The verdant, mountainous area south of Lanzhou, bordering Qinghai to the west and Sichuan to the south, is one of enormous scenic beauty, relatively untouched by the scars of industry and overpopulation. The people who live in the so-called Xiahe loop are diverse in culture and ethnicity, including a very strong Hui and Tibetan presence. Xiahe, in particular, is a delightful place to visit, site of the major Labrang Monastery, one of the largest Lamaist institutions in China, which attracts monks and pilgrims from across the Tibetan Plateau. From Xiahe, you can loop back to Lanzhou via Tongren – itself home to a large Tibetan population – and Xining, both in Qinghai province, or follow an adventurous route south into Sichuan province.
Note that towns throughout the loop are small affairs with few ATMs or exchange facilities – it’s best to take enough cash to cover the entire trip.