Urumqi is the capital of Xinjiang, China's largest province. Xinjiang's vast expanse is mostly desert and grassland. Yet, until 16th-century shipbuilding technology advanced and safe, maritime trade routes were charted, Xinjiang's lands weren't quite so empty. They were busy with Silk Road traders on route between central China on the east and Persia, India, the Middle East and the Mediterranean on the west.
Silk Road trade reached its zenith in the 8th century. But even as late as the early 16th century, business was brisk along these ancient desert trails. It's estimated that some three-fourths of the silver pulled by European nations from colonial South American mines found its way east to China as payment for silk and other precious Chinese goods. (Interestingly, much of that same silver turned around and headed back west - now to Europe in the form of exquisite, intricately-crafted silverware!)
As the Silk Road trade grew, so did the towns along the route, including Urumqi. But anyone traveling to Urumqi today in hopes of experiencing the outpost atmosphere of this one-time oasis stopover, will be disappointed. Today, Urumqi, linked in most directions by air, road and rail, is a modern city of 1.5 million with fast-food outlets and a Holiday Inn! Most remaining traces of its Silk Road past are found outside of town - or within its very excellent Provincial Museum.
The museum, divided into various wings devoted to the region's various ethnic groups, showcases everything from 3,000-year-old mummies (as in Egypt, the dry desert sands helped the preservation process) to fine silk paintings. As in most of China's provincial museums, signage - at least for the most important exhibits - is offered in both Chinese as well as English.
Featured Hotel: (subject to change)
No. 5 Xinhua Bei Road Urumqi, 830002 China
Tel: (86) (991) 293 7888 Fax: (86) (991) 284 6666
5-star - 348 rooms
Located in the city center of Urumqi, the Mirage Hotel is close to the city's shops and restaurants. The hotel is about 20 minutes from the Urumqi International Airport. (letstravelchina.com)