Somewhere between Heaven and Urumqi
We cannot avoid Urumqi, although its reputation as a Wild West town does not make it sound attractive. It is a major transportation hub in Xinjiang and to get from Kashgar to Turpan, we must pass through it.
Whereas Kashgar still retains some traces of its Uighur traditions, Urumqi has become a completely Han Chinese town. It looks glitzy and high-rise and is dominated by busy highways. Our hotel is in a Uighur-dominated part of town – it is a Uighur establishment – but it is not a good advertisement for the culture. ‘Brothel chic’ is not a look to strive for. It is our least favourite inn.
Chinese tourists do flock to Urumqi, in fact. They want to go to Tian Shi – ‘Heaven Lake’ – up in the Tian Shan mountains under the shadow of Bogda Feng (5,445 m). The lake is such an attraction that tourists are no longer allowed to drive all the way to it, but must transfer to a huge fleet of shuttle buses for the last 30 km. It is undeniably beautiful – and undeniably over-developed as an attraction. The Kazak farmers who used to pasture their sheep on the shores of the lake are no longer allowed to do so and now staff a ‘tourist village’ within the attraction.
With relief, we drive out of Urumqi and head for the Turpan Depression, the second lowest place on Earth. Turpan has a reputation as a slightly scruffy backwater which grows amazing grapes. Much more our scene!