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The Heart of Asia:

Urumqi, the capital of Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, a glistening pearl in China's remote northwest, is also Asia's geological heart, attracting generations of settlers from all across the country or even the world. In the past two hundred plus years, these settlers have built Urumqi from a pasture into a regional economic, political and cultural center. No other cities in world are so closely linked to the snowcaps; no other cities in the world are so distant from the ocean, but still tolerate a variety of different cultures.

From the Persian merchants who came to the east along the Silk Road to the Tianjin peddlers who marched with General Zuo Zongtang's troops to the place, Urumqi has attracted people with diverse backgrounds since its first day of existence. A potpourri of cultures has contributed significantly to the development and glamour of the heart of the Asia.

Brief introduction

The word "Urumqi" is originally a Mongolian term, meaning "beautiful pasture", just as it once was. In the Han Dynasty (206BC-220), the government ordered the garrison troops and newly settled peasants to open up the land for cultivation of food grains. In the Sui Dynasty (581-618) when the place was the border area, local inhabitants crossed the boundary for trade. In 702 during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the troops and local peasants continued the tradition of the Han Dynasty and built some castles, gradually transforming the place into an important town along the Silk Road. At the beginning of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the original town was devastated by war. In the 28th year of the Qianlong Reign (1763), the government of the Qing Dynasty built a new city and named it "Dihua", which was chosen as the provincial capital when Xinjiang became a province in 1884. In 1953, the city resumed its name of "Urumqi",

Urumqi is now the biggest city in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region with a population of 1,441,500 that includes 43 ethnic groups such as the Uygur, Han, Hui, Kazak, Xibe, Manchu and Russia. As a modern and dynamic municipality in China's remote west, Urumqi still retains the ancient flavor of Western Regions.

Occupying an area of 83 square kilometers and an altitude range of 680-920 meters, Urumqi is composed of seven districts and one county. Urumqi is located at the north foot of Tianshan Mountain, bordering Bogda Peak, which is the highest in the eastern section of Tianshan Mountain in the east. The city opens to the Juggar Basin on the west and north, and thousands of miles of Tianshan Mountain forest belt is situated on its south.

The typical continental climate contributes to the great temperature difference between daytime and evenings. The average annual temperature is 5.7 degrees Celsius and the annual precipitation is less than 300 millimeters, contributing to a dry climate.

The most distant city from the ocean

Even at its nearest point, Urumqi is more than 2,500 kilometers away from the sea. No other city in the world is more distant from the ocean than Urumqi. This distinctive geological feature has also influenced the city's culture. In a world where transportation and exchange plays vital roles, Urumqi's location definitely hampers its modernization, and thus seemingly alienates Urumqi from the center of modern civilization. But this inconvenience has helped found the city's unique glamour and distinguishes Urumqi from any other place in the world.

For most people, Urumqi is not only a geologically remote city, but also a psychologically and culturally one.

Erdaoqiao Market

A local saying goes that if you have not been to the Erdaoqiao Market, you have not really been to Urumqi. The market is located on the southern section of Jiefang Road. The place, mostly inhabited by the Uygur Ethnic Group, is a traditional commercial center of Uygur handcrafts, thus contributing to its distinctive Uygur flavor, just like the bazaars in South Xinjiang's Kashgar. The place is a must for visitors both from home and abroad to buy local products and enjoy the unique Uygur folk customs. Besides the jubilant daytime prosperity, the place also boasts a bustling night market all year round.

The Erdaoqiao area became a leading commercial center in Xinjiang early in the late Qing Dynasty, when it served as the hub connecting the northern and southern suburbs of the old Urumqi city.

Asia's Geological Center

Asia's Geological Center means Asia's most balanced point with the strongest continental characteristics; it is also the furthest point from the shores. With more than two years of measures and inspections by the China Academy of Science's Xinjiang Geological Institute, scientists finally calculated the position of Asia's Geological Center at 43°40′37″ north latitude, and 87°19′52″ east longitude. The center, based in the Baojiacaozi Village of Yongfeng Town at the north foot of Tianshan Mountain, is about 30 kilometers to the northeast of Urumqi.

An 18-meter tall symbolic tower has been built at the point of Asia's Geological Center. The tower's body, slated with granite, is made of reinforced concrete. The building seems to be shaped like the letter "A", the short form of Asia. On the top of the building is an iron ball with a diameter of 2.5 meters, representing the earth. A plummet hangs beneath the iron ball. The circular cone at the end points to Asia's geological center on the map painted on the tower's base. Surrounding the tower are two layers of round banister made of white marble, respectively with diameters of 30 and 60 meters.

The center boasts unique educational and scientific significance. What's more, the special geological position has also added mystery to this attraction both for domestic and foreignvisitors.

Red Hill

Red Hill, 910 meters above the sea level at the highest point, is located in the downtown area, on the east bank of the Urumqi River. Its spectacular shape resembles a mighty wriggling dragon at the very center of the city.

The 1.5-kilometer (km) long and one-km wide hill is reddish-brown, hence its name of Red Hill. Stretching from the east to the west in Urumqi city, the hill is dotted with small pavilions and at the top stands a nine-storied, gray-brick pagoda called Zhenlong Pagoda (Pagoda to Suppress Dragons), 8 meters (26.3 feet) high, facing Yamalike Hill.

According to legend, in 1785 and 1786 the city suffered from severe river flooding, supposedly caused by a vicious dragon. If the two mountains (Red Hill and Yamalike Hill) joined, the Urumqi river would be blocked and drown the city. In 1788, Shang An, Urumqi's governor, had two pagodas built at the top of each hill to suppress the dragon. Now the pagoda still remains intact.

There used to be many famous buildings on the hill. During the time of the nomadic Oyrat Tribe, an "Ebo" - the name for a kind of cairn used by the tribesmen to worship and offer sacrifice to their gods was built here; in the Qing, the Temple of the Jade Emperor, the Temple of the Great Buddha and the Palace of the Dipper were built at the foot of the hill. Those splendid temples used to hold Buddhist activities and attracted swarms of worshippers. Unfortunately warlords later burned them down.

Now with emerald greenery, the Red Hill is a landmark of the city. With a panoramic view on the top, it is one of the best places to enjoy the scenery of Urumqi.

Southern Pasture or White Poplar Valley

Tianshan Mountain is located between the Tarim Basin and Juggar Basin with three different sections. Southern Mountains generally refers to the area at the northern foot of Karawuquntag Mountain, which is a spur on the northern section of Tianshan Mountain.

West White Poplar Gully, is located 75 km south of Urumqi, in the Southern Mountain. Traveling through this narrow verdant gully is a unique experience for sightseers who love natural scenery like snowcapped peaks, dragon-spruce trees and wild flowers.

A waterfall about 2,100-meters-wide cascades down. The valley itself has an annual precipitation of 500 to 600 millimeters. Screened by snow-capped peaks and dotted with tall and straight dragon spruce trees, it is an ideal place for an excursion. The Kazakhs usually spend summer here between May and October and graze their herds. Visitors can take a horseback tour guided by local Kazakhs. In a traditional yurt, hospitable host will welcome you with fragrant milk tea, mare's milk, cheese and roasted lamb. The horse-racing and traditional Kazakh dancing are amazing.

More spectacular landscape comes at the far end of the valley - a 2-meter-wide waterfall cascading 40 meters down, roaring with mist. It makes you feel refreshed and relaxed.

To get to this area is a bit difficult, but there are some buses from the north end of Renmin Park off Guangming Lu.

Shaanxi Mosque

Situated on the north of South Heping Road, Shaanxi Mosque was first established at the end of the 18th century, and was rebuilt by the ethnic Hui people who migrated from Northwest China's Shaanxi Province. Now it is the biggest mosque for the Hui people in Uygur. The whole building is made of post and panel structure. At the front is a grand 10-meter tall hall, which is delicately decorated. On the archway, the Koran is very finely carved.

 

Southern Mosque

Located near the south gate of Urumqi, and repaired in 1902 and 1987, it is an important mosque in Urumqi city.

Embraced by four minarets, the vaulted mosque, grand and imposing, expresses the elegant characters of Islamic architecture. The mosque's main body, in the shape of a tower, consists of four stories, two underground and two above. The underground stories contain shops and living areas for Muslims while the two overground ones are used as a prayer hall and seminary. Two walls of the passageway leading to the prayer hall are decorated with carved orchids, plums, bamboo and lotuses. The compound also includes a washing room for use before prayers

Tartar Mosque

Located at the southern end of Jiefang Lu with an area of 3,000 square meters, Tartar Mosque, also known as Yanghang Mosque, was built in 1897 with private donations from the Tartar Community. Decorated with crescent and wood-and-brick geometric carvings, the dome takes the shape of an octagonal pyramid, a traditional Tatar architecture style. This mosque is the main center of worship for Muslims in Urumqi, containing a chapel that can hold over 1000 people at a time. The mosque is now open to the outside world, and tourists, including women, can visit it by getting advance permission.

Xinjiang Museum

Xinjiang Museum is located along the Altai Road in Urumqi's downtown area. The museum boasts a large amount of various relics, and thus is regarded as a base for historical, patriotic and cultural educations.

Established in 1953, this museum covers an exhibition area of 7,800 square meters. The museum was first an agriculture exhibition hall before changing into the Xinjiang Museum in 1962. The building is characterized by its strong Uygur and Russian flavors. An 18-meter green-tiled dome stands in the main hall, with walls which are decorated with enormous murals.

The articles exhibited in this museum are mainly archaeological treasures from the Silk Road and other local cultural relics. Over 50,000 items including silk, pottery and porcelain, terra-cotta figures, weapons, scriptures are collected here. Also on exhibition are some mummies discovered in the vast desert, among which the one named "sleeping beauty" is the most famous. Buried for more than 3,800 years, it is the earliest and best-preserved mummified body in China. The usual exhibitions include clothing, household utensils, handicrafts, hunting and musical instruments as well as different types of Uygur "yurts", giving a vivid introduction to local customs and cultures.

These are just some of the many treasures that Urumqi has for tourists and adventurers. With something for everyone, a stay in Urumqi will prove memorable for people of all backgrounds. After all, the city is a potpourri of diverse and vibrant ethnicities as well as natural wonders.