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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.