Kara­may Im­pres­sion­s阳光下的晚餐

Where the Sun and Moon Meet for Din­ner

That's China - - Contents - Text by / Li Jing

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.

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