Urumqi is the capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and is also the political, economic and technological center of the province. The city is 900 meters (2,950ft) above sea level and lies just below the northern Heavenly Mountains (tianshan). It is by the far the most densely populated city in the region, with over 1 million people. Unlike much of Xinjiang, the population in Urumqi is predominantly Han Chinese.
During the Western Han dynasty (206BC-24AD), the area around modern Urumqi was turned into military garrisons in an attempt to turn the grasslands into an agricultural area. Tang dynasty rulers (618-907AD) also established their presence in the region in order to promote trade in the northern Silk Road. In the 18th century, the Qing dynasty renamed the city Dihua, or ‘to enlighten and civilize’ and the area grew with emperor Qianlong’s military expansion into the Junggar region, north of the province. Dihua became the capital of Xinjiang in 1882. The early 20th century brought much political tension to the area with different leaders vying for power and the area was split into Han Chinese, Uighur and Russian enclaves.
When in Urumqi, visitors must see the stunning Heaven Lake (tianchi), which is a 3 hour car ride east of the capital. The pristine lake is surrounded by the snow-capped Heavenly Mountains and is simply breathtaking. Visitors can enjoy the unique experience of sleeping in a traditional Kazakh yurt and can explore the natural landscape on horseback.
Urumqi is also the regional center for road, rail and air travel, and is a point of transit to for those travelling to Turpan and Kashgar as well as out of the country to Russia and Central Asia. Urumqi was not a heavily developed area until 1955, when the discovery of oil in nearby Karamay activated industrialism and economic productivity.