But today the same winds that struck fear into the traders of the Silk Road, swallowing whole caravans in blinding storms of dust, are being used to power plans for a new, green revolution for China's energy-hungry economy.
At Dabancheng, a few miles outside the city, great forests of windmills stretch to the horizon, their blades beating out a lazy rhythm that belies the sudden urgency with which China's rulers are now investing in renewable energy.
The speed with which China is now ramping up its commitment to alternative energies has caught even the most optimistic analysts by surprise, with new green edicts being issued from Beijing on an almost weekly basis.
Last week officials pledged to generate 100 gigawatts of electricity from wind power by 2020, more than tripling the original target of 30GW laid down in a national energy strategy published just 18 months ago.
"The pace of change is unimaginable from just three or four years ago," shouts Yan Weijiang, a director of the Xinjiang Wind Energy Company over the roar of the wind. "If you had talked to me in 2003 or 2004 I would not have believed this was possible."
Mr Yan, who started his career working in coal-fired electricity generation with the state giant PetroChina, said the introduction of a Renewable Energy Law in 2006 offering state subsidies for wind power had been the initial "game-changer" after years of slow growth.
Public attitudes in China towards the environment have also started to change. In the wind-fields of Dabancheng the first 13 windmills, bought from Denmark and erected in 1989, are now used primarily as a tourist attraction.
On the dusty road into Urumqi Chinese families stop to have their pictures taken in front of giant white propellers, and some newly married couples even come to the wind farms for their official wedding photographs.