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.