How to travel from Almaty in Kazakhstan to Urumqi in China without flying. Taking the Almaty to Urumqi bus is the easiest option. I have made this journey many times and detail below all you need to know.
How often is there a bus from Almaty to Urumqi?
Buses go from Almaty to Urumqi every day at 07:00 am.
How much does a bus ticket cost from Almaty to Urumqi?
A ticket for the Almaty to Urumqi bus costs 16,000 tenge ($42)
How long is the journey from Almaty to Urumqi?
The journey takes around 20 hours depending on time spent crossing the border.
How long does the border crossing take?
The border crossing usually takes around 3 hours.
Almaty to Urumqi – Bus or Train?
Unless you are desperate to take the train, there really is no point at all in doing so. It is 3 times the price of the bus, a longer journey and there are only 1 or 2 trains per week, as opposed to the daily buses.
Almaty to Urumqi Train
Details are sketchy about the train service and it’s not possible to book online. The best advice is to go to Almaty 2 Station and enquire at the ticket office there (it will help if you speak Russian).
Train 53 (K9796 in China) departs Almaty 2 Station every Tuesday (in summer there may be an additional train).
The total distance is 1,359km (651 miles) and the trip duration is approximately 25 hours.
The ticket costs around $120 and must be booked through a travel agent or at the station in Almaty.
Almaty to Urumqi Bus
You can buy a ticket for the Almaty to Urumqi bus at Sayran Bus Station on Ulitsa Tole Bi (Tole Bi Street). Tickets to China can be bought at window 3 and cost 16,000 Tenge ($42). There is a daily bus that departs at 07:00 and it’s best to buy your ticket a day in advance.
The bus is a sleeper bus with approximately 30 beds which are comfortable enough. The journey takes approximately 20 hours depending on how long you spend at the border (usually around 3 hours) and stops every few hours for toilet and rest breaks (there is no toilet on board).
Almaty to Urumqi – The Journey
After leaving Almaty the bus takes the newly paved E 012 road all the way to Khorgas. It used to stop in Zharkent for lunch, but now due to the shorter journey on paved highway, lunch stop is in China. The journey time to the border is around 5 hours.
When you reach the border between Central Asia and China the bus will stop before entering the customs zone and you will need to get off the bus and line up outside with your passport (you can leave everything on the bus for now).
Border guards will check that you have a Chinese VISA before letting you back on the bus. The bus will then pull up to the main entrance of the new customs building and here you must take everything off the bus including stowed baggage.
Ensure you have your Kazakhstan entry card and passport ready for inspection and line up at one of the booths. I guard with a docile German Shepherd will do the rounds making sure no one has anything they shouldn’t have.
The guards may question you about where you have been but this usually seems pretty conversational rather than any sort of interrogation.
I can say that on my many crossings to and from Kazakhstan the officials have always been extremely friendly, helpful and inquisitive. Unfortunately the same can’t be said of their Chinese counterparts a couple of kilometres away.
There are clean toilets and a small shop located in the new customs building so it’s a good opportunity to pick up some snacks and water for the journey ahead.
Once everyone is through wait outside for the bus to reappear and then get back on for the short hop over to the Chinese side. Again, leave the bus with all your belongings.
Once you reach the vast edifice that represents Chinese customs you must first go through a large x-ray machine along with all your bags. On my last trip however only the bags went through, but on 3 or 4 previous occasions everyone had to pass through the machine.
Pick up a Chinese entry card and fill in your details (name, passport and VISA number, address in China and signature). It’s always useful to have a pen handy when crossing a land border!
Before getting to the border, ensure you delete any pictures you don’t want the Chinese officials to see as they now go through your phone in great depth (delete any references you may have to Tibet, the Dalai Lama, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tiananmen Square or anything sensitive)
While queuing you will likely be questioned by a border guard about your travel plans in China. After passport control anyone non-Chinese will be directed to an enclosed seating area and made to hand over your phone for inspection.
I was caught out and called over to explain a couple of memes that were a little critical of Chinese policy. They made me delete them after the official went away to seek advice on what to do with me!
After the Chinese officials have finished snooping on your phone, and possibly installing spyware on it, you will then go to a second x-ray machine to have your bags checked again.
Once through, you will usually have to wait a while for the bus to get through and this takes a lot longer than on the Kazakh side. Useful to have water and sunscreen as there isn’t much shade.
Once the bus returns you can get back on with all your belongings and then you will drive to the small bus station in Khorgas (with one or two police checkpoints to go through first). Here you will stop for 40 minutes to an hour for lunch/dinner depending on the time.
There is a row of restaurants behind the bus station, a few small shops and a bank across the street where you can withdraw Chinese Yuan if you don’t already have any. Sometimes there will be black market traders around the bus station with rates around 54 Tenge to the Yuan.
After leaving Khorgas the bus will take the G30 Gouzigou Expressway to Urumqi. Keep your eyes peeled as you pass Sayram Lake as the scenery here is beyond stunning. In winter the frozen water reflects the brooding mountains onto the lake and in summer it gleams alongside the green sloping hills which are dotted with yurts.
The bus will stop a few times during the night and you should arrive at Urumqi Railway Station at around 05:00 or 06:00 the following morning.
Need a VPN for China? Discover the best Virtual Private Network for travelling in China.
Taking a train in China? Check out my guide to buying train tickets in China.
About the author:
Steve Rohan is a writer from Essex, England. He has travelled to over 60 countries, lived in China and Hong Kong, and is now living the digital nomad life on the road.
Steve prefers “slow travel” and has covered much of Europe and Asia by train, bus and boat.
Where I am now: Yerevan, Armenia 🇦🇲