Known as the Tibetan Plateau or Rooftop of the World, Qinghai province was an unchartered beauty for western travelers … not now. I spent 9 days exploring it. Located next to Tibet, with unspoiled landscapes, prayer flags and roaming yaks,
it’s easily like no other place I’ve been to and didn’t feel like China.
Unchartered by western travelers this is the next best secret to a new adventure. It was the trip of a lifetime for me! I’ve already written about my Qinghai trip I was on and how I prepared for it. Thus, I’d like to share this Qinghai Travel Guide.
Qinghai Travel Guide : Best attractions
Listed below are the locations I presented in my video (above). For trip planning details and information about these places, continue reading.
Xining is the capital city of Qinghai and the largest city on the Tibetan Plateau. It’s a modern city and the hub for trains going into Lhasa, Tibet and Lanzhou, Gansu, Urumqi, Xinjiang. It is also the historical hub of the Northern Silk Road. There are restaurants, banks, huge splashy shopping malls, Starbucks and even a Cafe Benne’s . CCTV is throughout this region so crime is low. If you’re planning a trip to Tibet, travel agents and hotels can help you book your onward travel.
The parks are clean, exercise equipment and people walking their dogs . In the late afternoon you might find ladies coming out to bounce to the rhythm of their aerobic teacher. In the evening, the city lights up with colorful neon accent lights to decorate buildings. You’d think you were in Las Vegas.
Qinghai Tibetan Culture & Medicine Museum
Qinghai Tibetan Culture & Medicine Museum is a museum with one of the largest collections of Tibetan artwork, clothing, calligraphy etc... You’ll find extensive thangkas (Tibetan paintings on cloth or silk) on medicinal practices and Buddhist spirituality. One thangka extended over 660m long, with detailed mandalas and over 20 million people hand-drawn into it! I could’ve stayed longer! The museum is free but if you wish to see the thangka, admission is 60元. Well worth it. Hours: 9a-6p
Getting There: No.36 Jing’er Road, Chengdong District, duration: 15-20 minutes by taxi,
Bus no.1 from West Gate (西门) will take around 45 minutes.
Dongguan Grande Mosque & Market
The largest mosque in China is Dongguan Grande Mosque (otherwise known as Le Grande Mosque). It has over 60 years of history. Location: 31 Dongguan Main Street
Right outside Dongguan Mosque is Dongguan Market, a market with street food and colorful local character. It caters to the Muslim devotees of the temple, but you’ll be able to peruse pastries, nuts and grains, and the halal grocery habits of Xining households. Getting There: Peruse the neighboring streets next to the Dongguan Grand Mosque. Book a hotel nearby.
Located almost 27 km north of Xining city center sits Kumbum Monastery or Ta’er Monastery (Otherwise known as “Little Tower Temple”). Constructed in 1583, as one of six most important monasteries for the Yellow Hat sector of Buddhism (or Gelug), it holds four monastic universities, many ornate temples and 400 monk residents. Note: Photography is prohibited in certain areas of the temples.
Getting there: Taxis are easiest but you can also take the Huangzhong Special Line bus to Huangzhongta Station from Xining Railway Station. Address: No3 N. Jinta Road, Huangzhong
Getting To and Around Xining
Xining Airport is in Huzhu County and around 28km miles from downtown Xining. You can take an airport taxi for around 100RMB ($14.53) or take an airport shuttle bus to Bayi Road Coach Station. The ticket fare is CNY 21/person ($3) . Then take a taxi to your hotel. The cab fare is around CNY 15 ($2.18).
Getting Around in Xining is best done by bus, taxi or hiring a driver. There is currently no metro although one is in the process of being built. A large number of tourists take taxis as they are inexpensive. Around 18 CNY for the first 3 km and 1.6 CNY/km after 3 km. 10km (6 mi ) or more is 2.4 CNY/km. City buses are also available for tourists but only run until 9pm; make sure you have correct change available. Getting further outside to other counties, you can take the train or the long distance buses (there are four bus terminal stations).
Accommodations in Xining
Qinghai Hotel is a 5 star hotel by western standards and is in a centrally located area of Xining. It’s walking distance from Xiaoyouyuan Children Park (fun to check out for its outdoor reading rooms, design and exercise stations), West Gate Badminton Gym, Xining Stadium. If you like to hike, nearby is a temple mountain viewpoint which overlooks the area and catches a glimpse of the Radio Tower (One of the viewpoints is featured at the start of my video)
Other Xining hotel options here.
Rainbow Park (Tu Minority village)
Rainbow Park is a living museum for the Tu ethnic minority tribe, who are known for making wine. The park is more like a live dramatic theme park which has shows, which lead its audience from one place to another enacting scenes of a story. This is located 32 km from downtown Xining and closer to the airport.
Other notable sites: Huzhu Beishan National Forest Park
Built in 1392 AD Ming Dynasty, Qutan Temple one of the oldest temples in the region. It’s notable for its ornate designs, and the fact not one nail was used for construction of this complex. The cut of each stone and wood needed to be extremely precise. As such, it took 35 years to build. Tucked in a rich mountain enclave, the surrounding scenery is inviting and a tranquil calm from the rigors of travel. Getting There: You can take a bus from Xining, but the journey will cost about half a day.
Tongren is a small monastic town in a region historically known as Amdo. This small town with a river running through it can feel like the wild wild west of China. Still, it’s got just enough hostel and cafe facilities for the traveler passing through. One of their must try foods is yak milk yogurt. It wasn’t my favorite, as it’s got a distinct musky flavor to it, even with sugar on it. Book accommodations in Tongren here.
Xining to Tongren landscape
Driving from Xining to Tongren by bus takes 4-5 hours by bus. The bus drive is worthwhile. The mountains are formidable and intense in their contrasting colors. The raging valley streams are flowing adding accents of warm beauty to the sparse vegetation. Rounding each corner, I want to gasp. My eyes don’t want to blink.
Wutun Temple – Lower & Upper
Cutting through the mountains and valleys, we eventually made it to Lower and Upper WuTan Temple (they are two temples). The lower temple houses a giant-sized Buddha, brightly red-painted prayer wheels and a room with a giant Buddha with many hands, much like the Hindu Shiva God. The room was the most impressive, with medium-sized Buddhas of varying expressions circling it as miniature Buddhas covering the wall looked on.
Getting to Tongren :
Buses from Xining leave every 30 min from the eastern bus station on Jianguo Lu. The drive takes around 4 hours.
During the drive you can feel the altitude shift a little as the air gets a little thin. I definitely felt like I was entering the “Rooftop of the World” with prayer flag tents, yurt lodgings, occasional yaks and fields and fields of yellow rapeseed flowers. Minority tribes and nomadic cultures you’ll find include Han, Mongolian, and Zang (also known as Tibetan). Be careful not to overexert yourself with activity as some may be vulnerable to altitude sickness.
Accommodations can be rather sparse. There seemed to be several tent/yurt lodgings along the way (but I can’t be sure they were for tourists) and a couple of hotels. However due to the travel time, you may want to allot at least two days. Some travel agents in Xining run packaged tours to the lake and Sand Island. Inquire with your hotel. More travel information here.
Qinghai Lake is the largest saltwater lake in China with 23 rivers feeding into it. The lake is home to the naked carp. It’s over 3,500 m above sea level. The drive alone will pass you through the Tibetan flatlands, where the air is thinner and the sun, just a little brighter. You can take a 15 minute hot air balloon ride for around $20USD. The ride does not go over the lake (as it is tethered to the ground); it just gives you a higher perspective of the overall vastness of the lake and its surroundings. There is a small museum, filled with stuffed taxidermy of local animals, a miniature of the lake and souvenirs.
Getting There: 3-4 long distance buses leave from the Xining station for Heimahe (between 7am-9am). From Heimache take a taxi for around 50RMB. It takes around 8 hours .
Sand Island at Qinghai Lake
Sand Island has a vastly different feel from the grasslands surrounding Qinghai Lake. Located north of the lake, it’s a desert of unbelievable rolling sand dunes and sand dune parks. Park fee activities can range but generally are around $15. You can ride ATVs, sand buggys or go sand boarding.
Old Silk road
On our way from the Qinghai Lake to Qilin, we passed Menyouan district. Erected in the town is a statue commemorating the Old Silk Road, which passed through this region, due to its abundance in copper and gold. Today, there is a small town surrounded by scenic grasslands and dramatic mountains dotted with shepherds and sheep and of course, yak.
Town of Qilian
The town of Qilian is a clean town with a Shan- Muslim community. The most striking feature about this town is that it’s surrounded by the red cast Qilian Mountains. It also has very clean streets and you won’t find many large supermarkets, with refrigerators. In fact, I’ve not seen one the entire time I’ve been in Qinghai. Walk on the streets at night and you’ll find hawker tents lining the sidewalks showcasing goat parts to welcome hungry customers in. Goat must be a delicacy in this region. Book your hotel here.
Right outside the town you’ll find the Zall Mountains, with green pastures, snow tipped mountain peaks and a vista that screams “Sound of Music”. It’s hard to keep your jaw from dropping from all this beauty. Definitely not to be missed!
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Food and Yaks
Vegetarians will be happy to know that there are vegetarian/vegetable options. However, you will need to find restaurants which have English menus. I visited a local noodle shop and the entire menu was in Chinese. If it weren’t for the fact I was with Japanese speakers (Japanese share similar characters), I wouldn’t have eaten there.
One standout fact of Qinghai is that it has a large amount of yaks. It’s said the amount is equivalent to cars per household. That’s a lot of yaks! As a result you’ll find many yak products from yak milk, yak jerky, yak meat, yak candy… even yak yogurt. The latter was not my favorite.
Note: This trip was sponsored by the Qinghai Tourism Board and Ctrip, so that I could be one of the first to share the next cultural hotspot in China. If you’re looking for a diverse cultural Chinese blend of Tibet, Muslim and Mongolia and dramatic landscapes, this is an amazing destination. It will be making its way into travel guidebooks in the stores soon!
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