Oil and gas resources from Xinjiang are to the Chinese economy. Most revenue flows to other parts of the country however, frustrating local residents.

Text and Photos: Remko Tanis (2010)

in Korla, China

Yeah, no, the 'Welcome to Korla' sign isn't particularly appealing. 'Korla. The edge of the Taklamakan Desert. At the shore of the Sea of Death. Unending. Remote. Isolated. Korla.'


Not a town you visit to have some fun, it seems.

"This town wouldn't exist at all if it wasn't for oil," says Tien Yuguan (46), owner of a small supermarket in the centre of town.

It's hard to miss how important oil is here. The main street of Korla is called Petrochemical Boulevard. The bridge crossing the artificial Kongque river has been named after oil company Jidi.

On another street, there's the Bazhou Petroleum High School. Across from it the Tarim Petroleum Hotel and down the road the PetroChina Theater.

Korla, Xinjiang, China. (C) Remko Tanis

Korla is China's gas station. State owned companies pump up an estimated 20 billion euros worth of oil from the immense Taklamakan desert. Near the city, it flows into a pipeline which transports the oil over 3,000 kilometeres to the affluent eastern and southern regions of China.

The far northwestern region of Xinjiang is China's biggest source of oil and gas. This makes it all the more important for Beijing to keep the homeland of the Uighurs people in check.

Shir Al (33) drives at a crawling pace across Petrochemical Boulevard. A Uighurs Chinese, he's been living here all his life.

"Look around," he says, while pointing left and right to brand new apartment towers. "No one lives there. They were build for the rich oil guys from Beijing and Shanghai. These people will come to Korla, do business to get their hands on some oil and leave again with their pockets filled with money."

Korla, Xinjiang, China. (C) Remko Tanis

He stretches his hand across the steering wheel and points to the sky. "Look at that! Nice and blue, isn't it. You don't see that in Beijing or Shanghai with all that pollution. But now, with people from there building refineries here, it won't be long before our sky turns dirty as well."

Like many original residents in Korla, Al is frustrated. "All that money they pump out of our soil, and all the jobs that come with that, flow to people from the East."

That's not what the government billboards in Korla will have you believe. One of them has a picture of pumpjacks on the shore of the artificial river. A text reads: 'A desolate desert, but not a desolate live.'

Another one: 'Together we build great oil and gas fields, creating great solidarity between all ethnic groups.'

The honest sharing of the billions of oil and gas dollars among the people is being underlined so often, it makes you wonder. Shir Al is way past wondering: "It's all fake. As local Xinjiang residents, we get nothing."

Korla, Xinjiang, China. (C) Remko Tanis

Last month Beijing announced a billion euro investment in the region, which forms a sixth of the entire country. The goal is to raise the average household income to the national level.

Korla has been singled out to become China's Houston: a large metropolis, getting rich off oil.

But traveling to and around the city makes it clear that most of the money goes to Han Chinese. They're the ones filling the seats of the planes flying in and out. They're the ones drinking Heinekens and Coronas in the bar of the Hua Yuan hotel. They're the ones occupying the executive floor of the white PetroChina office in Korla.

Han Chinese born and raised in Korla share the frustration many Uighurs feel here about the lack of return of the oil investments for their region. They're careful not to talk about it in public, however.

PetroChina office in Korla, Xinjiang, China. (C) Remko Tanis

One of them blogs about it, using the pseudonym Su Wei. He writes: 'We were promised the pipelines would transport our oil east and their money west, to us. We were promised progress like history has never seen. We got nothing. They only time we see something that came from our own oil, is during our work as gas station servants, filling up the expensive cars of the oil magnates."