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Golf in Xinjiang, China | Elite Sport in a Poor Province

September 28 | 12 Comments

As fun as the game is to play, golf is viewed across the globe as an elite sport that sucks up a lot of natural resources and is useful only to the rich. So why is golf growing in China’s western Xinjiang province, one of the poorest in all the country?

Growing sport of golf in China

A short distance south of Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi, there is a portion of beautiful land known as Nanshan, or “South Mountains”.

For years tourist and locals have traveled away from the noisy, polluted city life seeking the peaceful scenery that Nanshan provides. They can picnic, hike, bicycle and now…

…play golf in China at Xinjiang’s new luxury course.

Growing Golf Market in Xinjiang

Of course, very few people I met in Xinjiang know how to play golf – much less can afford to play.

But that’s beside the point.

The worldwide image of golf as an elite, rich-man’s sport has somehow enticed developers in one of China’s poorer provinces to begin building golf courses.

It should be noted that golf won’t be the first sport to entertain visitors of Nanshan.

As you can see from the picture, skiing in Xinjiang has become quite popular among the middle class as well (note the ski lift). Ski resorts have popped up everywhere around Urumqi and a few other wealthier Xinjiang cities.

Skiing, however, is affordable.

Golf is not.

So the question remains: if you build it, will they come?

Golfing in the Middle of Nowhere

Karamay is a small, young city by China standards (pop: 200,000, 60 yrs old).

It is located in northern Xinjiang about 4 hours away from Urumqi and boasts one of the highest standards of living anywhere in China thanks to the booming oil industry.

A golf course in Karamay, Xinjiang
An empty golf course in Karamay, Xinjiang

Part of the excess money that has poured into the city thanks to oil has been spent on a million-dollar city park, incredible water attractions, and – now – a golf course.

As far as the park is concerned, every day hundreds of people young and old visit the park and flocks gather to watch the water and light show along the man-made river.

Not once in four years did I ever see anybody play on that golf course.

The course is beautiful, well-kept and dotted with lovely fake oil rigs.

A fake oil rig on the Karamay golf course in Xinjiang, China

I was quite interested to play a round of golf there but unfortunately I could find no person to play with me. The cost was too high for my Chinese and Uyghur friends and they didn’t even know how to play.

The State of Golf in China

Dan Washburn, a Shanghai-based writer, teamed up with photographer Ryan Pyle earlier this year for a Financial Times story about a secret new golf course in China’s Hainan province (paid firewall…sorry)

In the article, Dan dives into the world of golf in China and how, despite a moratorium on golf course construction, developers are working to finish the largest collection of golf courses in the world.

How then, can these courses in Hainan be built?

How can Xinjiang be constructing new courses if it’s against the law?

Dan’s answer:

There’s an answer to these questions, too, and it is also China. In the years since the government announced its supposed golf course moratorium, the number of courses has nearly trebled to an estimated 600 or so. In China, there is always a way.

Naturally all the money spent on golf raises concerns of corruption.

Years ago, government officials in Wenzhou were given an ultimatum: either quit a new golf association or take part in a “self-criticism” – the Chinese way of saying “be publicly humiliated”.

Needless to say, most of them chose the former.

Why Golf in China

Despite the moratorium on course construction; despite the government frowning on golf association memberships; despite the few people in Xinjiang who can afford to play…

…construction of new golf courses continues in China.

But why?

An advertisement for golf in Xinjiang

It could be a number of different things.

  • Maybe it’s the internationally-promoted image of golf as representative of a developed country or city. Tourism literature like what you see above boasts high-class facilities available to businessmen and foreign visitors.
  • Maybe the upper-class Chinese really do enjoy golf and are a market ready to be tapped.

Whatever the reason, it has the potential to further divide Xinjiang’s rich and poor in a way that can’t easily be overlooked.

Interesting how luxury golf courses are being built in an area that is receiving trillions of dollars in government aid, don’t you think?

Update: Apparently, Karamay and Urumqi aren’t the only two cities capitalizing on golf courses. Kashgar is getting a golf course as well.

About Josh Summers

Josh is the author of Xinjiang | A Traveler's Guide to Far West China, the most highly-reviewed and comprehensive travel guide on China's western region of Xinjiang. He lived, studied and run a business in Xinjiang, China for more than 10 years, earning recognition for his work from CCTV, BBC, Lonely Planet and many others.

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  1. I think it is interesting that an American company have plans to build a world class resort(skiing and golf) in the The Tian shan mountains near Urumqi

    I think Xinjiang per capita would be one of the most stronger provinces for millionaires and that’s Han and Urygurs.

    Golf took off slowly down in Guangdong 10/20 years ago.Now it is extremely popular.

    I found the people in Xinjiang did not have time for sport except for basketball(younger people) and badminton.

    They have tennis courts which was cheap but you do not see alot of people playing tennis in Xinjiang.

    I don’t think it is because it is to expensive to play golf for them there just not interested and are time poor in Xinjiang.

    Near Beijing there is a ski resort busy on weekends pretty quite on weekdays.

    Funny you mentioned Ryan Pyle.He and his brother have just started out on supposedly(I think someone has done it before them) the first circumnavigate of China by motorcycle traveling through Xinjiang in one of there legs

    Josh on August 18th, 2010 at 9:54 pm

    Thanks for the link to the motorcycle ride around China. I’ll definitely be keeping up with that, especially once they start heading through Xinjiang.

  2. I didn’t think ski-ing was affordable in China or Xinjiang.

    When I looked at snowboards and skis for sale in Urumqi the prices where more expensive in Australia and far more expensive than the USA and that was for beginner gear that was a couple of years out of date.

    Lift tickets where priced to high compared to world prices and they where for a resort that was really a average ski resort if that.

    Lesson pricing wasn’t cheap considering the person teaching had no credentials.

    Josh on August 19th, 2010 at 11:18 pm

    I’m sure the newer “luxury resorts” or quite expensive and getting quality gear can set you back, but the ski places I ran into were generally priced for the masses.

    Everybody usually rented gear and there weren’t lift ticket fees, it was just a single entrance fee. Obviously it’s not a poor-man’s sport, but when compared to golf I found it to be quite affordable (50RMB as compared to 500-600RMB)

    damo on August 20th, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    Skiing at Karamay or Shihezi where someone set up one rope tow(small set up costs)on a simple hill for beginners maybe relatively inexpensive but once you have mastered the basics you tend to look for bigger mountains.

    PingXiLiang Village near Urumqi is going to set you back 300 CNY plus your rental gear for the day that ain’t cheap.

    Josh on August 21st, 2010 at 3:21 am

    Ok, point taken. Still, there is an option for the lower/middle class to ski, is there not? My point was that the game of golf, in China, is strictly a rich man’s sport.

    To my knowledge there is no miniature golf for kids in Xinjiang and no driving range (there was one in Karamay at one point but it was closed down for lack of use). There are no options for those who can’t quite afford the luxury courses.

    damo on August 21st, 2010 at 7:50 am

    I think both skiing and golf are rich mans sport anywhere in the world.

    If they closed the driving range in Karamay was it because of the costs or lack of interest?

  3. Dude, some of the most economically depressed Native American reservations are building golf course, are they too dividing the rich and poor, or is that suddenly good faith effort to bring economic opportunity to the area, when we do it oruselves?

    Josh on August 21st, 2010 at 3:18 am

    I understand why you would compare Native Americans to this particular situation, but I think they are world’s apart.

    On reservations, any golf courses (or casinos) that are built are owned by the Native Americans, staffed by them, and any income earned is given to them. The same obviously can’t be said for these golf courses in Xinjiang. It is invested in, built by, and used primarily by Han who don’t even live in Xinjiang (my guess).

    It’s also very important to note – I believe – that it is technically against the law to build these courses. That, above anything, is a theme I am exploring here.

    damo on August 21st, 2010 at 7:46 am

    “Technically against the law”

    How long where you in China Josh?

    The Xinjiang government is I think doing its best to promote Xinjiang and they have plans for a strong tourism industry.

    The Xinjiang Goverment had a consultant come in and access the tourism industry I guess I saw the report seven years ago.

    Snow skiing and golf where strong in the report.

    Urgyur ,Hui, Kaz etc have a chance to benefit.

    The American company are going to bring all there people to staff there resort in Xinjiang with the lesser jobs going to the locals.

  4. My fiancee is from Urumqi, I just bought an apartment there in a new highrise “Shanghai City” , the name is trying to be sophisticated I guess. I am thinking of being a ski instructor, in XinJiang I was a USA certified ski instructor, for about 5 years 20 years ago, and am an EXPERT skier still. My mandarin is marginal, but working on it. Any thoughts of the possibilities ?? for some extra income, I own a business in the USA, so I have that income. I want to stay active. The winter is lousy in Urumqi, smog and fog. Need to get out of the inversion, into the mountains.