Under-prepared for Urumqi

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One of the first things that any traveler should learn is the importance of planning ahead. This should be obvious to anybody who has ever taken a vacation, yet somehow it eluded me when it came time to board the plane for Urumqi in far-western China for a week of exploring one of China’s last real frontiers.

Despite having made the decision to visit Xinjiang almost a month in advance and having tickets booked and paid for, it somehow came to be 10am on the day of our departure and I’d yet to so much as fold a t-shirt or locate my passport. Coupled with a wild night of drinking that featured tequila shots, an hour long walk in the pouring rain, and entirely too much lamb at a pricey teppanyaki joint – it’s fair to say there was a bit of a mad dash to get everything prepared.

lazy aussie
About as much effort as I put into planning my Xinjiang trip

As if my frantic cramming of clothes into a backpack and debate over whether my laptop or iPad should accompany me weren’t enough, I was painfully aware that we’d so far failed to book accommodation for our first night in Urumqi or sit down to work out a single facet of our trip beyond its return leg. Hardly the level of organisation you would expect from somebody whose been to a few rodeos in the past.

So, what follows is probably not a fair assessment of Urumqi – arguably Xinjiang’s most cosmopolitan city and it’s gateway to the more untamed frontiers. In fact, it’s more of a cautionary tale. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Getting to Xinjiang was surprisingly painless. China Southern Airlines are not near the horrendous service that China Eastern Airlines are, and we covered the five and a half hours to Xinjiang in relative comfort. The only hiccup was an unannounced layover in an airport that seemed to exist solely to service layovers. It was surrounded on all sides by desert and little else.

furry hat
Oh yeah, there was this hat too

With bellies full of tolerable airline food and packs heavy on our shoulders, Kara and I made our first rookie mistake of the journey – we jumped in the cab of a guy who enthusiastically rushed up to us the moment we’d stepped out of the airport. One hundred RMB (roughly $14) later, we were deposited out front of the City Hotel. We would later learn that 40 RMB was a far fairer price.

Full of confidence we waltzed up the stairs and asked for a room. We were told it would be 350 RMB – about 200 RMB more than we’d been hoping to pay for a room. In hindsight, we’d have saved ourselves a lot of trouble if we’d just accepted it.

But it was only 10pm and we were determined to land ourselves the best possible deal, so we set off in search of one of the many Super 8 hotels that we had read the city had. After wandering aimlessly down a few darkened streets and seeing nothing remotely resembling a hotel, we started showing locals a photo of the Far West China website’s accommodation screen in hopes they’d recognize one of the addresses. They didn’t.

Some pointed helpfully but it amounted to naught, and by 11pm we were still no closer to finding a room. Standing by a quiet bus stop, we spotted a pair of pretty Chinese girls and I nudged Kara (with her superior grasp of Mandarin) in their direction. Thankfully the pair spoke a little English, so between that and Kara’s halting Mandarin we were able to discern that the Super 8 was not only far away – but also more expensive than the last place.

“But if you trust me,” the prettier of the two girls said, “I can take you to the hotel in a cab”.

Her friend didn’t seem overjoyed by this, but soon enough we were piling into a cab and being taken to the Home Inn – part of a chain of budget hotels. I offered to pay for the cab ride but the girl waved away my offer and departed with a smile – the first of many acts of hospitality that endeared the region to me.

Home Inn Urumqi
The Home Inn... would not be our home

But if we’d expected the Home Inn to be our resting place, we were sadly mistaken.

“No vacancy,” the girl at the counter informed us apologetically. Seeing our dismay, she snatched up one of the hotel business cards and began calling their other Urumqi locations.

No luck.

“Do you have Wi-Fi?” Kara asked hopefully. The girl nodded and directed us to a couch already crowded with others seeking a reprieve from the cool night air.

My iPad had only 5% battery, so we began frantically searching for other hotel options. Kara’s ever present notebook was soon full of scribbled hotel names and we were off again. It was now after midnight.

The hotels we passed were all upscale business hotels. We disregarded the majority of them but eventually caved in at the Honsghan New Century Suites Business Hotel. Stepping through its huge double doors we gulped. Marble floors, chandeliers overhead, and clocks from around the world on the wall above reception. Yeah, we couldn’t afford this place.

“We need a room?” Kara asked hopefully.

The girl quickly shot back a price of 450 RMB.

“300?” Kara queried.

The man next to her, perhaps sensing our desperation, whispered something.

“330” the girl offered. We gratefully handed over the money and a 500 RMB deposit (deposits at hotels are standard across Xinjiang) and were soon directed up to our room.

It was 2am and we would have been happy with a warm, sheltered corner at this point – so our near luxury room was a welcome sight after some four hours of roaming the increasingly chilly streets of Urumqi. Even the sight of a single double bed didn’t dishearten us. We were soon snoring atop the covers, grateful that our lack of preparation hadn’t meant a night sleeping in the streets.

Worst Tour Ever

The next day saw us up bright and early ready to tackle one of Urumqi’s iconic spots. Would we visit one of the many mosques or museums in the city? Or would we venture further afield with a day trip out to the Heavenly Lake? Something much less inspiring.

We stopped off at the hotel’s tour desk to book our flights to Kashgar for the following morning and then decided that our next move should be finding a cheaper hotel for the night to come. We returned to the Home Inn and again found it full, but this time the attendant was able to direct us to one of their other locations and we were soon checked into a humble enough room overlooking a litter strewn street.

Chinese bread
Delicious savory bread snack packed with meat, spices, and vegetables.

Somewhat buoyed by our successes, we ventured out in search of food and fun. We found food in the form of wonton soup and some savory breads and also snatched up a big bag of dried peaches (as well as some regrettable dried ginger) to take with us on our exploration of Urumqi. But if we’d expected our unplanned walk to reap fascinating dividends, we were sadly disappointed.

nut vendor urumqi
Markets like this catered to all of our snacking needs

After blundering through a crowded home-wares market that didn’t offer much in the way of charm, we were soon walking through a clearly industrial portion of the city taking photos of tin sheds and rotting couches in alleys. Urumqi – like much of Xinjiang – is rapidly growing and catching up with the rest of China, so we saw more construction sites than anything else.


rotten couch
A rotten couch in an Urumqi back alley
industrial area in urumqi
A breathtaking vista of welding sheds in scenic Urumqi

Soon enough we spotted a park and decided it was as good a place as any to stop for a while. Its balding green-brown hills weren’t particularly inspiring, so we perched on a low wall underneath a vaguely phallic sculpture and watched kite-fliers while we vowed that our time in Kashgar would not be nearly as boring.

rainbow sculpture
A rainbow phallus. Every city should have one.
Kites in Urumqi
Kites soaring over the Urumqi skyline

Kara – a former cheerleader – showed off some of her moves before encouraging me to turn my first cartwheel since I scored a double past my brother in under 18s high school soccer.

That brush with silliness done, it was time to head back to a hotel we had no idea how to find. But the sun was bright and the day had a few hours left in it, so we embarked on a lengthy walk in the vague direction we imagined our hotel to be in.

What we found was a dense commercial area and – stomach’s rumbling – ventured into a mall in search of something edible. We didn’t find food, but did find a whole level of the mall dedicated to obnoxiously loud arcade games and play areas for children.

snow white
Kara right at home with other ridiculously short people
angry birds knock off
I was asked not to take this photo. Probably because the attraction isn't licensed.

But Kara did eventually lead us back to our hotel where, exhausted from the world’s most underwhelming tour and knowing we had an 8am flight to catch, we decided to call it a day.

But not before recording a special bonus edition of Test Drive for you guys!

Not All Bad

We did return to Urumqi for the final day of our trip. While we didn’t manage to take in any of its tourist sites, we did find a few glimmers of light in what proved to be a very disappointing city for us.

And, again, that can be laid solely at our feet for not being adequately prepared.

But special mention needs to go to the Maitian International Youth Hostel for being probably the nicest place we stayed while in Xinjiang (and the cheapest) and to the inexplicably awesome Texas Cafe in downtown Urumqi.

The former – our home for a single night before returning to Nanjing – not only had WiFi (a rare commodity in Xinjiang) but also had a nicer room than any of the supposed business hotels we stayed in.

And the latter? What can I say about the Texas Cafe? The proprietor, a grizzled Texan with almost half a century of work in the industry to his name, runs a bloody nice establishment. We’re talking great food, fantastic country music, and a really comfortable vibe.

We spent a good two hours indulging our inner fat boy with chocolate milkshakes, cheesy bean quesadillas, and some truly decadent brownies dripping with ice cream. Sweet Lord, I had a food boner.

I cannot recommend the Texas Cafe highly enough. If you are in Urumqi and in need of Western food – seek this place out. It is, hands down, the best foreigner bar I’ve encountered in my four years living abroad. That’s including my time in South Korea. That it’s tucked away in such an isolated corner of China is a real shame.

What to do in Urumqi

What you’ve read is a veritable how not to do Urumqi guide, but the city is not one without its charms. Most travel guides and websites will recommend that you check out one of the many museums in the city. The pick of the lot are said to be the Xinjiang Uygur Regional Museum and the Xinjiang Silk Road Museum. For those interested in the history of this isolated corner of the world, they’d be a must.

Nearby attractions such as the picturesque Heavenly Lake and the Number One Glacier are a good way to get out of the city without going too far afield.

If you’ve got any of your own Urumqi experiences to share, I’d love to hear them. Hopefully your own trip was a little less ‘meh’ than my own.

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  1. My Urumqi experience was almost completely the opposite to yours. The biggest issue I had was getting flights to the city, as I’d planned to fly there during the Chinese National Day celebrations (aka Golden Week) which of course meant the flights were exorbitantly more expensive than normal. I flew Nanjing – Urumqi via Xi’an (a 50-minute layover? Really?) with China Eastern who were… well, they got me there!

    I managed to jump straight in a taxi, who took me to the Grand Mercure Urumqi Hualing hotel for around RMB40. While this hotel is a little bit more pricey that your average Youth Hostel, I managed to get a pretty good deal AND it was well worth the price. 10/10 do recommend!

    One of the great things about the hotel was their concierge, who were able to organise tours for me after I gave them a list of things that I wanted to see. They did all the leg work while I sipped coffee in my luxurious room. And, when I was feeling a bit more adventurous, they pointed me in the right directions. I’d made friends with this 19-year-old kid who worked at the front desk, and we spent my second last night in Urumqi wondering the town looking for a bar to show the Australia v England Rugby World Cup match. We couldn’t find it, so we ended up staying out till 5am at some Russian bar.

    I quickly fell in love with Urumqi. There was something about the atmosphere in the city that was really lovely. The snow-covered mountains in the distance gave the city this really insular feeling, and I think knowing I was in the most remote city in the world really made an impact on me. I was walking through the streets partly feeling like I was in a travel documentary, knowing that not many Westerners had seen this part of the planet, thus sufficiently stroking my ego.

    I highly recommend the Bazaar. Yes, it is filled with your tacky tourist knick-knacks, but the food there is brilliant and the architecture around the place is very interesting. The Urumqi Museum was interesting too, but I wouldn’t spend longer than a couple of hours there. Hongshan Park was quite nice, but the two highlights of the trip were walking the back streets of the a Uyghur district that I can’t remember the name of (helpful on a travel blog, I know) and getting to the Centre of the Asian Continent Monument.

    The Uyghur whose name escapes me was recommended to me by the concierge at the hotel and had a lot of really nice restaurants, which ranged from local Xinjiang, Chinese, Russian and Western cuisine. There was no denying it was a Uyghur region as even the Han Chinese were the odd ones out here. I ducked down a back alley and came across this gigantic mosque just at prayer time, which was really lovely. I walked into a sports store and the shopkeeper literally just followed me around, jaw-dropped that a Westerner had just walked into his shop. Just down the back alley, as I passed kids playing with a worn soccer ball and joking and laughing in their native tongue, were a number of restaurants doing the classical Xinjiang barbecue, which was too die for a dirt cheap too. Unfortunately, I had to retreat to the hotel soon after that, as dead on 8pm the street was overrun by police due to past incidents in the area.

    A tour of the Centre of Asian Monument was organised by the concierge at the hotel (they really were brilliant). The monument is supposedly the geographical centre of the Asian continent, although I’m not entirely sure how they’ve measured that. It’s a good 100km or so outside of Urumqi, and the only possible way to get out there was by taxi. At about 10am, this taxi that looked like it was only held together by sticky tape and the hopes and prayers of the driver pulled up. In I hopped, and I sat in near silence as this hunk of shit made it’s way over around pot holes the size of some New Zealand cricket ovals. These things were massive, and we’d since left behind all urbanisation. If this taxi broke down or fell into one of these potholes in the road, I was a dead man. Somehow, we made it, and this monument was dead. While that might be a turn off to many, it added to the charm of the thing and really made you felt like you were in the dead centre of the Asian continent. There was desert reaching out to snow-capped mountains, and there was not a sound to be heard. It was a little bit moving for this Aussie kid from the suburbs of Melbourne, when I realised I was literally in the middle of nowhere.

    Anyways, all in all, Urumqi was fantastic. Yes, maybe some planning is needed for it to be such a success, but don’t be quick to write it off!

    • Sounds like one hell of an experience, mate. I wish I’d given Urumqi more of a chance, as we just blew through it and skipped across to Kashgar the next day.

      Would you be interested in doing a guest post on your time there? I’d love a different perspective!

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