The Land that Bleeds Oil
It seems like almost every night the local news runs a story showing an oil-covered bird shamefully waiting for its life to end. The ground below the Gulf of Mexico is leaking oil, the cleanup looks more like a mess and nobody is happy about the situation. As if images of the birds weren’t enough, an AP reporter actually dove into the water to prove the oil spill was having averse effects on the Gulf ecosystem. Shockingly, it does.
Now turn the globe to the other side of the world, where a different crack in the earth’s crust is bleeding oil. Here, on the edge of the Dzungarian Basin in China’s western province of Xinjiang, the oozing oil is actually a tourist destination complete with a walkway, signs and a metal statue. The oil here is welcome. It is the history and the future of the nearby city, the blood that keeps the economy alive.
Black Oil Mountain 黑油山
The black oil running jagged down the sides of this mountain certainly do have the look of dried blood. Most of it gathers in small pools that leave a shiny black scar on the face of the hill, but cracks in the walls of rock still spit a steady stream of sticky tar.
The mirror-like surface of these pools is broken only by the continuous bubbling of new oil from below. If I squint my eyes, this slow-motion process almost looks like the earth is chewing black gum and blowing bubbles with it.
It’s hard for me to think of this place as a significant part of Xinjiang’s modern culture, much less a tourist destination. The wooden walkways wander aimlessly over a small patch of land and reveal little of its importance.
If I were able to travel in time to less than 50 years ago, the view from the top of this hill would offer nothing but a blank, pale desert. Now the hill lies between a massive oil field littered with oil rigs to the east and an oasis city newly planted to the west.
All of this, according to tradition, was made possible by a simple Uyghur man named Salimu.
Old Man Salimu…hu?
If the name sounds familiar, that’s because you’ve probably heard of the lake about six hours to the west named after him – Salimu Hu (“hu” is the Mandarin term for “lake”). Ironically, water won’t even mix with the substance that established his legend. A statue of Salimu can be found everywhere in Xinjiang, including near Urumqi’s International Bazaar and, of course, at Karamay’s Black Oil Mountain.
The story begins in the 1940′s, when Old Man Salimu came across these cracks in Xinjiang’s earth. Somehow – I have no idea how – he discovered that this substance could be used to produce both heat and light when burned.
Being the entrepreneur that he was, he loaded up his donkey and traveled to nearby villages selling this oil. It wasn’t long before geologists realized the great potential of a land so full of oil that it was literally leaking at the surface. Tents were set up in the desert and a city was born.
How do you say “Black Oil” in Uyghur?
Karamay…or 克拉玛依. I’m no Uyghur language expert, but I do know that the root “kara” (a.k.a. ‘qara’) means ‘black’ and can be found quite often in names of various Xinjiang locations (ie Karakul, Karadong, Karakhoja, Karakoram, etc.). Karamay means “black oil”, and were it not for the discovery of oil here the city would not exist.
Most of the generation that was first recruited to extract this oil have since passed away, but their stories are still passed down by their children and grandchildren. They were mostly young, ambitious men who survived harsh summers and bitter winters living in makeshift tents and dugouts.
Amazingly, in half a decade all of that harsh land has been transformed into green parks, paved roads and towering buildings. All of it, of course, paid for by the oil industry.
The many pipes that crisscross Karamay and the black oil park to the east are a testament to the fact that oil is literally the blood flowing through the arteries of this city.
The day that those oil reserves dry up, which according to reports won’t be happening soon, is the day that Karamay becomes a ghost city.
A Memory for a Drop of Oil
As I prepared to leave the city of Karamay earlier this year I was invited to a banquet held by some of the education and government leaders in the city. I knew each man personally, having either taught them English or blocked their shot on the basketball court (I’m not that good…these men are just that short!).
They presented me with a gift I will never forget, one that still sits on the desk in my office. It’s a three-sided obelisk modeled after the monument on Karamay’s Black Oil Mountain. Nestled within this clear piece of glass is a drop of refined oil from the nearby oilfields.
For most people that drop of oil represents nothing more than fuel for their car or, as in the Gulf, an environmental disaster. For me, however, it conjures a much more positive image.
This drop of oil now represents the soul of this city I once called home and the people who made it so special. It is a part of Xinjiang that will forever hold a chapter in my life’s story.