A huge, empty wilderness with a population of just 5.5 million, Qinghai (青海, qīnghăi) is in many respects a part of Tibet, forming the northern section of the Tibetan plateau and owning a strong minority presence – as well as Tibetans and Hui, there are Salar, Tu, Mongol and Kazakh people all living here. Only the eastern part of the province around Xining has a long-established Han presence. With its lush green valleys and plentiful annual rainfall, this is also the only part of Qinghai where sustainable agriculture takes place. Close by is the splendid Kumbum Monastery, one of the four great Tibetan lamaseries, is located just outside Xining. The province has other attractions, too, chiefly as an unspoilt natural wilderness area incorporating the enormous Qinghai Hu, China’s biggest lake, which offers opportunities for hikes and birdwatching. There are also possibilities for longer treks, rafting and mountaineering. Such activities are best arranged by local travel agents, who can sometimes do so with just a few days’ notice.
Geographically and culturally a part of the Tibetan plateau, Qinghai has for centuries been a frontier zone, contested between Han Chinese, Tibetans and Muslims who originally dwelt in its pastures and thin snatches of agricultural land. Significant Han migration didn’t occur until the late nineteenth century, when it was encouraged by the Qing dynasty. However, effective Han political control was not established until 1949 when the Communists defeated Ma Bufang, a Hui warlord who had controlled the area since 1931. The area is still perceived by the Han Chinese as a frontier land for pioneers and prospectors, and, on a more sinister note, a dumping ground for criminals and political opponents to the regime. The number of inmates held in Qinghai prison and labour camps, including those released but who must remain in the province because they cannot regain residency rights in their home towns, is estimated at 400,000 – almost a tenth of the population.Read More
West of Xining, Qinghai for the most part comprises a great emptiness. The 3000m plateau is too high to support any farming, and population centres are almost nonexistent – the only people who traditionally have managed to eke out a living in this environment have been nomadic yak-herders. The real highlight of the area is the huge and virtually unspoilt saline lake of Qinghai Hu (青海湖, qīnghăi hú), the size of a small sea and home to thousands of birds. Beyond here, the solitary road and rail line wind their way slowly to Golmud, the only place of note for hundreds of kilometres, and then on to the Tibetan Plateau into Lhasa.
Situated 150km west of Xining, high up on the Tibetan plateau, Qinghai Hu is extraordinarily remote. The lake is China’s largest, occupying an area of more than 4500 square kilometres, and, at 3200m above sea level, its waters are profoundly cold and salty. They are nevertheless teeming with fish and populated by nesting seabirds, particularly at Bird Island, which has long been the main attraction of the lake for visitors. If you don’t have time to stop here, you can at least admire the view while travelling between Golmud and Xining; it’s well worth scheduling your journey to pass by during daylight hours. The train spends some hours running along the northern shore; by bus you’ll skirt the southern shore instead.
Apart from a visit to Bird Island – which tends to be a rushed, hectic experience – you can also hike and camp in peaceful solitude around the lake. From the smooth, green, windy shores, grazed by yaks during the brief summer, the blue, icy waters stretch away as far as the eye can see. If you have a tent, and really want a wilderness experience in China, this may be the place to get it. Don’t forget to bring warm clothes, sleeping bags and enough drinking water.