residents, and a third suburb that housed the city's Russian expats. It was first after the final victory in 1950 of the Chinese Communist Revolution, or the War of Liberation, as it is known in China, that the city of Dihua reverted to its older name, Urumqi, in 1954.

The Hutubi Petroglyphs (Rock Art)

Generally speaking, Chinese petroglyphs, or Neolithic rock art, can be separated into two main categories: engravings, found chiefly in northern China; and paintings, found chiefly in southern China. The evidence suggests that petroglyphs in ancient times were spread throughout China, representing the local cultures of a myriad of small Neolithic communities that inhabited most of China, each community separated – though not isolated – from the others by rivers, mountains and other natural, topographical features, but that the spread of agricultural development, especially in the Central Plains area of China (aka the "Cradle of Chinese Civilization"), resulted in the obliteration of most of the ancient petroglyphs in these areas.

According to Professor Emmanuel Anati, founder of the Camunnian Center of Prehistoric Studies in Val Camonica (Camonica Valley) in the county of Capo di Ponte in the province of Brescia in the Lombardy region of northern Italy, petroglyphs the world over can be divided into 5 anthropological-developmental phases, or periods, corresponding to: 1) hunters, 2) pastoralists, 3) complex economy, 4) farmers and 5) voyagers.

Most of the petroglyphs in China appear on cliff faces or on the relatively flat, vertical surfaces of very large boulders, though some appear on the walls of caves. The petroglyphs of Hutubi, located about 75 kilometers southwest of the seat of Hutubi County (i.e., the city of Hutubi, itself situated about 50 kilometers northwest of Urumqi), are engravings and belong to the pastoralists anthropological-developmental period.

The unique feature of the Hutubi Petroglyphs is that they represent what appears to be a fertility ritual, a social phenomenon that was widespread in early human development and is a very common theme in especially the rock art of India, where successful mating (i.e., leading to reproduction) of both man and animals was considered essential to the survival and multiplication of humankind. In India, it is not unusual to find petroglyphs depicting not only the genitalia of humans – as with the Hutubi Petroglyphs – but also the depiction of animals in the act of copulation.

Indian texts suggest that collective sexual rituals, or "orgies", as it were, were regularly held, orchestrated by the shaman, where the males and females first let themselves be stimulated by observing the sexual pairing of a male and female animal – such as a pair of horses or a pair of cattle – that had been placed in the center of the group. In an age when infant mortality was probably higher than it has ever been since, reproduction – or regeneration, as it is more neutrally called in scientific circles – was absolutely essential to the survival of the group, therefore the existence of such fertility rituals.

The Hutubi Petroglyphs are stylized human forms – almost stick men and -women, in fact, but remarkably elegantly shaped for such stylized forms – the majority of which are males with an exaggeratedly long phallus. There are some 300 figures here, ranging in height from a mere 10 centimeters to 2 meters. Most of the women figures (understood to be women because their genitalia is not shown) appear to be dancing, which would fit the suggested image of a fertility ritual since the sexually evocative dance movements of the females would excite the males.

A few of the female figures appear to be lying on their backs, their legs spread, with males standing over them with their exaggeratedly long phalluses pointing down toward the respective females, though this is surely evidence of the inability of Neolithic Age artists to master the art of depth perception, i.e., the proper division of a scene into a foreground, middle ground and background so as to imitate the perspective of three dimensions. The one-at-a-time, pairwise mating might also suggest that the ritual did not cease all at once, with all the men and women forming pairs, but that a single male and a single female would pair off, perhaps while the rest of the women continued dancing (and the other males looking on), and perhaps this conjectured public voyeurism played the same role as that of the coupling of animals in the similar Indian fertility ritual. For that matter, perhaps a single female mated with numerous males during the mating ceremony, thus increasing the likelihood that she would be "fertilized".

The fact that such fertility rituals are not present in any other petroglyphs in China is itself an interesting anomaly since it suggests either that there was something uniquely stark, as some have suggested, about the cycle of life in this part of the world – where frigid, ice-capped mountains were separated from baking hot basins by only a few kilometers – that fostered such an intense focus on procreation, or, that the people who etched the fertility ritual images on the rock face near Hutubi were migrants who had arrived from other areas in the region and who had brought their special fertility rituals with them.

Present-Day Urumqi

Urumqi boasts a distinction that sets it apart from all other cities in the region: it is the geographical midpoint, longitudinally (i.e., measured east-west) of the Eurasian continent. Put slightly differently, Urumqi is the city that lies farthest from both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (in fact, this distinction has earned the city a place in the Guinness Book of World Records). Its relative size and youthful age (compared to many other, ancient Chinese cities) notwithstanding, Urumqi, a city of some 2 million inhabitants – of which some 340,000 live on the rural fringes of the city – boasts a large ethnic mix, representing 46 ethnic minorities as well as the Han Chinese majority. Urumqi's minority groups are too numerous to name here, but among the most populous groups are the following (though listed here strictly in alphabetical order): Hui, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Manchu, Mongolian, Russian, Tajik, Tatar, Uygur, Uzbek and Xibe.

The city of Urumqi lies between the ice-capped Bogda Peak of the Tian Shan Mountains and Chaiwobao Salt Lake. There are pine-covered rolling hills here, interspersed with vast grasslands, dotted with lakes. To the northeast lies the Dzungarian Basin. The summers and winters here are long, while the spring and autumn seasons are but short, transitional periods. The summers are hot, though not excessively hot, with a maximum temperature of 30 degrees Celsius, while the lowest winter temperature is roughly minus 7½ degrees Celsius.

Some of the unique ethnic traditions of Urumqi include muqimi, the mother of Uyghur music; jiang-ger, the heroic poems of the Mongolian cultural identity; and manas, the epic songs of the Kyrgyz cultural identity. Urumqi still has its neighborhoods, or quarters, where different ethnic groups dominate; on the main thoroughfares, one typically sees people dressed in modern, Chinese-and-Western attire, while on the smaller back streets, one often encounters people dressed in more traditional, ethnic attire, especially women clothed in colorful dresses and often wearing hats or other headdresses. On festive occasions, typical steppe cultural activities include wrestling, horse racing, sheep herding and girl's whip (a pair of riders, a girl and a boy, each on his/ her separate mount, with the girl outfitted with a whip that she uses on the boy – if she can catch him, that is – thus inspiring the boy to avoid such whipping, and leading to either a highly spirited or a somewhat comical race... the girls do not whip the boys cruelly, of course).

There are many specialty shops and a few bazaars in Urumqi where one can find unique bargains such as carpets, folk music instruments, colorful hats and other traditional ethnic attire as well as smaller souvenirs and ethnic bric-a-brac. Two of the most popular such bazaars are the Erdaoqiao Bazaar and the International Grand Bazaar. Other must-see sights in and around Urumqi include: Hongshan ("Red Hill") Park; Lake Tianchi, aka Heavenly Lake; Nanshan ("Southern Mountain") Grassland, aka Southern Pasture, which is a large grassland comprising several tourist attractions such as the Baiyanggou Resort Area; Caiwobao Salt Lake; the Xinjiang Silk Road Museum; and of course, the Xinjiang Regional Museum, or the Museum of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which also houses the many archeological finds of Xinjiang, including the famous Tarim Mummies of mysterious Caucasian origin.

You might also like to visit Shaanxi Great Mosque or one of Urumqi's other mosques, Hezhou Mosque, Qinghai Mosque, Southern Mosque or Tartar Mosque. If you are impressed with the Tocharian Tarim Mummies, you might also want to pay a visit to the even more ancient Hutubi Petroglyphs located about 100 kilometers west-southwest of Urumqi, where the Urumchi Corridor meets the Tian Shan Mountains.

The city of Urumqi can offer a wide range of accommodations and dining experiences, the latter to include local ethnic food, traditional Chinese food and of course Western food, including the many international fast-food chains. The bazaars also have early-evening entertainment, and of course, many ethnic eateries. Urumqi also has many bars and cafés where you can relax over your favorite beverage and strike up a conversation. The accommodations range from simple bed and breakfast arrangements to first-class, star-rated hotels such as the Sheraton Urumqi Hotel. Thanks to Urumqi's mild, summer evening weather and to its broad cultural diversity, it is an interesting place to chill out on a summer's eve and simply enjoy the experience of being in a foreign place on an unhurried, foreign clock.

Additional Instructions

Samarkand itself lay on another northern branch, or loop, of the Silk Road that originated in the city of Kashgar, Xinjiang, and ended in the city of Merv in present-day Turkmenistan. The corresponding southern branch to this loop, whose terminal points are identical to those of the northern branch, i.e., the cities of Kashgar and Merv, passed through the Wakhan Corridor westward across the northern part of Afghanistan (the Wakhan Corridor lies in Afghanistan of course, stretching from the Taklamakan Desert in the east to the city of Eshkashem in the west), whose most famous Silk Road cities were Kunduz and Balkh – that is, before Genghis Khan overran and sacked the latter city, which was one of the wealthiest, most prosperous cities along the ancient Silk Road (which was probably why Genghis Khan had the city in his sights in the first place).

Later, the much smaller city of Mazar-e-sharif, lying just east of Balkh, took over the powers, including the role of prominent Silk Road city, of the city of Balkh, which ancient city never recovered from the ravages wrought upon it by Genghis Khan and his Mongol Horde. Note also that the Xinjiang city of Kashgar, the point of origin of the westward loop described above, was also the terminal point of a similar loop that skirted around the northern and southern edges of the Taklamakan Desert, or which either followed the contours of the Tian Shan Mountains (the northern route) or the contours of the Kunlun Mountains (the southern route).

It should also be noted that before a Silk Road route via the Urumchi Corridor came into being, there was surely an "upland" market for the exchange of goods arriving in Turpan. That is, the ancient city of Urabo, the precursor to modern-day Urumqi, most likely delivered goods to the Silk Road market in Turpan, just as some of the exotic wares from both the east (China proper) and the west (Central Asia and farther west) that arrived in Turpan found their way to Urabo.

In other words, the idea of cutting a caravan path through the Urumchi Corridor was probably linked to the fact that there was already a market for goods in the Urumchi Corridor, and perhaps the Gushi rulers of the area provided safe passage for caravans through the corridor and on to a safe point westward, beyond the southwestern rim of the Dzungarian Basin (aka Jungar Basin), perhaps in agreement with the Göktürks of the Western Turkic Khaganate who inhabited the Dzungarian Basin from the 6th century CE onward, until the area fell to the Mongolians (the Dzun-gar of Dzungaria literally means, in Mongolian, "Left Hand", otherwise referred to as the "Left Wing", as in "the Army of the Left Wing", or "the Army of the Left Flank"), if indeed, this latter precaution was at all necessary, since it is reasonable to assume that the Göktürks themselves were interested in facilitating such trade.

In CE 840, the Uyghurs were driven out of their homelands further north and east of their present-day "homelands" by another Turkic nomadic group, the Kyrgyz – the Uyghur Khaganate, at its pinnacle, stretched from the Altay Mountains in the west to Manchuria in the east – fleeing thereafter southwestward to the area around Turpan, a city with which the Uyghurs had long maintained close relations due to Silk Road trade interests. Once established in Turpan, the Uyghurs discovered that their overall political and economic interests coincided with those of the rulers of the Tang Dynasty, and thus the Uyghurs helped the Tang emperor to drive out the Tibetans.

This is neither the time nor place to develop this thoughtfully, but it is a curious thing that the Kyrgyz have a different "take" on the CE 840 exit of the Uyghurs from the Uyghur Khaganate... the Kyrgyz, who lived among the Uyghurs as, shall we say, second-class citizens, felt enslaved within the Uyghur Khaganate and eventually rebelled, but instead of a Kyrgyz exodus from the region á la Moses' exodus from Egyptian slavery, the Kyrgyz rebels managed to drive out the Uyghurs. The Kyrgyz manas, the epic songs of the Kyrgyz cultural identity, is precisely an account of the Kyrgyz struggle to break the yoke of their enslavement to the Uyghurs and, in all fairness, also to the Han Chinese.

The Uyghurs then served as a minor vassal state to the Chinese emperors for several centuries, sharing the Tarim Basin with numerous other city-states, though this is not to say that Xinjiang in general, and the Tarim Basin in particular, was populated wholly, and throughout the period from the close of the Tang Dynasty onward, by vassal states that were loyal to Han China – in fact, quite the contrary, as the 18th-century conflict with the Dzungars would demonstrate (see below). In the Tarim Basin, the Uyghur influence spread, with the Uyghurs eventually establishing the Kingdom of Kashgar; the Id Kah Mosque, located near the city of Kashgar, was built during this period of rule in CE 1442, and remains to this day the largest mosque in all of China (Islam was introduced into China already in the beginning of the 7th century, though it first began to take hold, and principally in western China, after the Mongol emperors of the Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty showed favor to Muslim scholars and administrators – Buddhism was the dominant religion in China during the period, as it still is... indeed, the Yuan rulers were themselves devout Lamaists, or Tibetan Buddhists).

One of the other, larger vassal states in the Tarim Basin was ruled by the Khitans, another Turkic group that had been driven out of their homelands farther north by the Jürchens, settling, like so many other refugee Turkic tribes, in the Tarim Basin or elsewhere in Xinjiang. Both the Khitans and the Jürchens would later be driven out of their respective land holdings in the area of Xinjiang-Greater Mongolia by the Mongols. After the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty came the Han Chinese Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty, which was followed by China's last Imperial dynasty, the Qing Dynasty, led by the Jürchens cum Manchus, one of the many Turkic tribes that had pushed south into China from southern Siberia and Manchuria over the centuries.

Much had changed in Xinjiang by the time of the Qing Dynasty. For one thing, the Mongolian Dzungars ruled the area of Xinjiang, not as a loyal vassal to the Chinese emperor, but as a more or less independent state, or khanate, that stretched from the western extremity of the Great Wall (the Lake Lop area) westward to the western boundary of present-day Kyrgyzstan, and from the southern boundary of present-day Kyrgyzstan northward to present-day southern Siberia, which swath of land comprised most of present-day Xinjiang. The V Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, bestowed the title of Boshogtu Khan on the Dzungar ruler, Choros Erdeniin Galdan, in 1678, and Galdan was succeded by Tsewang Rabtan in the same title. It was only after the death of the latter that the Dzungar Khanate began to weaken, and this was the moment that the Chinese emperor chose to make a stand against the khanate.

Though Rabtan died in 1727, the khanate hobbled on for another 30 years before an ambitious Emperor Qianlong, in 1756, launched a short but bloody military campaign to suppress the Dzungars (the campaign was completed in 1759). The Dzungars, as indicated above, were a branch of the Mongolian family of tribes. The Qing conquest of the Dzungar Khanate was singularly bloody, amounting to what one today would inarguably call ethnic genocide; for all their ferocity against outside foes, the Turkic tribes seem to have reserved their greatest enmity for fellow Turks!

Urumqi Weather

Urumqi lies in the west direction of China, having distinctive seasons. It is hot and dry in summers with average temperatures in July at 26 ºC (78 ºF) and damp and cold in winters with average temperatures in January of -15 ºC(5 ºF). It's a good idea to pack for extremes if you plan to travel much outside of Urumqi, as temperatures can vary greatly with the change of elevation and time of day, even in summer.

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