Lighting up the new Silk Road, the Chinese town built on oil

Karamay, the town that PetroChina built, has two important lakes. One of them was built in the 1990s to supply the Gobi desert settlement with essential water, piped in from the mountains of neighbouring Kazakhstan. The other is a lake of oil.

At Black Oil Mountain on the outskirts of town, the authorities have built decking around the small pools that have bubbled up through the barren scrubland with a smell of burning asphalt. Get enough people to jump on its shores, and one puddle appears to boil.

Installed at the edge of the biggest lake is a statue of Salim, the purported discoverer of Karamay’s gigantic oil deposits about a hundred years ago, sitting on a donkey and playing a lute. In the town’s museum, visitors can find a photo of Chairman Mao posing with the same statue.

The biggest lake of oil in Karamay

The real work at Karamay began in the 1950s, when China teamed up with the Soviet Union to produce industrial quantities of fuel. Soldiers returning from the Korean war were dispatched to the desert to start building rigs and pipelines, using trucks imported from Russia.

While the Communist regime paraded a scale model of the Karamay oil fields through Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1956, it wasn’t until 1960 that the workers onsite were served by the new canal that finally brought in a reliable supply of fresh water.

“Conditions were not as bad as I thought they would be,” says Liu Xiuan, one of the Korea veterans who carried out early construction work. He now lives in one of Karamay’s care homes, built using the proceeds of the boom to house those who helped build the town. His son now works for Petro China, out in Shandong province, but he says through a translator that he enjoys living here with former colleagues. “I joined the Party 60 years ago, after I moved here, and so it’s my responsibility to unite people,” he adds.

The more oil that Karamay pumps out, the bigger the town gets. In the 1980s, when the World Bank gave a $100m loan to ramp up production, officials wrote that the country’s domestic energy consumption “is more analogous to a developing country where a large proportion of the population continues to rely upon… plant residue and animal power”.

Output has now topped 11m tonnes a year and the town has the highest GDP per capita in China. Its 400,000 residents spend their free time driving on slick highways to a new park that offers roller-skating lessons, before walking down to the canal to watch the fountain show. For half an hour every night, a medley of light, imported water and pop songs arch over the town centre, before a closing number set to the Karamay town song.

Until recently, it was almost completely a company town. Petro China’s red and yellow logo appears on buildings, buses and the hotel we stayed in, with some estimates putting the oil industry’s contribution to the town’s output at 90pc. In recent years the authorities have tried to channel some of the proceeds into more diverse interests.

Atkins, the London-listed engineering company, has operated in mainland China since the 1990s, and started working with Karamay in 2011. The firm beat local competition to win a contract to design a data centre for Huawei in the area, as well as a low-carbon research centre and the Donghu district, which has now been expanded to include another artificial lake.

“Every time you go to the airport, it’s a little bit more advanced, there are new planes, the runways are improving. I wouldn’t be surprised if you go there in five years it’s completely different,” says Steven Smit, architecture design director for Atkins in Beijing, who has worked on numerous Karamay projects, which have been given the green light at planning meetings in Petro China’s offices.

However, he said the volume of building work has slowed down since 2014, for several reasons. The entire oil industry is under fierce scrutiny for corruption, which President Xi Jinping is attempting to drive out of the Chinese state. Last year, local media reported that 54 officials in Xinjiang were under investigation for graft.

“It’s not necessarily that the people you are dealing with [are involved], but the anti-corruption drive is really having an impact in Xinjiang and further afield,” he said.

About a year ago, several officials responsible for overseeing developments were abruptly sent to other parts of Xinjiang province. After decades of uneasy relationships between 56 different ethnic groups, the province had suffered another rash of violence including a bomb and knife attack on a market in the capital Urumqi that left at least 31 people dead.

The Uyghur ethnic group was officially blamed for the carnage. While the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs make up almost half of the Xinjiang population, they are marginalised in many areas where the Han Chinese people make up the majority. Education represents a particularly stark gap, with universities offering lower entry requirements for ethnic minorities and allowing them to drop English classes – the logic being that Mandarin is already their second language.

Petro China is therefore very keen for journalists to hear the story of Rozmaimaiti Bakum. Of the 100 or so oil workers who have been promoted to the role of “technical expert”, he is the only Uyghur. A self-taught man who put himself and then three brothers through university, he has now set up a website helping others to progress.

Mr Bakum is apparently in Urumqi to pick up an award from the Communist Party on the day we arrive, and therefore none of the journalist here on a state-organised visit can interview him. However, a Party-produced film about his life is said to be coming soon.

The Ghost City tourist attraction on the outskirts of Karamay

Colleagues of his seem unconcerned by the lack of senior Uyghurs within the industry. Team six of the heavy oil company, one of about 100 such outfits based in the deserts around Karamay, agree that the exams to become a technical expert are difficult. “Not just for Uyghurs but for Han as well. We have special training for oil workers who want to improve their level, and language training for Uyghurs who did not grow up speaking Mandarin,” says one man, wearing the red jumpsuit used as a uniform throughout the firm.

After some confusion among the translators about what Halal meant, it was established that the meat-and-rice meals at the work camp probably conformed to Muslim practice. But no-one was fasting for Ramadan, in line with an official ban on state workers from publicly observing the holy month.

The Junggar Basin on which Karamay sits has no reason to slow down. The region might be home to Dabancheng, one of the world’s largest wind farms, but it also holds 21bn tonnes of oil, a fifth of China’s discovered reserves. Production is expected to hit 20m tonnes a year by 2020. Meanwhile, Beijing’s transcontinental Silk Road schemee will soon be rumbling through town, bringing more migrants hoping to make their fortune. – The Guardian

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