Located in China’s northwestern badlands near the edge of Gobi Desert, Yumen was once a buzzing oil city with a peak population of 300,000. However, as oil output plummeted, the old residential district became abandoned and now is a rare example of China’s true ghost towns.
The town’s history dates back to the early 20th-century, when the Kuomintang regime dispatched a group of geologists to China’s barren northwest to prospect for oil. In 1939, oil was discovered in Yumen. The first oil well of China was constructed here soon after.
After Kuomintang’s loss in the Chinese Civil War and the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the nascent communist country set out a large-scale industrialization effort with an ever-increasing demand for oil. Until the discovery of Daqing Oil Field—China’s largest oil field—in Heilongjiang Province in 1959, Yumen provided the much-needed industrial blood for the whole country. At the same time, Yumen quickly expanded and the population peaked around 300,000 in the 1980s with 100,000 oil workers. The ghost town today preserves what’s left of the once vibrant, industrialized urban community.
Yet, like many mining towns in the western United States that became abandoned after resources dried up, Yumen’s fate was written on the wall as oil production dwindled in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Plummeting oil production, together with worsened environmental conditions, led to mass emigration to nearby cities. In 2003, the city government officially moved to the new city of Yumen about 60 miles northwest of the old town, leaving a large portion of the old city un-inhabited and filled with empty buildings and open fields.
Surprisingly, the oil production never came to a full stop. Today the old Yumen remains occupied by approximately 15,000 residents, most of whom are oil veterans who refused to move and a few current workers. Both now live in a concentrated residential zone a few miles north of the ghost town. Yumen occasionally makes national headlines with astoundingly low real estate prices, but few visitors have ventured deep into the ghost town to explore its past glory.
Know Before You Go
If you only search "Yumen City," you will most likely be directed to the new city of Yumen 60 miles northwest of the old town.
Cellphone coverage is good enough to provide navigation. Visitors, both human and wildlife, are rare in this area, but you will likely encounter oil workers who still work there. Please note any posted signs about access restrictions, and as always be respectful to your fellow human beings.