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.