The northwestern part of China becomes more like Central Asia than Eastern Asia. The climate is extremely arid and dry, but the terrain is some of the most beautiful in China. It is here that the historic Silk Road snaked from its Eastern terminus at Xi'an across the mountains and deserts through Central Asia an on to Europe. Travelers will feel the extremes of Chinese weather when traveling here.
Learn more about the weather in Northwest China's major cities, as well as what to expect during each season and what to pack:
Major Cities in Northwest China
Tianshui has a cold, semi-arid climate that is influenced by the city's location in the Jie River valley. It experiences four distinct seasons, with cold and dry winters and warm and humid summers. Winter temperatures average around 28 F (-2 C), while summer temperatures usually are about 73 F (23 C). The wettest season spans June to September.
Xining has a pleasant climate that has earned it the nickname of China's "Summer Resort Capital." Summers are cool and the city generally experiences a cold, semi-arid climate. January temperatures average 19 F (-7 C), while July climbs into the mid-60s (17 C). It's one of the warmest locations in Qinghai. The city is mostly dry and sunny.
Xi'an temperature climate is influenced by the East Asian monsoon seasons. The city experiences hot, humid summers, cold winters, and dry spring and fall seasons. There's occasionally snow during the winter, but it doesn't last very long. Xi'an is also subject to dust storms in early spring, as temperatures increase. Summer thunderstorms are common, too. Temperatures hover around freezing in January but increase to an average of 80 F (27 C) by July.
Yinchuan's cold desert climate means minimal rainfall (7.32 inches annually), dry winters, and short summers. Temperatures in January are chilly, averaging just 18 F (-8 C), and summers are quite cool, reaching 74 F (24 C) in July. The temperature variation between day and night is typically quite considerable, due to the city's arid climate.
Urumqi is a continental, semi-arid climate that sees vast differences between summer and winter temperatures. July's daily average is 75 F (24 C), whereas January is downright frigid, averaging around 9 F (-13 C). The average annual temperature is 44 F (7 C), but temperatures as cold as -43 F (-41.5 C) have been experienced in the past.
Winter in Northwest China
Let's start with winter because the region gets the most extreme weather during this season. Temperatures drop to way below freezing. Some areas close for the season. For example, tourist hotels don't operate from the end of October through April along the Karakoram Highway in Xinjiang, and you'd be miserable looking at the Buddhist paintings inside the Mogao caves in December. Trust us.
The bottom line is, Northwest China is pretty forbidding during this time of year, and if you're traveling for pleasure, you might want to save it for the rest of the year.
What to Pack: The warmest gear you have! Bulky sweaters and layers are an absolute must, as are winter accessories like a scarf, hat, and gloves.
Spring in Northwest China
Spring is undoubtedly a milder time of year but it's still going to feel very chilly until late May. That said, things in the region green up quite a bit and the tourists are few and far between so spring is an excellent time to travel to Northwest China.
What to Pack: While your heaviest coat can take a break, you'll still want some cozy duds for your spring trip. Think long-sleeve layers and long pants for most days.
Summer in Northwest China
Summer is high season in the regions. It is generally hot and very dry. There is very little rainfall here in summer months, and daytime temperatures can get above 100 F (37 C). The nighttime temperatures drop radically with the sunset so evenings can be cooler and very pleasant. Northern Gansu (Silk Road Hexi Corridor and Dunhuang) in August is delightful.
What to Pack: Daytime temperatures in northwest China can be brutally hot, but nights can be much cooler. Pack lightweight clothing for the daytime, along with a light jacket or sweatshirt for wearing during the evenings.
Fall in Northwest China
Fall is also an excellent time to go, although depending on when you travel, you might be getting into the late season (some places close to tourists after the October break). Xinjiang in October is quite lovely: Warm and comfortable during daytime sightseeing, but cools off in the evening.
What to Pack: You might need a jacket along the Karakoram Highway where the altitude is high, but in general, days are warm and pleasant for daytime sightseeing. Jeans and T-shirt, with a light sweater for cooler days, are appropriate much of the time.