Urumqi, China: The Farthest Inland City Now Welcomes Modernity
June 6, 2016
Urumqi, the farthest inland city in China or 1,500 miles west to Beijing, has started to unveil itself to the world. The city is well known among both domestic and international tourists thanks to the world-heritage Tian Lake and the Silk Road point of Turpan. Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, where Urumqi is settled as a capital city, has a population of 23 million, of which local Uygur residents and Han Chinese account for 10.7 million and 8.4 million, respectively. Unlike other cities in China, Urumqi presents a diverse culture and customs. At Grand Buzzer and beyond, Uygur residents walk through a tiny path and some grab a piece of watermelon for refreshment while they communicate to each other in their own Uygur language. Growing number of Han Chinese appears at a few blocks off from the Grand Bazaar and the Chinese language turns on. International hotel, like Sheraton, and a dozen of KFC stores are all settled in the city. Moreover, luxurious stores, like Coach, Burberry, and Emporio Armani, have recently appeared in a tandem to catch growing local middle-class residents. In the meantime, a rose-gold iPhone 6S Plus is enormously popular in both Uygur and Han residents although the nearest official Apple Store is located in Chengdu, 1289 miles away from Urumqi International Airport. Despite its isolated location, Urumqi is not left behind. Rather the city is well positioned into the next stage of its new development era.
The city of Urumqi is a provincial capital of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and the population of the province hits 23 million while Urumqi’s population is 3.1 million. Per capita GDP of Xinjiang autonomous province and Urumqi are 37,181 yuan and 61,493 yuan, respectively (2013 data). Those numbers are not handsome compared with other inland cities. However, a recent appearance of foreign luxurious chains, like Burberry, GUCCI, and OMEGA is very eye-catching. Along with these stores, a dozen of popular KFC stores widely spread across the city and one Burger King store welcomes in front of Xinjiang Museum, where some foreigners can also stop by. By purely looking at data, it is hard to connect their income levels with such luxurious brands. Even Burger King’s flagship Whooper with medium fries and soda costs local residents whopping 38 yuan, well above the reasonable dishes in a local restaurant, whose noodle soup costs just around 12 yuan.
Urumqi and Its Economy
In coming years, the first subway system is expected to open in the city and this Metro Line 1 will connect the Urumqi International Airport and the city center for greater convenience. Currently, the modes of transportation available in the city are buses and taxis. A bus fare costs very minimal 1 yuan or US$0.15 (exchange rate as of June 3, 2016) while a taximeter kicks off with 10 yuan. As for foreign travelers, taxi is very useful and reasonable. Plus, the chance of taxi fare cheats is low. Unlike big cities in China, Xinjiang people are relatively kind and honest, so are taxi drivers. If you need a direction support, ask security attendants around a bus stop or a police man as well as even a SWAT member standing at a street and they are trying to help you.
Urumqi’s transportation systems are not quite as developed as some inland cities’. Hailing taxi is the best option to travel around the city. (L) BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) is one of the convenient modes of transportation for local commuters in Urumqi. Passengers must go through a security-check point. (R) Local busses are running across the city. It only costs 1 yuan per ride.
It is very common to see a large number of police units as well as SWAT members and militaries across the city due to tightened security after a series of bomb explosions in 2014. Even an entrance of most franchise stores, like KFC and Burger King, international hotels, like Hilton and Sheraton, as well as major shopping malls require security checks before stepping into their properties. City’s modern BRT system, light-rails, do not allow any liquid bottles on board. Please be careful that you are not allowed to take a picture of military units.
SWAT, police, and military units are scattered across the city. (L) Armed forces are positioned in the corner to observe any suspicious activities while the red-colored propaganda poster says, “Nationalism, Democracy, Equality, Fairness, Freedom,” so forth. (R) SWAT units in front of Parkson department store carefully observe pedestrians. However, they are willing to give tourists any directions.
Within such environment, the city is quite modern despite its deeper inland location. The city’s main street is Youhao North Road, where Sheraton stands tall. Next to the hotel, wide-ranged higher-end Maison Mode shopping mall welcomes city’s middle-income consumers. Within the mall, GUCCI, OMEGA, ZARA, and to name a few of foreign brands, line up side by side. In the 800-foot long hallway, shining new Porsche and Mercedes are displayed to attract a few of available potential customers in the city. While Urumqi residents’ per capita GDP is 61,493 yuan, it is well below some inland cities, like Changsha in Hunan province and Guangzhou in Guangdong province. However, it is higher than Chengdu’s per capita GDP in Sichuan province.
(L) Inside Maison Mode, Urumqi’s high-end shopping mall. Popular luxurious brands, such as GUCCI, OMEGA, and Burberry, are all settled in the hallway while Porsche and Mercedes are places in between to attract quietly growing local middle-class consumers. (R) Newly-opened Hilton Urumqi. Unlike Sheraton, which is located in the heart of downtown, Hilton is located far out of the center. Though the spacious and modern room is plus for foreign travelers while they can hail a cab to downtown.
While an official Apple Store has not arrived in the farthest inland city yet, newest iPhone 6 and 6S series are very popular items among local residents. Like other big cities in China, it is easy to find someone holding a rose-gold iPhone 6S in hand when you hit the main street. Although the popularity of iPhone in Urumqi is not comparable at all to that of global Shanghai, where majority of middle-class people own the newest iPhones series. However, its popularity is rapidly growing thanks to increasing people’s mobility between Urumqi and global cities in China. It is very likely that you would see colorful iPhones in hands on a newly-opened subway car, like you see in Shanghai Metro, when the services kick off in coming years.
In an economic-wise, the city is in fact still left behind compared with other inland cities, like Chengdu and Guangzhou, where cities are rapidly turning global. These inland cities have been extensively welcoming foreign capitals, from autos to coffee, since especially China’s accession into the World Trade Organization in 2001. On the other hand, Urumqi has been forgotten because of its isolated location. Plus, the city is under strict surveillance due to a series of bomb explosions back in May 2014. Since then, police, security, and SWAT units are circling around the city. Propaganda advertisements are posted every corner of the city while the central and regional governments encourage unity between Uygur to Han Chinese. Despite such difficult environment in the city, the economic growth of the region is still growing double-digit while the nationwide economy is heading into 6 percent level. Recent appearance of Burger King and Hilton in the city is a solid answer that global companies believe Urumqi’s potential development in the future is in tact.
(L) Xingjian Museum is located right across the street from Burger King. It is free to step into the museum, where visitors can learn Xingjian’s history and culture. (R) Uygur residents are walking in front of typical propaganda poster, which states, “democracy, freedom, fairness, equality, harmony,” and so on. Urumqi’s sustainable economic growth requires harmony between local Uygur and Han Chinese.
Starbucks in Urumqi?
Coffee in Urumqi is not quite popular and it is hard to find coffee shops that offer relaxing atmosphere. What you may find the best is UCC Coffee shops, a cup of coffee from Sheraton, and coffees from fast food restaurants, namely KFC and Burger King. Clearly, there is no third place available for local Urumqi residents yet while Chinese residents in some other inland cities, such as Chengdu and Changsha, have already found their favorite third places. While iPhone popularity quickly grows in the city, local residents with shiny rose-gold iPhone 6S Plus in hand would like to attain further modernity. They like to find a place to sit back, relax, and enjoy their moments with iPhone, books, and friends, like what modern Chinese in global cities do in their daily lives.
(L) Burger King opened its door to local Urumqi residents a few years ago. A cup of hot coffee costs 9.5 yuan at the Western burger chain. Coffee in Urumqi seems not popular yet while it is hard to find a café that offers a third place what Starbucks does in China. (R) One of a few bakery shops in town.
In coming years, it is highly likely Starbucks may open a few stores in central Urumqi, where Sheraton Hotel and Burger King are located close to each other. Between these places, Maison Mode, city’s most high-end department store, welcomes local middle-class consumers to meet their growing demands for foreign goods and services. According to Starbucks, the company is expected to add 500 stores in mainland China each year through 2020 from the current 2,000 plus stores. Global Shanghai is leading Starbucks store counts with 433 (as of February 20, 2016), thanks to their higher income levels. However, the company is aiming on inland cities, such as Chengdu and Xi’an to name a few, for more geographical expansion. Chengdu, China’s largest inland economy, has already welcomed 80 Starbucks stores while 29 stores in Xi’an (as of February 20, 2016). It is no reason green mermaid will show up in the farthest inland city in the near future.