It was all looking so promising for Yushu (玉树, yùshù), an autonomous Tibetan prefecture perched 4000m above sea level at the far south of Qinghai province. The source of the famed Yellow River, this remote, mountainous and extremely picturesque area had started to become a magnet for adventurous travellers seeking a Tibetan experience without having to pay through the nose for a sanitized, pre-packaged tour to Lhasa.
Then came the events of April 14, 2010, when a 7.1-magnitude earthquake hit Yushu. The main tremor – and its devastating aftershocks – destroyed 85 percent of the houses in Gyegu, the county seat, and killed some 2700 people, a fair chunk of the tiny local population. The national authorities were quick to respond, having learned from the far deadlier Wenchuan earthquake that struck Sichuan in 2008. Yushu had few medical facilities, which meant that everything had to be flown in and that those buried under the rubble had to be dug out, often by hand, in freezing conditions.
The area is slowly getting back on its feet, but is likely to remain off the travel radar for a while to come. The Lete Youth Hostel in Xining made admirable fundraising efforts after the earthquake, and is as good a place as any to get up-to-date information about the area.