Having stayed in Ürümqi for several enjoyable days as a tourist, I have been amazed on hindsight that so many websites offer lists of the top 10 things to do in Ürümqi. Located in Western China, this city was the first stop on my four-week tour along the Silk Road.
I really enjoyed the first four sites enumerated in my own list below. But if you are a tourist planning a stop in Ürümqi, my strong recommendation would be to plan to stay there for two great days and no more. It’s really a working city, not a tourist city. To underscore this view, I was told by a hotel clerk there that most tourists coming to Ürümqi are Chinese, who come to visit relatives who have relocated there for work.
With that caveat in mind, here’s my own, shorter list.
Xinjiang Regional Museum
After passing through the security perimeter outside the parking lot, and then the metal detectors and a bag check at the entrance to the museum, walking into the expansive atrium of this newish-looking, spotlessly-clean building made a great first impression.
The Xinjiang Regional Museum‘s collection contains over 50,000 items, apparently. They are presented in surprisingly modern and elaborate displays illustrating the millennia of varied human history in the region. I was very impressed. The highlight for me were a handful of mummies from the nearby Tarim Basin which famously have Caucasian/Turkic features as opposed to Chinese features, including the well-known, female, Beauty of Loulan, illustrating the multi-ethnic history of human habitation there.
That history has been (and remains) politically sensitive. But to the credit of the authorities, there the mummies were, displayed for all to see. That being said, Uyghurs inÜrümqi were quick to note that the museum also includes a much more prominent and extensive exhibit, which they characterized as “propaganda,” detailing an extensive history going back hundreds and hundreds of years of Chinese habitation and the government there.
If you’ve ever been to a big, covered, market bazaar anywhere in the Middle East or Central Asia you will likely already know what to expect here. It has been my experience that once you have seen one bazaar, you’ve seen them all, really (my wife, however, disagrees).
To a first time tourist, trying to navigate Grand Bazaar (also called the Grand Bazzar) crowds among the bright colors and exotic smells of the various stalls crammed in a vast, warren-like building of arches and domes, can be a very memorable experience.
But if you’ve been to a few of these bazaars you begin to notice a ‘same, sameyness’ to many of the stalls, and you can begin to pick out those that are, really, just overpriced tourist traps.
Mosques and Street Foods
Easy walking distance from the Grand Bazaar is an area described to me by my Uyghur guide as the Uygher Area, which includes a few large mosques (none ancient, however), restaurants specializing in Uyghur foods, a street market for locals, and many street food vendors.
On a side street alongside the biggest mosque, I had a fantastic, pizza-like tandoor circular bread with a topping of well-spiced meats in the center. It’s called nang.
This is a hill located outside the downtown of the city, but still amid its urban/suburban sprawl. There are well-paved pathways to walk to the top of Red Hill. Others may choose to pay a small fee to ride the group trams which run up and down continuously.
The payoff at the top is a fantastic panoramic view of the city, which visitors there are perpetually photographing and using as a background for selfies.
Despite the comparatively steep incline, it also seems to be a very popular destination for young families and teenagers because there are also amusement park-like attractions, rides, rides and foods near and at the top.
Tianshan Tianchi Lake and Mountains – Maybe Skip This One
Tianshan Tianchi Lake is a scenic lake set amid the mountains. It’s very popular with the Chinese apparently. And if I were a resident of the city of Ürümqi, I expect that I would love this place, as a scenic escape from the monotony, crowds, and pollution of the city.
That being said, as an American tourist only in town for a few days, I was really underwhelmed by this highly touted attraction. It toward the top of every list of things to do in Ürümqi. I only reference it here to offer a contrary opinion.
First of all, the drive to the lake was over an hour outside the city. And there is absolutely nothing to see on the way outside of desert on both sides of the highway. The drive is not scenic. Furthermore, at one point we had to stop at a military/police checkpoint. Our entire bus had to disembark and show our passports and, indeed, be photographed individually as well. When we arrived, the mountain lake location was beautiful. But if you’ve ever seen a mountain lake before anywhere else in the world, it was nothing unique or special. And the entry fee was very surprisingly steep. At first, I thought the price we were quoted was the “tourist fee,” as opposed to a much cheaper ticket price for locals. But no. The high price was the same for everyone (can’t remember the exact amount).
We later drove another 20 minutes or so to a nearby nomad village for tourists. Most of the alleged nomads had long since left this failed tourist attraction, though. We only saw a few locals and those mostly from a distance. What we did see was dilapidated, cabin-like structures that were, once upon a time, apparently intended to be for tourist families to come and stay for a few days in the village among the nomads. It didn’t look to me like these structures had been used for years, except that trash was strewn everywhere like empty cigarette packs and empty beer cans and water bottles. It was depressing.
And for our trouble, when we then drove back into Ürümqi later that afternoon we ended up in such a tremendous Saturday afternoon traffic jam in the center of Ürümqi that it took us over 2 hours to return to our hotel, where it had taken just over an hour to drive out to the lake in the morning.
(You can go to into the Tianshan Mountains to hike. It’s one of the seven largest mountain ranges in the world but you need to be prepared with proper clothing and supplies because you’re on your own. A guide might be wise.) Skip it.