If you're living in Urumqi, there's a good chance you're already desperate to get out. Luckily, Urumqi's a perfect jump-off point for exploring one of China's most enormous and untraveled regions. Forget about the tourist-trap temples and fake attractions you get in Beijing or Shanghai – you've got the opportunity to explore ancient Silk Road cities and wild frontier regions which are still unblemished by factories, pollution, or traffic regulations.

Here are three options for a quick trip out or an adventurous three-day weekend.
 

Barren Beauty: 3 Unique Travel Destinations around Urumqi
Mogao Caves. Photo: traveltowork.net

1) Nanshan (1-2 days): The best option for a quick escape, Nanshan offers gorgeous mountain/grassland scenery less than an hour away from downtown. To get there, board a cheap bus at People's Park for around 20 RMB.

Nanshan is popular with skiers in the winter and hiking/horseback riding in the spring and summer. It's not only popular with city dwellers; Kazak herdsmen will also move in during the warm months, bringing their flocks and yurts. For the right price (about 70 RMB) curious travelers can spend a night camping and dining with the shepherds.

2) Turpan (1-2 days):
When spring comes around and you're finding yourself sick of winter, try warming up with a toasty trip to Turpan – the nearest point to Hell in all of China. Unlike gray Urumqi, the skies of Turpan are consistently clear and the town is very clean.

Since most of the sights are out of town, the best way to take them all in is to team up with a few other travelers and split a taxi. You can try your luck with the annoying taxi touts at the bus station, or ask other travelers for recommendations. A friendly driver may also take you home to meet the family, or help you find a place to stay in a neighboring village. You'll have to bargain hard; prices seem to range from 50-70 RMB per traveler per day, depending also on the driver's level of English. On no account should you pay more than 280 RMB total per day.

Getting there: Take a bus from the South Bus Station in Urumqi, at the end of BRT lines 2 and 3. Buses leave every one to two hours. When you arrive there are two hotels immediately next to the bus station; one charges 50 RMB a night, the other, 200 RMB. There are several other hotels in town, with the Turpan Hotel being one of the most trafficked by backpackers and Western travelers. They also have a cute little cafe. If it's warm enough outside (i.e., most of the year) you could comfortably camp in the desert or just sleep outside like the locals.

Sights:

- Gaochang Ruins: Remnants of the capital of an ancient kingdom, now eroded to almost nothing. There's not really that much to see here and the ruins can safely be skipped. Admittance costs 20 RMB.

- Jiaohe Ruins: This ancient city is much better preserved than its counterpart at Gaochang, with semi-intact watchtowers, temples, monastery, stupas, and graves. The most interesting parts and views are reached by wandering away from the main tourist trail. Entry costs 40 RMB.

- Flaming Mountains: A (disappointingly non-volcanic) group of sandstone hills which figures largely in Chinese mythology and is also the hottest part of China. At a nearby enclosure (The "Flaming Mountains Museum") you can take pictures next to a giant thermometer for the low price of 40 RMB.

Advice: Skip the museum and just take your picture in front of the mountains.

- Grape Gully: A pleasantly refreshing oasis where China's best grapes are grown. Don't bother going except in late August/September, when the grapes ripen. Admittance costs 60 RMB.

- Turpan Museum: Especially if you're staying at the Turpan Hotel, the nearby (free!) museum is definitely worth a visit, especially if you want to kill an hour before your bus. The mummies there are much "better" than the ones on display in Urumqi.

 

3) Dunhuang (2-3 days)
Even if you don't consider yourself a cavern connoisser, a trip to Dunhuang is a must for any wannabe-China expert. Besides the colossal Buddha statues at the Mogao Caves, there are several other historical sites which feel like something from an Indiana Jones movie.

Getting there: Sleeper buses leave Urumqi from Nianzigou (碾子沟) Bus Station (on BRT line 1) and take about 14 hours; return buses leave Dunhuang at 18-19:00 and arrive at 10-11:00 the next day. There is no return bus on Saturdays. Add at least an extra two hours for police passport checks. Another option is to take the train, which has a more flexible schedule. The downside is that there's no straight route; you'll have to take a train to a bigger city, then wait a couple of hours for the connection to Dunhuang.

Dunhuang is increasingly full of cheap little hostels, situated around the night market, targeting the backpacker crowd (30-40 RMB for dorms). In addition, if you're thrifty/pressed for time/only interested in seeing the Mogao Caves, you could conceivably do the trip in a single day, with several hours left over to explore the city and buy souvenirs before you take the bus or train home.

Mogao Caves: The tourist bus to Dunhuang's raison d'etre leaves about every hour, from 9:00 to 16:00. The route goes from the Silk Road Hotel (between the long distance bus station and the night-market) to the train station and on to the caves. A bus ride to the train station costs 5 RMB; to the caves costs 8 RMB.

The caves themselves cost 160 RMB for a regular ticket, so bring a student ID for a half-priced ticket (I used a library card). You can't explore them on your own, but if you're sufficiently sneaky you can attach yourself to another tour group as your own tour ends.

Other Sights
There are several different bus tours that cover the other sights in the area. Just ask your hostel to arrange it. The buses usually leave at 7:30 and return before 17:00; the bus costs 50-80 RMB. If you only want to go to one or two sites, you can also split a cab. But, as most of these sites are way out of town, expect to spend a few hundred at least.

-  Yumen Pass/Great Wall Section: Remnants of the Western-most outposts of the Great Wall, and the gate beyond which disgraced ministers were forced to ride into exile. Cost: 20/40 RMB.

-  Hecang Ancient City: The very crumbly ruins of an antique city, perfect for philosophical contemplations regarding the futility of human endeavors. Price is included with Yumen Pass.

-  Yapan Landforms: Also known as the "Funny-shaped rocks tour." Somehow Chinese tourists are willing to travel an extra three hours for this stone Rorshach Test. Avoid at all costs. Cost: 55/80 RMB

-  Thousand Buddha Grottoes: A little sibling to the bigger Mogao Buddha Caves. Although interesting, there is no English translation. Cost: 10/20 RMB.

-  Dunhuang Ancient City: A movie set. Yawn. Cost: 55 RMB.

-  Sand Dunes/Crescent Lake: Dunhuang's famous sand dunes are beautiful when admired from afar, but totally not worth the 120 RMB entrance fee. There's a way to sneak in through the fence near the Dune Guesthouse, but the security is fairly tight. If you want to stay longer, Charlie Johng's Dune Guesthouse (located, surprisingly, by the Dunes) organizes camel riding/camping trips over the desert up to a week long. Cost: 250 RMB/day.

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Keywords: travel around Urumqi Xinjiang travel spots weekend trips around Urumqi Turpan Xinjiang scenic spots Urumqi

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