Where the Sun and Moon Meet for Dinner
At a quarter past nine on a scorching summer evening, whilst people living in the coastal cities of eastern China were heading to bed, the sky over Karamay – about 4,200 km from the capital city of Zhejiang Province - was a brilliant shade of blue and glistening under both a bright sun and a clear moon.
A whole new world
After a little aimless exploration of the area surrounding the hotel, I walked across the spotless, brand-spanking new street into a grocery store, where Mr Zhu and his wife were having dinner. Their son and rosy-cheeked niece were glued to the TV, on which the ping-pong semifinal between Japanese player Fukuhara Ai and former Olympic champion Li Xiaoxia played out in a blur of colour. “Go get ‘jiejie’ a chair, will you?” said the family’s patriarch with a fatherly smile as he invited me to join his sweet family dinner time.
“There’s a bunch of fellows here from Jiangsu Province, where I came from. The Jiangsu community here is largely involved in the local construction industry. Where are you from, by the way?” Mr Zhu asked, settling back into a bamboo chair. Meanwhile, his wife treated me to a basket of “milky grapes”, a signature of Xinjiang’s “nature’s bounty”.
“I’m from southwestern Zhejiang,” I answered.
“Well, there are many Zhejiang people here in Karamay, you know. Most of them make a living in the retail businesses.” The man then sent his son off to tend to a group of construction workers who had just walked in for the usual Master Kong Green Tea and Zhonghua cigarettes.
“Why not take a walk down there?” Zhu suggested with the kind of confidence that reassures newcomers. “This part of Karamay also hosts the city’s ‘university town’, where there is the largest medical college in northern Xinjiang as well as the beautiful campus of the Karamay branch of China University of Petroleum. Years ago when I brought my family here, the medical conditions of the city were a drag on the city's image, but things have changed tremendously in the past few years.”
Zhu’s grocery store is one of the recently opened businesses in Bairui Plaza, that is designed to be one of the commercial blocks in the city’s brand new South City – a booming quarter hosting the city’s chicest hotels and cultural and sports facilities. Only a few years ago, however, there was nothing but howling gales and sand storms in this part of Karamay.
“When I was packing for my first year in college in Hebei Province, Karamay had no such thing as a university,” the man’s chatty son said, joining the conversation, “Go take a look at the river landscape down there,” he pointed, “it looks just like the Bund in Shanghai, believe me.”
Later, at 10: 30pm, Zhu’s grocery store welcomed a new army of customers as migrant workers poured in for instant noodles and fresh packets of cigarettes, or just for a casual chat with Zhu after a day of sweat and toil. I backed off a little, leaving the father and son to serve their customers and watched with great interest as to how the Sichuan workers and Zhu haggled tactfully. “This price is for one kilo, you see; we use kilo here instead of jin,” Zhu tried to clarify to a woman who spoke with a Sichuan local dialect too strong for him to figure out what she was trying to say.
“You know what? The construction workers here make far more than enough money to afford the most expensive cigarettes in my place.” Zhu turned to me and bragged. And for me, this information made a great deal of sense as the city likes to reward its hardworking migrants.
Al fresco dining
The next evening I ventured a bit further into a nearby residential block called “Kangcheng”, to experience what is advertised by the grocery guy as “an extremely safe, clean city without such urban sufferings as traffic congestion, packed hospitals and smoggy air”.
What I saw, after a solitary two-hour twilight walk in what is mistakenly believed by many as being “the most dangerous region in China”, breaks
the well-quoted conclusion that “one can decide the width of life, if not extend the length of it”.
Here, in the “safest city in northern Xinjiang”, where the sun goes down more than two hours later than in the rest of China, every day is a long day for one to live not only the width but also the length of life to its fullest.
At ten in the evening, Kangcheng - a residential zone in the “new south” of Karamay - is sizzling with large crowds of diners enjoying al fresco dinners in the many barbecue restaurants. Above the clamour, the sun slowly slips away as the huge moon watches on balefully. The sidewalks of a city that only has a core urban population of 200,000 people are wide enough to play badminton, a fact that is not lost on the sporty residents. Further down Triumph Avenue to the south, the steaming dinnertime spectacle messes into an unmeasured vastness of parklands set against a clear and bright sky that’s tinted by a fierce sunset glow. The scene feels strangely unreal.
“Excuse me, but how far am I from Century Park?” I asked constantly for fear of getting swallowed up by the vastness. At the end my brisk and breezy, sunbaked walk, I found myself in a kind of Peach-Blossom Shangri-la - a wonderland nd of exciting nightlife situated in the legendary Century Park and the adjoining Hanbo Plaza. Time froze as I watched frolicking children enjoying the day’s final embers as lovebirds gathered on the glistening banks of the Karamay River. A Uygur boy was posing happily for his father in the gorgeous night view of the sprawling park, and toddlers were giggling crazily whilst sitting on gaudy rocking horses. Come midnight, the night market at Hanbo Plaza was still bursting with life as waiting staff served worker bees Tsingdao draught beer and grilled Fuhai ‘dog fish’ (a must try local delicacy from Xinjiang).
At one o’clock, I hopped into a taxi to go back to the hotel. “It was no easy life here, let me tell you. It was all Gobi desert when I arrived years ago. Can you imagine building a city into what it is today by digging out all the stones that lie only two to three meters underneath the surface and replacing them with arable soil for grass and trees to thrive? Well, Karamay did it!” sighed the driver, introducing himself as coming from Gansu Province. The man has lived here for over 20 peaceful years.
Where I come from, the city is dubbed a “paradise on earth” and ranks amongst the country’s “happiest cities”, but it took just one night's walk to convince myself of the unfathomable charm of another
“paradise on earth”, located in the northwestern extreme of China. It’s a city beyond description, and under the strong, brisk ultraviolet rays of Karamay's big sky, “happiness” seems more real somehow. Life soaked in the scent of the oil deposits that lay beneath the marvellous Yadan landforms feels more solid, tangible and, when all is said and done, incredibly moving.
A hard knock life
“So how would you like to get here? You can fly to Urumqi first and we’ll have a bus to pick you up if the timing of the landing is good,” said a man from the Karamay government who was trying to assist me.
“What if I miss your bus service?” I asked.
“You can fly to Karamay. Just choose the flight and let me know.”
“Wow”, I replied. I was surprised to hear that there was an airport with regular flights serving such a sparsely populated city.
It was a six-hour ordeal on the plane from Hangzhou to Urumqi, but I had only 35 minutes on a Southern Airlines Boeing plane to take in the surreal vista of Gobi desert that, viewed from above the clouds, looked like a gigantic piece of cotton crochet shawl made by a cosy grandma. When the plane began to nose down, the rippling desert changed into a scene of prosperity that spread out before my eyes.
Nothing can stop the city from sprawling on and on. The tiny airport of Karamay now serves regular domestic flights linking the city directly with major cities including Wuhan, Chengdu, Shanghai and Beijing.
My fourth time in China’s mythical northwest still felt like my first time. If the jingling of camel rings from ancient times set the eternal tone for this dreamlike wonderland, then “change” is the modern mantra of today’s Xinjiang, as is exemplified by the earthshaking modernisation of Karamay.
There can be no doubt that Karamay is a hard city, and it has been a survivor and a warrior since its inception. “Sistership” seems like a weak phrase to use when speaking of the newly established connectivity between Karamay and the Pakistani port city Gwadar, because Karamay is like a man who radiates attractiveness from his muscular features.
Karamay is a city that, unlike Rome, was “built in a day”, and indeed the transformation from nothingness into modernity took less than half a century. In one
of his most hailed poems, Chinese modern poet Ai Qing depicted Karamay as “the world’s most desolate place that harbours infinite energy”. In the eye of the poet, Karamay is “a silent soldier that has an indomitable heart and a beauty that makes the Gobi desert shine”.
The rise of Karamay from “a bleak land of infertility” to China’s oil and gas trove was depicted by Zhu De (a founding father of New China) in the 1950s as “an inspiring myth”. The great injustice, however, is that the city’s unusual achievements in its modernisation adventure tends to be overlooked by less-informed entrepreneurs and travelers, despite the fact that the city ranks among “the 50 places in China that are worth a visit for foreigners”. Karamay’s many other titles are known by very few - it ranks 4th among China’s 286 prefecturelevel cities in terms of its urbanisation levels, following Shenzhen, Beijing and Shanghai, and was rated the 7th in 2009 in terms of competitiveness.
Someday in the not-so-distant future, the oil fields in Karamay will not be able to produce oil anymore, and this scenario is the destiny that the “city of oil” will have to face eventually. Having arisen from the dust into a thriving community, time will tell how Karamay can once again adapt to the modern age, but this time with the advantage of a stronger foundational base.
A sensuous side
If anyone wants to prove the absurdity of baseless preconceptions, China’s Xinjiang is the place to visit.
Workers celebrating the first gush of oil discovered in Kayamay in 1955. Since then, the city has grown into an oil-producing and refining center.