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Karamay - China's Richest City

A Glimpse of China’s Richest City

April 4, 2012 | 11 Comments

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.

The People's Square in Karamay, a town in Xinjiang, China

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?

  • Karamay's City Park lit up at nightA 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.

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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.

Karamay before it was a big city, just people living in tents

The road that leads to Karamay in Xinjiang, China

A Few More Karamay Pictures

The beautiful Karamay government building in Xinjiang, China

The gorgeous government building
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The Karamay airport in Xinjiang China

The Karamay Airport (1 flight daily)

A colorful desert picture of Karamay

A reminder of just how remote Karamay is

More Karamay Resources

About Josh Summers

Josh is a writer, musician and entrepreneur who currently resides in Urumqi, capital of China's western province of Xinjiang. He has been traveling and writing about this region since 2006 and has no plans to stop in the near future.

Leave a Comment

  1. Josh, that place sits on the arid interior away from any river or snow-capped mountain. Where does the water come from?

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  2. Super-interesting report, never heard about this place, but the pictures leave no trace of doubt of the wealth of the place. Good to know it!

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  3. This city proves that it is ridiculous for Uighurs to claim whole Xinjiang. The province is a big sand box in the second largest desert in the world and most of it was inhabitable in old time. The capital city was never Uighur either even before CCP and “Uighur issue” is historic and it has nothing to do with “evil communism”. There was no excuse for Uighur thugs to kick no Uighur civilians to death. If they do not like the city, they should go back to where they came from. There are only 75% of Han and Han is under represented in this rich city. In Shanghai, at least 50% of the residents do not speak WU due to last 30 years of economic reform and Wu speakers never kicked hundreds of non Wu speakers to death. There is no law to prohibit Uighur from going to other regions of China, why the hell do they think that non Uighur should not go to Xinjiang?

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    Your Name on December 20th, 2013 at 6:19 am

    Uyghur

    Not logical, typical Han. Karamay(kelimayi in your noise) is a Uyghur city and there were only a dozen of Chinese at the time. The head of the city is my relayive. The person who found oil more than a century ago is a Uyghur who lived on selling oil. Why most Chinese afraid of telling the truth??????

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    B on December 31st, 2013 at 6:52 pm

    Sorry uighur but the location of Karamay is the home of Mongols and Kazakhs and has been for centuries. The Han and the uighurs are newcomers.

  4. I would be very interested in teaching rich kids (I mean real teens and some adult kids) there… I have over six years experience of such work here in Taiwan… Please tell me, do the parents usually send their teens away to other -more education orientated- cities, or do they stick around for a while… I can usually charge about $2000NTD (Taiwan currency) for such private tuition).. .

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  5. I went there last September, great mix of cultures, Arab and Chinese. I met folks who looked Middle Eastern but said “I am Chinese”, but also said they were XinJiang Ren meaning Xinjiang person, the women are stunning. The food and hospitality is amazing ( Try the local specialty Lamb neck), and for China very, very clean, including the air. It is also one of the farthest places on the earth from the sea. Recommended off the beaten track.

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