Korla Journal: A Remote Boomtown Where Mainly Newcomers Benefit

December 20, 2005
Copyright The New York Times
By HOWARD W. FRENCH (Ryan Pyle’s photos at nytimes.com terrific. I’ll also post some video to go with the piece shortly.)
KORLA, China – The prop plane packed with businessmen swoops into this once sleepy oasis town in far western China, flying in low over the spectacular Tian Shan mountain range, now snowcapped.
At the tiny, primitive airport here, where people have to wait outdoors in the biting cold for their luggage, a billboard over the shabby terminal announces the arrival of change clearly enough: “Petroleum Hotel,” it reads, in Chinese, English and the Arabic script used by the region’s Uighur ethnic minority.
There are three ways to get to this city, sprouting on the edge of one of the world’s largest deserts, the Taklimakan, and they all bespeak the remarkable boom under way. By night, flares from new oil fields blaze on the horizon in every direction on the bleak roads that cross the desert and run along its edge.
By day, trains disgorge passengers: newly arriving ethnic Chinese migrants from the country’s crowded east or, in the harvest season, day laborers who come by the tens of thousands to pick cotton and fruit grown on spreads owned by big east coast investors.
Since this little airfield hardly befits a boomtown, a fancy new airport is being built a short distance away.
Thriving “insta-cities” are common on the prospering eastern seaboard. But in many ways what is happening in Korla and cities like it here in Xinjiang Province is even more impressive. And to a degree little suspected back east, the country’s future depends on their success.
China has a bottomless thirst for oil and gas, and Xinjiang these days is producing both in ever greater quantities. Moreover, because of its proximity to Central Asia, the province has become the favorite route for pipelines bringing imported energy from Kazakhstan and beyond.
Since this is China’s largest province in area, and home to the largest Muslim minority population, what happens here is crucial to the country’s future stability. As with Tibet to the south, China’s hold on Xinjiang is recent. Elements of the Uighur and Kazakh minorities have long yearned for independence and have sporadically engaged in terrorism.
Beijing has cracked down harshly on separatists and has banned religious schools in Xinjiang, for fear they will foment Islamic radicalism and separatism. But for now, as elsewhere in China, the government seems to be betting that strong economic growth is the best way to consolidate its control.
The province’s recent record of discovering new sources of oil has certainly created an air of confidence here among government leaders and business people, most of whom hail from the east. Natural gas output has doubled in the last five years, and oil production is also rising fast, especially from the nearby Tarim Basin.
“This place is blowing and a-glowing,” said Jim Scott, an ebullient Louisiana native who spends much of the year here, selling high-pressure valves and other oil field equipment to Chinese companies. “I guarantee you there’s a boom on here. There’s more drilling and exploring around here than you can imagine.”
Beyond foreign oilmen, the explosive growth in the petroleum sector is drawing thousands of Chinese entrepreneurs from coastal cities like Shanghai and Wenzhou. Some arrive wealthy, ready to invest. Others, like, Qian Bolun, 36, who has been here for 15 years, sought their fortune in Korla when it was little more than a dusty township.
“See this,” he said, nudging a glass across the lunch table at a fancy downtown restaurant owned by a Wenzhou entrepreneur. “In the old days if I bought one of these for one yuan I’d sell it here for 1.20.” Nowadays Mr.Qian, who dresses in nice suits and drives a late-model Japanese sedan, deals exclusively in big-ticket items like industrial generators, tractors and mining equipment.
The new petroleum economy has left its mark all over downtown Korla, from the smart department stores and shopping malls that line the broad streets of the central city to a large nightclub district that bathes in flashing neon after sunset.
At one club, Chinese fashion models strut and Russian dancers shimmy on a stage for ogling oil workers. An entertainer with an atrocious voice belts out karaoke songs urging patrons who disapprove to “throw your money, your cellphones, whatever you’ve got at me.”
The local Communist Party leaders speak proudly of the city’s development. “In the 1990’s we were a relatively backward, small and poor agricultural city, with only 100,000 residents,” said Hao Jianming, deputy party secretary.
Now the city boasts 420,000 residents and is growing by 20,000 people a year. “People come here because we’ve become a tourism city, a recreational city with a good environment,” the official said.
For all of these economic successes, Korla’s problems with minorities have not been solved so much as pushed aside. On the streets of the fancy downtown, Uighur-owned shops are a rarity and Uighurs themselves are few. Across the river that divides the town into old and new, that balance is reversed.
“Uighurs usually don’t have a storefront – they’ll rent a place in a corner,” said Hao Lin, 32, a personal computer merchant in a new computer mall. “Their main customers are Uighurs. Very few of them have business with the Tarim oil company. Those who do are Han,” members as he is of China’s main ethnic group.
In a barbershop that sits amid a frigid outdoor market across the river from downtown, three Uighur men sit in chairs near a coal-heated stove that warms the place.
“I studied at the university in Urumqi,” the province’s capital, “for three years, majoring in mechanical engineering,” said the Uighur barber, Yasen Keyimu, 25, “but I can’t find a job with the oil industry. Such great skills, and I can’t get work.”

1 thought on “Korla Journal: A Remote Boomtown Where Mainly Newcomers Benefit”

  1. Brilliant stuff. Left fond memories of when I was working in Bishkek, bumped into this dude who was out to Urumqi to sell his wares. The guy made multiple trips to Urumqi a week, and made enough cash to keep his family happy.Kinda represents what Xinjiang is going through. Thanks for bringing back the memories!

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