The first impression of Karamay as we drove in was not entirely positive. The city is expanding rapidly, which means the outer edge gives the impression of being half-built (which, in fairness, it is). Once we got into the city proper it started looking much more… well… completed.
The second impression, which started emerging within a few days, was that Karamay is unlike any city of its size I’ve ever visited before. There is no determinable ‘city centre’. Just more shops and houses and the like. It’s also incredibly modern. Don’t get me wrong, it has its fair share of run-down and seen-better-days, but everything is at most 60 years old. Quite a shock when you’re used to Colchester, with its Norman castle built on Roman ruins, and wattle-and-daub on practically every other building.
We lucked out with our apartment in terms of where it is. We’re right next to a summer market selling all manner of fruit and veg, and across the road from that is Century Park, built on a manmade hill. Our accommodation is nothing to look at from the outside, but is warm and cosy on the inside; ‘lived in’ is probably the correct term. Mystery meat in the freezer disposed of, we started getting used to our new home (the position of the shower and toilet mean one could use both at once – not that it appeals).
Because our arrival coincided with a holiday, we had three days’ grace to settle in before teaching. The weekend seems to happen when the school decides it should happen: the holiday was Thursday, so our weekend was shifted to Friday and Saturday to make the most of it. The flip side is that Sunday is now a Thursday, at the start of a six-day school week. In that time we were able to meet up with Mike, an American teacher who was in Fukang until earlier this year. He showed us around a bit and introduced us to the owner of a ‘private school’ (which in China means a tuition centre) who was very pleased to meet a couple of English lads and invited us to an ‘English Corner’ with some of his students. The idea is essentially to sit in a circle and have a chat: learning in a relaxed environment.
At night, Karamay is spectacular. The river is lit up, and by the modern plaza (so new, half of the shops are still empty) as well as nightly fountain displays (lit up from below, of course), music and films are projected through a spray of water. The park is dotted with artificial glowing trees, as well, which lend it a magical air, but so do the stepping-stone paths which occasionally twist through the trees. I think they’re actually for the park maintenance staff, but they’re more fun to walk on than the normal paths.
We haven’t explored very far beyond the bounds of our route to school or the nearby shopping plaza yet, but I think we will do soon enough. Karamay has an open, spread-out feel to it which Ürümqi lacks; it doesn’t feel like a city to walk around, but it’s big enough to qualify.