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Front view of the Bayi Glacier in Qilian county, QInghai.

7 things you can do in Qinghai in China

Before visiting Qinghai in China, I must admit that I have not heard of this province! Ironically Qinghai is the fourth largest province in China, yet many people are unaware of its existence. What is there to see in Qinghai? Here are 7 amazing things you can do in Qinghai to justify the effort getting there!

1. Visit the Kumbum Monastery (塔尔寺 or ta er si)

View of the entrance of one of the halls at Kumbum Monastery, otherwise known as Ta Er Si.

Just 10km away from Xining, the capital of Qinghai, Kumbum Monastery is a place you have to visit! Kumbum Monastery is one of the four most important Tibetan Buddhist temples in the world and where the Yellow Sect (格鲁派 or Gelu Sect) was founded. It is a sprawling compound with halls that were built way back in the 1600s. One of the halls exhibits Tibetan Buddhist sculptures made purely from ghee (yes, a form of butter) and it is simply mesmerizing. Learn about the Tibetan Buddhist concept of reincarnation, or just explore the various halls and surprise yourselves.

2. Go around Qinghai Lake

View of the rapeseed fields along the coast of Qinghai lake.

Qinghai Lake is the largest lake in China. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, Qinghai lake is an amazing place to watch sunrise or sunset. Many people choose to rent a bicycle to go around the lake, which takes about three to four days. Alternatively you can share a car with other travellers and make a round trip around the lake. Unfortunately, the Tibetans consider this their holy lake so it is impossible to swim or fish!

3. Step into Caka Lake

The white reflections from the Caka Lake in Qinghai, China.Caka Lake is Asia’s version of Bolivia’s salt lake. It is a large salt lake that is still being mined commercially. The views are spectacular, especially of the white reflections from the extremely saline water. The water is only ankle deep and you can walk far into the lake. There are many domestic tourists, so visit early if you still want your quiet picture spot! If you wake up early enough, sunrise at the lake is something you should not miss.

4. Appreciate Tangka Art

View of a tangka art piece, with a Buddha in the main part of the picture flanked by other Tibetan Buddhist deities.

Qinghai is home to many of the best Tangka artists. Tangka is the ancient Tibetan Buddhist art form that has been passed down for generations. There are many famous villages in Qinghai that have breathtaking Tangka art galleries. The most famous village for Tangka art is Wutun, near Tongren county. Watch the monks paint or learn about the various symbolisms in an art piece at one of these galleries in Wutun village. If you are feeling rich, you can always take one home for USD4500 a square meter!

5. Eat hand-pulled lamb (手抓羊肉 or shou zhua yang rou)

Plate of hand-pulled lamb made by boiling lamb in water with herbs and spices.

Qinghai is home to the Hui Muslim ethnic minority and the hand-pulled lamb is their specialty. It is prepared simply by boiling the lamb in water with herbs and spices. If you are afraid of the smell of lamb, fret not! Here is what a local Hui has to say: The sheep in Qinghai eats grass from the grasslands, roams around freely, drinks spring water and more important, eats cordyceps (otherwise known as冬虫夏草, an expensive worm that can only be found in high altitudes). Absolutely smell-free!

6. Climb up the 1st August Glacier (八一冰川 or ba yi bing chuan)

Front view of the Bayi Glacier, otherwise known as the 1st August Glacier.

Not all glaciers are as easily accessible as the 1st August glacier. Located 5,000m above sea level, this is not for those with altitude sickness. As soon as you drive up to the glacier, the entire 2200m face of the glacier will appear before your very eyes. It is a monumental sight, especially if you have never been so close to one. Depending on the time of the year, you can even climb to the top of the glacier. Due to global warming, the glacier’s size is shrinking, so better go fast before it becomes an ice cube!

7. Explore Qilian county

View of Qilian town, with an eclectic mix of Western and Chinese architecture as well as beautiful snow-cap mountains as a backdrop.

Dubbed the Switzerland of the East, Qilian is indeed a confluence of European and Chinese architecture styles on a background of beautiful snow-capped mountains. Qilian was definitely one of the best towns I have seen in China and you should not miss it if you are already in Qinghai! Walk alongside bright-red mountain cliffs, gaze at undulating mountain ranges and explore the many beautiful parks in town. There is so much to do in Qilian, it is worth coming to Qinghai just to see this region alone.

 

These 7 things to do in Qinghai are just but the tip of the iceberg! Qinghai is enormous and it will take you even more time if you would like to explore the entire province. The next time you are in Sichuan or in Gansu, do put Qinghai in your itinerary as well and you will not regret it. It is a pity not many people know about this province despite so having so many things to do there!

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