Black gold transforms remote desert into a modern oasis

It may not be on everyone's travel wish list, but the oil city of Karamay in far northwestern China holds some surprises for those who venture there.
Black gold transforms remote desert into a modern oasis

Thousands of pumpjacks extend as far as the eye can see.

Black gold transforms remote desert into a modern oasis
Yao Minji / SHINE

Wang Yanming, a retired oil field manager in his 80s, has been planting trees here for the past 30 years.

Visiting an oil-production city in the Gobi Desert doesn’t sound like the stuff of travel brochures, but there are some surprising twists that make this remote destination ideal for those seeking something out of the ordinary.

The city of Karamy in northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is famous for its oil and gas rigs, but this man-made oasis also has some breathtaking scenery, salt-of-the-earth residents and unexpected pleasures. Like the fountain in the city, with pivoting nozzles that shoot water high into the air in a changing array of patterns, accompanied by lights and music. Or the mesmerizing sight of hundreds of pumpjacks bringing crude oil to the surface against a backdrop of wind-carved rock and sand sculptures called “yardang.”

The sun rises and sets later here than in most of the country. Every evening in the summer, the city’s residents gather at Karamay Lake to watch the water fountain performance and enjoy the cool breezes that rustle through rows of trees.

A project completed in 2000 transported water from an oasis thousands of kilometers away and created the lake. The water has completely changed the once-arid no-man’s land, where neither man nor animal lived.

“There was literally no grass,” says Wang Yanming, a retired oil field manager in his 80s, who has been planting trees here for the past 30 years. “Thousands of workers left every year because they couldn’t handle the tough conditions here. I wanted to do something about that, and trees were the first thing to come to my mind. At first, even the Siberian elm barely survived.”

With the help of the families of oil field workers, he persevered, creating what today is a landscape of trees and greenery.

Karamay means “black oil” in Uygur language. Oil was discovered here in 1955 and the first settlement began in 1958.

“Before we arrived, we all imagined a place of great hardship,” says Tang Huizhong, a Shanghai government official recently sent to support Karamay’s development, along with about 20 other officials, doctors and teachers.

“But Karamay completely surprised us from the moment we drove into the city,” he says. “It was much more modern than we expected. What’s difficult is to change the stereotyped image that tends to put tourists, industry leaders and others off. You really have to see it to believe it.”

Indeed, the city today has a population of about 400,000, sitting on a plateau 400 meters above sea level. Its modern high-rise buildings and sleek highways are a dramatic departure from the early years. There are amenities such as a large city park, a golf course, a library, a science and technology center, a conference hall and an Olympic-sized public swimming pool. In 2012, it was the richest per-capita city in China.

Now approaching its 60th birthday, Karamay is celebrating the blood, sweat and tears of all those who came here to create a miracle in the desert.

“There was nothing: no water, no houses, no grass,” says 74-year-old Yan Zhengsu, who was among the first to settle here in the late 1950s and early 1960s. “There was only the wind that blew every day. We dug cellars to sleep in, built dry toilets and had to work with rudimentary supplies. What you see today is truly amazing, and I’m proud that I helped make it happen.”

Yan is now retired and happy to stay put. Her son is a driver for the oil field, and his daughter works in an office, digitizing industrial data for research.

Black gold transforms remote desert into a modern oasis
Yao Minji / SHINE

Urho Devil City

This area was once crossed only by nomads and intrepid explorers. Many who came here got lost and never returned.

Ancient people thought the area was home to devils. Urho Devil City, about two hours’ drive from Karamay, takes its name from the old superstition. Urho means “animal trap” in Mongolian. The name comes from a folk tale about a beggar exiled to the desert, who survived by trapping small animals to eat.

In the Uygur language, yardang means steep hills, and Urho Devil City has one of the most famous sites in China for the wind-carved rock and sand formations.

Millions of years ago, the area was a huge lake. As the water disappeared, the lakebed rose and was sculpted by wind over the centuries. The site attracts many campers and photographers.

“You can let your imagination run wild here,” says Wang Dan, a freelance photographer from Sichuan Province, who visits Urho regularly. “The yardang formations take on different appearances at different times of the day.”

One can choose to walk through the twisting park or take a tourist cart equipped with audio guides that explain the names of different formations. For example, one looks like a man’s face on one side and a softer, more feminine face on the other. It’s called the “Devil Couple.”

Other formations resemble sea lions and peacocks. A row of tall formations is called “Men’s Power.”

Archeologists have excavated fossils of dinosaurs, pterosaurs and plesiosaurs here. The park has a new dinosaur section, especially popular with kids.

Black gold transforms remote desert into a modern oasis
Yao Minji / SHINE

The Black Oil Hill

Bubbling oil

At the edge of the Karamay is Black Oil Hill, one of the two asphalt hills in the world where one can see crude oil bubbling out of the ground. A handful of oil wells, recorded as early as the late 19th century, sit along the hills.

At the top of the hill, a statue of a Uygur man stands behind one that is flat like a black mirror. Local legend says the man, who was poor, fell in love with the daughter of a wealthy man. Her parents objected to the match, so the lovers ran away to the hills. While there, the man discovered oil and became wealthy.

A well near the statue is called the “jumping well” because visitors who jump up and down on the asphalt ground near it cause the black oil to bubble out more furiously.

Standing on the hill, one can also see hundreds of pumpjacks extending as far as the eye can see. The rigs pump oil to the surface from thousands of meters below ground. Each pumpjack is inspected daily.

“Each of us has to inspect more than 10 machines in scattered locations,” says Huang Xiumei, who leads a team of inspectors. “On an ordinary day, we probably walk 10 kilometers to finish all the work. In summer, that means working in temperatures of 45 degrees Celsius.”

Black gold transforms remote desert into a modern oasis
Yao Minji / SHINE

Treasure hunting

Guo Jinhua, who is in her 50s, has been hunting treasure in the Gobi Desert near Karamay for the past 10 years. She was among the first to search for golden silk jade.

“Sometimes we drive to other parts of Xinjiang, but this area is the most popular spot because many have gotten wealthy here,” explains Guo, who was wearing necklaces and earrings made from stones she discovered.

For many locals like Guo, treasure-hunting is a hobby and a way to get weekend exercise. Many make gifts out of the rocks they find to give to families and friends.

“You can still find jade here,” says Gao Weiwei, a jade merchant who also organizes treasure-hunting trips. “The area is so vast, and there are layers of rocks and jade that get uncovered by the wind. It’s different every time.”

He adds, “Many people come here hoping to get rich. Some make a little money out of it, but most just enjoy the thrill of hunting. It takes experience and skill, and the sense of achievement when you find something is really overwhelming.”

If you go:

How to get there: From Shanghai, there are direct flights every two days. The trip takes about seven hours. From Urumqi, there are frequent flights and buses. The bus trip takes about four hours.

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