Urumqi, China may not be as well known as say, Beijing, but it is actually a likely place that you will wander through if you are doing some traveling between China and various Silk Road countries, like Kyrgyzstan. Urumqi is actually one of the places to visit in China if you want a taste of cities that used to be major hubs on the Silk Road. Located at the foothills on the north side of the Tian Shan Mountains that stretch into China, today Urumqi is home to roughly 50 different nationalities and is also the capital of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Sadly, people visiting China are not often aware of all the options available to them of things to do in Urumqi and simply use it as a stepping stone from one place to the next. Actually, there are several good China sightseeing destinations in Urumqi. Here are a few of them:
Red Hill is like the gateway to Urumqi. This hill, that is quite literally red, is 1.5 km long and 1 km wide and overlooks the city. Across from it is a sister hill known as Yamalike Hill and in between the two is the Urumqi River. According to legend (what cool place doesn’t have an awesome legend attached to it in Asia?), the two hills were once a dragon that tried to flee from the nearby Heavenly Lake and was cut in two by the Heavenly Empress. The dragon become the hills and the sword used to slay him, the Urumqi River. Nowadays, ethnic performances are held on Red Hill and it is surrounded by a lovely park, making it a nice stop for some China sightseeing.
THE GRAND BAZAAR
Also known as the International Bazaar in Urumqi, this bazaar is a great place to meander around and check out the zillions of items on display by different vendors. There are jade stores, carpet merchants, people selling Uygur knives and scarves, musical instruments, clothing, dried fruits and nuts, local pastries, Mongolian goods, etc. There are even people running around the bazaar providing entertainment for shoppers (e.g. tightrope walking). (Just remember, the first price you are told for an item is always way too high; sellers are professionals at picking out people that are traveling to China on vacation and hike up the price. Bargaining is your friend!)
XINJIANG UYGUR AUTONOMOUS REGION MUSEUM
This museum is a MUST when you visit China if you like looking at mummies. The mummies found in this museum are considered one of the greatest archeological finds of the last century because they show that Caucasians lived in this area some 1,500-4,000 years ago, rocking the boat of Asian history as we know it! Extremely well-preserved, these mummies have blonde, red, and brown hair and wore clothing similar to clothing worn in Europe during those time periods. All the details of their origins remain a mystery, but it certainly suggests a link between Europe and Asia that we had not known about before! Random fact: Bill Gates came to this museum to see these mummies while he was on his honeymoon.
Traveling to China has to include checking out some of its natural beauty. If you are looking for relaxing, scenic places to visit in China, just over 100 km to the east of Urumqi is a gorgeous lake called the Heavenly Lake. About 5 square kilometers, Heavenly Lake contains crystal clear water from the melted snowcaps of the Tian Shan Mountains. The lake and its surrounding forests are an excellent place to relax, go hiking, fishing, boating, or horseback riding. There are even Kazakh yurts set up around the lake where you can get experience a bit of nomadic culture if you decide to stay there for the night. The peaceful atmosphere (especially in the evening and at night), starry skies, and tranquil waters make it a fantastic place to spend some down time while you are visiting China.
A BUFFET OF CULTURES
Just as a warning, if you visit China and find yourself in Urumqi, you might find yourself surprised at how non-Chinese it feels. Due to the large amount of people groups here, there is no traditional Chinese atmosphere. In fact, many travelers who speak Russian can get around quite well in Urumqi. Think of it as a transition city between China and the former Soviet countries. For this reason, it provides a kind of buffet of cultural experiences. So take advantage of this unique city and explore all the tastes, sights, and sounds is has to offer while you vacation in China!
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