Dunhuang lies at the western...
Dunhuang lies at the western end of the Gansu Corridor, called Hexi Zoulang. The name Dunhuang originally meant 'prospering, flourishing'-- a hint that Dunhuang must once have been an important city. Its position at the intersection of two trade routes was what made Dunhuang flourish. The coming and going of horse and camel caravans carried new thoughts, ideas, arts and sciences to the East and West.
It is said that in the fourth century a Buddhist monk had a vision of 1000 Buddhas, and began to carve grottoes into the sandstone cliff and fill them with buddhist images. They were abandoned and forgotten in around the 11th century until Stein and other archaeologists arrived to carry away huge quantities of manuscripts, textiles and other art objects. However Magao remains a brilliant trove of statues and wall paintings from the 4th to 10th centuries.
Cold...very cold...but warm inside!
Urumqi - or Wulumuqi as it said on the side of the train to Lanzhou - is very cold in winter. It is the furthest place (in Asia? the world?) from the sea, and the geographical centre of Asia is just 50 km to the south.
I arrived on the slightly down-at-heel China Xinjiang Airlines, now part of China Southern, and left on the fabulous T198 train to Lanzhou.
Many of China's ethnic minorities can be seen in Urumuqi, especially in the Erdaqiao market and the streets around it.
However, in ALL the Chinese guidebooks be prepared for constant and wearying messages about how long Xinjiang has been Chinese: to the casual observer it seems paranoid behaviour.
The hardy and frigid climate make the people - Han, Uighur, Kazakh, Tajik, whatever - very friendly and everyone was happy to chat to complete strangers in the frosty streets.
The best time to visit is said to be autumn, from September to late October. Winter too cold, spring too windy, summer too hot.