When you think of China’s richest cities, no doubt visions of Beijing’s grandeur, Shanghai’s skyline and Hong Kong’s beauty come to mind. According to the latest research, however, those visions would be incorrect. In fact, you’d be on the wrong side of the country.
Try looking west toward Xinjiang, China’s largest – generally unknown – region. Welcome to Karamay, China’s richest city in 2012.
Karamay, aka “Black Oil”
Located about 4 hours northwest of Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi and less than 230 kilometers (~140 miles) from the Kazakhstan border, Karamay (قاراماي, 克拉瑪依 or Kèlāmǎyī) is a city literally in the middle of nowhere. Were it not for the resource commonly known as black gold, this desert dwelling wouldn’t even exist.
Karamay was my home for almost 4 years and I can say with confidence that I love it. I’ve traveled all over China and no other city is as clean, accessible, and friendly as Karamay.
Nobody told me when I first arrived in Karamay back in 2006 just how wealthy the town really was. One thing I knew for sure: this town ran on oil. Almost everybody I knew worked for the petrol company, including my friend Sam (read more of his story) who once shared with me:
If the mayor of Karamay and the leader of the oil company are at the same dinner table, the oil exec gets the honored seat at the table.
As a quick side note, when most Chinese refer to “Karamay”, they actually refer to the Karamay district, not only the city. This district includes Baijiantan, Urhe (home of the famous Ghost City) and Dushanzi, the town where most of the oil refinery happens.
Karamay’s Telltale Signs of Wealth
For those who just pass through Karamay it may be hard to pinpoint what makes this city special. It’s actually quite small when you consider that I can ride my bike around the entire city limits within an hour (that”s a bicycle, not a motorcycle!).
In fact, it’s my opinion that the small size of Karamay is what has allowed it to top the list of China’s richest cities. The GDP per capita skyrockets when you’re dealing with only 450,000 citizens!
But what are a couple signs that this tiny town is wealthy?
- A Massive City Park: this multi-million dollar park comes complete with a water show, a small mountain and a skate park.
- A Golf Course: a driving range and a full 18 holes decorated with fake oil rigs.
- A Gorgeous Olympic-Size Pool: as well an an indoor water park with slides, concessions and a wave pool for kids (and kids at heart…like me)
- BMW, VW, Honda and quite a few Chinese brand cars have major dealerships in the city displaying various models of luxury sedans.
Of course these can be found in many cities around China, but with a population under half a million, Karamay is barely a blip on the Chinese map.
Who Owns the Wealth?
60 years ago Karamay didn’t exist. The land was absolutely uninhabited – neither by Chinese or by the locals.
Those who were first sent out to help drill for oil slept in tents on the desert ground and drank rationed water trekked in on the back of a camel.
Karamay’s first citizens (Karamay Museum)
While 75% of Karamay’s inhabitants are Han, the other people groups – primarily Uyghur and Hui – have a strong presence. Unlike many other cities in Xinjiang I saw no major income gap between people groups and in fact met many Uyghur who owned very nice cars.
So while the majority of Karamay’s citizens would be considered middle class, the small percentage of super wealthy is slowly growing and commanding nice, new offices. Consider the road that acts as an entrance to the city. When I first arrived it was barren land. Now there’s a train station and beautiful highrises built by the government, the oil companies and the telecom industry.
A Few More Karamay Pictures
The gorgeous government building
The Karamay Airport (1 flight daily)
A reminder of just how remote Karamay is
More Karamay Resources
- The official Karamay government website (Chinese)
- Details of the 1994 Theater Fire – Karamay’s most famous and deadly event
- A Map of the Northern Xinjiang Railroad
- Fascinating Tradition of Uyghur Paper Making in Hotan - January 28, 2016
- Controversial “Karamay Bubble” No. 1 Oil Well - January 12, 2016
- Eating Uyghur Lamb Intestine in Xinjiang - December 10, 2015
- A Visit to Xinjiang’s Kanas Lake and Keketuohai - October 7, 2015
- Celebrating Qurban in Urumqi, Xinjiang - September 24, 2015
- Buzkashi Explained: Mysterious Rules & Traditions - September 19, 2015
- Exploring Tashkorgan and the Tajik - September 12, 2015
- Biking China’s Karakoram Highway Pt 1 - September 2, 2015
- Self-Publishing a Travel Guide: My Experience - June 3, 2015
- Evolution of Xinjiang Tourism: A Photo Essay - May 19, 2015