Xinjiang, 1,470km (911 miles) NE of Kashgar, 692km (429 miles) E of Yining

Early visitors gave mixed reviews. Missionary Mildred Cable thought the town "has no beauty, no style, no dignity and no architectural interest. The climate is violent, exaggerated and at no season pleasant . . ." However, acerbic American author Owen Lattimore loved Ürumqi "in the spring, when along the liquescent streets the Chinese began to appear in gay colors and flowered silks and satins, and the Turkis, abandoning the reds and purples of their long winter gowns, to put on the white cotton robes of warm weather; and in the beginning of summer, when the early leafage of trees was not yet dulled with dust, and to walk on the city walls at sunset was the crowning glory of the day."

Opinions on the city are still divided, but everyone agrees that Ürumqi is best avoided in winter. Ringed by factories and relying on coal heating, the city sees its first snow coated by a film of soot within hours. But, in spite of its modern Chinese appearance, for those who fly in from the east, Ürumqi provides a tantalizing first taste of a different culture, and there are fascinating markets to explore, all to the backdrop of snow-clad mountains that appear and vanish as the weather (and pollution) allows.

In July 2009, the city became the focus of international news when Uighur anti-Han colonization riots broke out, leaving over 150 Han Chinese dead. The city was locked down, curfews were imposed, and the army rolled in. These tensions aren't about to just disappear, but for the meanwhile, life in the city has returned to normal.