For travellers arriving from western China or Central Asia, this will be the first truly Chinese city on your route, and the first chance to witness the consumer boom that is sweeping the high streets of China, in the shape of smart department stores and designer clothes boutiques. So vital has the city become as China's most westerly industrial outpost that in 1992 it was officially decreed a "port" to enable it to impose the special low rates of tax, normally permitted only in port cities such as Shanghai and Xiamen, as a means of luring in capital; an unusual distinction, to say the least, for the city that the furthers away from the sea.
If you're coming from eastern China, however, the city may not seem particularly exciting, given its lack of historical identity. Nevertheless, it does have lively Uigur bazaars, as well as a certain pioneering feel to it - the shiny, new highrise office buildings and hotels downtown seem to suggest a great metropolis, until you notice the barren, scrubby hillsides just around the corner and realize that the whole place has fairly recently been dropped into the desert. Apart from this, the main reason to visit Urumqi is to arrange a trip to Tian Chi (Heaven Lake), four hours east of the city by bus.
Urumqi does not have a long history. Under the name of Dihua it became the capital of Xinjiang in the late nineteenth century. During the first half of the twentieth century the city was something of a battleground for feuding warlords - in 1916 Governor Yang Zengxin invited all his personal enemies to a dinner party here, and then had their heads cut off one by one during the course of the banquet. Later, shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Soviet troops entered the city to help quell a Muslim rebellion; they stayed, in one form or another, until 1960. Urumqi began to emerge from its extreme backwardness only with the completion of the Lanzhou-Urumqi rail line in 1963. This more than anything helped to integrate the city, economically and psychologically, into the People's Republic. And with the opening of the Urumqi-Almaty rail line in 1991, the final link in the long-heralded direct route from China through Central Asia to Europe was complete.