I Love My Neighborhood: Urumqi, Xinjiang (China)

In this series, I ask expats to share the joys of local life they’ve found in their corner of the world. If you’re just joining in now, check out other cities that have been covered so far here.

Kazakh-Yurts-Xinjiang

Today’s post comes from someone I’ve known for over six years — even though we’ve never met in person! Josh and I met back when Twitter was mostly just early adopters, and the China expat community in those days was strong. 

Josh was — and still is — one of the only Westerners I knew living and blogging from Xinjiang, the northwestern territory of China. Flash forward and Josh has since moved back to the US, had a son, and then moved back to Urumqi!

He’s recently written a totally comprehensive travel guide to Xinjiang, and I really enjoyed reading his post explaining the self-publishing process. I’ve asked him to share a little more about his city since Xinjiang in general is still quite underrated, and I think more people should know about this region!

Josh: Why I Love Urumqiheadshot-small

Urumqi is not a place most people say they “love.” In fact, I’m sad to say that most travelers do their best to avoid the city altogether.

As the capital of China’s far west Xinjiang region, a mysterious and ethnically diverse corner of the country, Urumqi is your typical overcrowded, polluted Chinese city.

However, the more I explore the back alleys and hole-in-the-wall restaurants, the more I’ve begun to appreciate this city for what it now is: my home.

For most people, one mention of the word “Xinjiang” conjures up thoughts of riots, ethnic tension and danger. It’s unfortunate that the only news that comes out of this region is bad news, especially since it’s such an awesome place to visit.

I arrived in Xinjiang with my wife during the summer of 2006. Over the next few years we bought a motorcycle and explored as much as we possibly could, which is difficult when you consider that Xinjiang makes up more than 1/6th of China’s entire land area! I’ve worked here, studied here, written a travel book about Xinjiang and even raised a family here.

Throughout our journeys and over the two years that we’ve settled in Urumqi, I’d say that there are three things that have drawn us to stay here: the Uyghur culture, the incredible food and the convenience of adventure travel.

Uyghur-Wedding

Uyghur Culture

My neighbors are a Uyghur family that were born and raised in Urumqi. They don’t look anything like the Han Chinese ethnicity we normally associate with China and yet they speak both Mandarin Chinese and their traditional Uyghur dialect fluently. Most people would probably guess they are from Turkey, Kazakhstan or another Central Asian country.

The first day we moved into the neighborhood they invited us over for a feast of incredible Uyghur food and fun conversation. Despite a difference in worldviews and beliefs, we now regularly celebrate both American and Uyghur holidays together.

One of the reasons I love living in Xinjiang is the opportunity to experience not only the Chinese culture but also the very different Uyghur culture. The Uyghur people are an extremely friendly group who are known across China for their music and dancing.

The best way to witness this aspect of their culture is by attending a Uyghur wedding. I love quietly watching everybody celebrate the occasion through traditional dance. I’ve joined in the festivities in the past but I know now that it is a deceptively hard dance to learn! Personally, I prefer not to look like an idiot.

They also have a proud heritage that has unfortunately been tarnished by riots that happened here in Urumqi back in 2009. Whenever people ask me about Uyghur people I always advise them to reserve any judgment based on what they might have read in the news.

The fact is that Uyghur culture is the secret that makes Xinjiang so special.

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Variety of Food

One of the most frequent comments I hear from travelers as they reminisce about their trip to Xinjiang has to do with food. “Oh man, I miss that delicious laghman!” or, “What I wouldn’t give for another plate of Da Pan Ji!”

In addition to the traditional Chinese cuisine that people all across the country get to enjoy, here in Urumqi, Xinjiang I have the opportunity to sample Uyghur cuisine, famous Hui dishes, traditional Tajik fare, Kazakh food and many others. How awesome is that?

I probably go out to eat more often than I should but I don’t really care. The only thing better than this variety of food in a restaurant is being invited over to a homemade feast.

My family was invited to eat at the home of a Uyghur family in the nearby town of Turpan a couple months ago and we had the time of our lives. Our host made a perfect Uyghur noodle soup with lamb that went down perfectly with pieces of Uyghur flatbread.

We ate in a courtyard home made of the mud brick that is so common in Turpan. A mulberry tree that must have been over a hundred years old provided a delicious dessert following the meal and we all enjoyed the cool of the evening as the sun set behind the nearby grape orchard.

To this day I don’t know what was more memorable: the food or the setting!

Jiaohe-Ancient-City

Adventure Travel

The ancient Silk Road merchants blazed several different routes through Xinjiang, leaving behind traces of now-extinct cultures and religions that are well-preserved thanks to the naturally dry climate of this region.

From my home here in Urumqi I have access to the most fascinating archeological points of interest in Central Asia as well as some of the breathtaking natural scenery in all of China. Most of these places are a simple flight, bus ride or train ride away.

I consider myself more of an outdoor adventurer, which is probably why Xinjiang appeals to me. I’ve participated in multiple day hikes, trips into the mountains and overnight stays in the local Kazakh yurts, a tent-like structure that is easily assembled and disassembled by the Kazakh nomads.

Being centrally located in Urumqi allows me the opportunity to explore as much of the Xinjiang region as possible. Whether it’s a trip on the new high-speed train or a flight to an ancient Silk Road oasis, all of it is easily accessible from where I call home.

Uyghur-people

Don’t write off Urumqi

Oddly, the name “Urumqi” has neither a Chinese or Uyghur origin. It’s a Mongolian word that means “green pastures.”

If you come here expecting green pastures, however, you’ll probably be disappointed. I know I was when I first arrived. After spending a few years here, though, I’ve begun to see the unique culture that this capital of Xinjiang has to offer. It’s a melting pot of Central Asia and is become increasingly important as a trade hub for the region.

There are far prettier places to see throughout Xinjiang and I certainly hope you have a chance to make a visit yourself. When you come, though, don’t write off Urumqi.

The city might surprise you.

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About the author: Josh Summers first moved to Xinjiang in 2006 where he quickly fell in love with the region and people. He currently lives with his wife and 3 year old son in the capital of Urumqi, where he works out of his home office. You can find him on his blog Far West China, and on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Instagram.

All photos courtesy of the author.

 

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Comments

  1. Fascinating! I have to admit I know very little about China and nothing about the Western region, so it was great to have this personal introduction to it.

    • I actually know very little as well! So Josh is definitely my go-to guy for all things Xinjiang :)

  2. I’ve become so enraptured in your Snapchat, I forget there’s a blog, too =)

    I want to stay in a yurt! Still haven’t checked that one off the life list.

    • Haha glad you’re enjoying the snaps Kristin! I think I stayed in a yurt once like ten years ago, but it was a family holiday with my mom and her sisters and I was totally a bratty teenager and didn’t appreciate the experience at all! Would love to do it again properly, haha.

  3. Wow looks amazing! Another place I must visit :)

  4. Oh this is so interesting! This was one of the places I really wanted to visit but didn’t get round to when we lived in Beijing. I’ll definitely be checking out Josh’s blog now.

    • Same, three years in Asia and I still never made it out to the west! There’s just so much to see in Asia…one day though!

  5. tatiana says:

    Can’t congratulate you enough about “I Love My Neighbourhood”! What a great idea!!!!
    I just red most of the articles and enjoyed every single one of them. For a minute I felt like travelling or living in all those cities (which some of them I have visited in the past).

  6. Jenny ekberg says:

    Josh, I think you are so lucky to live there. All my life I have wanted to go to XUAR and I never got the chance. Hoping it will happen before I turn 45 (38 now). Urumqi sounds amazing.
    Kind regards, jenny, Gold Coast Australia