Qinghai is an extensive inland province in west-central China, adjacent to Xinjiang, Tibet, Sichuan, and Gansu, and it is larger than any country in Europe. Qinghai means “blue sea” and takes its name from Qinghai Lake, the largest salt lake in the country. This vast expanse of pure water reflects the sky and diffuses a bluish light giving the region a magical atmosphere.
As a classic off-the-beaten-track territory, the Qinghai Province is not a place easy to travel, because the roads are not very well. That’s why it can preserve what it used to be: the spectacular scenery, rich culture of multi-ethnic minorities, and Buddhist heritage spread throughout the region. Encompassing most of the former Tibetan region of Amdo, it still offers travelers a fascinating insight into Tibetan culture, especially for the foreigners who cannot successfully get the Permit for Tibet.
Area: 721,000 km²
Average annual temperature: 10 degrees
Geography: Qinghai-Tibet Plateaus
Population: 59,000,000 inhabitants. (2021)
Altitude: 3,000 m on average
Economy: Mining sector, the petrochemical industry with potash production, livestock, and tourism
What to Visit in Qinghai?
Qinghai is a large province, and each city has its own famous attractions. Here is a selection of must-see attractions in Qinghai.
Qinghai Lake 青海湖
As the largest lake in China, this huge salt lake measures 4,635 square kilometers! Buddhists believe that Qinghai Lake is a holy lake, so it attracts many pilgrims from Tibet, Qinghai, and Mongolia for their faithful Kora, prostrating themselves next to the water.
Qinghai Lake is also famous for its population of birds, and the Bird Island in May has become a paradise for bird watchers. It is also a sacred place for cycling, and the annual Qinghai Lake International Road Cycling Race is held every year in July. While cycling, you can see clear, turquoise waters, the surrounding grassland, and the Tibetan and Mongolian nomads.
Kumbum Monastery 塔尔寺
It is one of the two most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries outside Tibet and has 600 years of history. Be here, you can see the sculptures of yak grease, and traditional embroidery and attend the debate of the lamas. It is known to be the birthplace of Tsongkhapa – the founder of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. As the highest institute of Buddhist studies in Qinghai, more than 400 monks reside in Kumbum, and visitors can see them in their daily activities.
Chaka lake 茶卡湖
About 151 km to the west of Qinghai Lake, Chaka Salt Lake is a fantastic oval-shaped lake known as the “mirror in the sky” due to its emerald green water. Chaka means salt lake in Tibetan, and it covers an area of 105 square kilometers, with an altitude of 3,059 meters.
Chaka has a long history of salt production, and now its production is 200 thousand tons per year.
As tourism developed very fast in China, Chaka Lake was listed among the top 50 photography sites in China and attracted millions of visitors and photographers to visit every year.
Tongren (Rebkong) 同仁
About 160km to the southeast of Xining, Tongren (Rebkong in Tibetan) is famous for its many monasteries and the production of Thangkas, which is the art of painting, sewing, and spinning a religious image. The Thangkas of Tongren are considered to be among the most beautiful in Tibet.
The city itself is a large Tibetan town that houses the Longwusi Monastery, dating from the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), and the Wutun Monastery, which presents a superb stupa decorated with multiple colored statues.
Every year, from June 16 to 25 of the lunar calendar, the Tibetans celebrate the Shaman Festival, also known as the Tibetan June Festival. During this festival, you can see the Tibetans in traditional dress.
Trek to Holy Mount Amnye Marchen 阿尼玛卿
The summit of Mount Amnye Machen culminates at 6282m. This is the most sacred mountain in Amdo, like Mount Kailash in western Tibet. For the Buddhists and the Bons, their protector deity Machen Pomra is said to reside at the highest peak of the mountain. Every year, Tibetan pilgrims travel for weeks to complete the ritual tour. During their walk, several beautiful monasteries lie alongside the route.
Yushu Horse Racing Festival 玉树赛马节
Like the Litang Horse Festival in Sichuan, the Yushu Horse Festival usually are held between July and August. Tibetan nomads gather there to compete in spectacular horse races. It is also an opportunity for them to sell their products and obtain what they will need in the winter. You will find the dances, songs, popular games, and big fairs of animals and objects.
Starting from Yushu, you can also go up the source of the Yellow River and venture into a remote region on the borders of Qinghai, near Zaling Lake, in the middle of the landscapes of the Qinghai-Tibet highlands.
How to Get to Qinghai?
There are many airports in the Qinghai Province, and the most important one is the Caojiabao Airport which lies in Xining, the capital of the Xining. It has regular flights from the main cities like Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai, Chengdu, etc. If you want to go deeply into the small areas like Golmud, Delingha, Yushu, and Qilian, there are also small airports. But for the tourists, we suggest a private vehicle for the visit, though there is a well-developed road network to access cities and other provinces.
There are two main railways running east-west through Qinghai Province: the Qinghai-Tibet Railway and the Lanzhou-Qinghai Railway. Now, many travelers like to go to Tibet from Beijing, Shanghai, or Chengdu by the Qinghai- Tibet Railway for the beautiful view during the trip, which is considered the highest railway in the world. You can continue your travel to Gansu or Xinjiang along the Silk Road by the Lanzhou-Qinghai Railway. During the trip, you will visit the Rainbow Mountain at Zhangye, the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang, and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
When to go to Qinghai?
The best time to visit Qinghai Province is from May to October. In the middle of May every year, the grass becomes green, plenty of migratory birds congregate at Qinghai Lake, and the province comes into its period of warm-weather vigor. Summer is the best and the peak season to travel in Qinghai because the grasslands and lakes are all at their most beautiful time and many ethnic minorities celebrate their festivals in summer. We suggest you avoid this journey on National Day (from 1st to 7th October), because there are full of visitors, especially on the borders of Qinghai Lake and Chaka Lake. You should take some warm clothes because of the big temperature difference between day and night.
Qinghai cuisine is greatly influenced by the large Hui Muslim community that lives there. Mutton and beef are the meats most consumed by locals. Qinghai people also drink tea and barley wine.
There are the famous local specialties:
Shouzhuarou: This is a very well-known dish in Qinghai. Mutton and yak meat are cooked in broth and then eaten directly with the hand.
Kunguomomo: Add oil, Coumadin, and other seasonings to the dough, put it in a round pot, bury the round pot in the grass and wood fire, and bake it slowly.
Yangchangmian: Lamb intestine noodles. The lamb intestine is cooked with flour and spices inside and accompanied by hot soup with cut noodles.
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