Ürümqi has become a travel hub for those heading between China and Central Asia. The lovely new terminal at the airport handles an ever-increasing number of international flights, including services to Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Siberian Russia. Third-party nationals will, in many of these cases, need to have visas in advance – check with your local embassy for details. The two visas that you can get in Ürümqi are for Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, although many nationalities can now get a Kyrgyz visa on arrival and visa situations are always subject to change – check ahead and arrive at the embassy as early as possible.
Ürümqi has also become a popular pit stop on the bicycle route between China and Central Asia – at certain times of the year, cyclists seem to outnumber “normal” backpackers. The city’s hostels are great places to swap useful information with other cycle nuts, either in person or through guestbooks.
Overland to Kazakhstan
Ürümqi has a couple of land connections to Kazakhstan. Sleeper trains depart around midnight on Saturday and Monday for Almaty (阿拉木图, ālāmùtú), and at the same time on Thursdays for Astana (阿斯塔娜, āsìtănà). Returning trains leave Almaty around midnight on Saturdays and Mondays, and Astana on Tuesday afternoons. In Ürümqi, tickets (¥1100 to Almaty, ¥1300 to Astana) can be bought from the ticket office inside the Ya’ou Hotel next to the main train station (daily, 10am–1pm & 3.30–7.30pm). The journey to Almaty takes around thirty hours, eight of which are spent at the border changing the carriages’ wheels to fit Kazakh rails.
The bus journey to Almaty is around ten hours shorter – services run from Ürümqi’s long-distance bus station most days of the week – again, the schedule is continually changing; tickets cost around ¥400. These services pass through Yining, and it’s possible to head there first on local transport to break the journey.