Known as the Switzerland of the East in books, Qilian is a picturesque town that you would not expect in Asia. Yet ask a Chinese tourist where Qilian is and you will probably expect a confused look. Despite how journalists describe Qilian, it never became a famous place. Moreover, its remote location deters tourists from actually wanting to visit (which can be a good thing). As such, Qilian remains an off-the-beaten track location that is waiting to be discovered. Moreover there are many things to do in Qilian that are worth a trip to this very quaint town!
Where exactly is Qilian? Qilian is located in the northern part of Qinghai province, about 200km north of the famous Qinghai lake. Most people do a trip around the lake, but leave out the detour to Qilian. Big mistake though as I felt that Qilian had much more to offer and see than Qinghai lake! I would even recommend people to specifically make it to Qinghai just to visit Qilian and the surrounding area.
What is there to see and do in Qilian? Here is a pretty comprehensive list of seven things you can do in Qilian:
1. Walk along the valley towards Qilian town (冰沟林海)
10km south of Qilian, the highway begins to run along a beautiful river enveloped by mountains and pine tree forests. This is Bing Gou Lin Hai, which is translated as the icy valley amidst the sea of trees. Take your bags out of the bus and walk this 10km to Qilian. It is an amazing, yet easy hike that will take you through beautiful forests, the riverside and amazingly rustic villages.
As you walk towards Qilian, you cannot help but notice the magnificent mountains that tower over the area. There is one that will definitely catch your eye, which is the almost symmetrical mountain known as the Cow’s Heart Mountain (牛心山). As you approach Qilian, the pine tree-filled mountains would slowly turn to bare red-rock mountains, which is an interesting sight.
2. Walk along the red-mud river
A huge river runs through the heart of Qilian, collecting the red-mud from the surrounding mountains. In summer, the melting glaciers mix with the red soil from the mountains, creating a milky red-coloured mud. Walk along the riverside or sit at a pavilion on the river. It is a great place to just relax and enjoy the views of the area.
3. Climb the Zhuoer Mountain
If you are lazy, you can always take a bus up the mountain to the viewpoint, but I suggest that you slowly climb up to take in the views! The viewpoint on top of the Zhuoer Mountain is spectacular. You can see the entire Qilian town as well as the beautiful Cow’s Heart Mountain. Coincidentally, the viewpoint is also a Tibetan Buddhist temple hall, where you can pray for good luck and a safe journey. You can also spot this white temple from afar.
4. Explore Qilian town
They do not give titles to places for no reason! Qilian is definitely worth its title as the Switzerland of the East. There are many beautiful European style buildings in town and you can discover them hiding in various estates. There is also a beautiful walking street built in European style, but mixed with interesting Chinese influences such as a night market and karaoke rooms. The town comes to life at night when the locals go out for barbeques and beer. You can also see the Zhuoer Mountain light up at night, which is quite a beautiful sight.
5. Hike up the Bayi Glacier (or 1st August Glacier)
Located about 180km from Qilian town, the Bayi Glacier is worth the day trip. You first drive along one of the most remote highways in China, known as the Erga highway (二尕公路). This was one of the best road trips I have taken as I was literally flanked by beautiful snow mountains on both sides of the road, which ran in the middle of vast grassland. A river runs along certain sections of the highway, which adds to the beauty of the road trip.
The glacier is located about 5000m above sea level, so you must be aware that you may experience some form of altitude sickness if you are not acclimatized. The weather up on the mountains is unpredictable. When I was there, it was extremely foggy and you could not see more than 10m. Suddenly the sky cleared up and the glacier revealed itself. I was mesmerized and totally wowed at how beautiful the glacier was. There it was, standing tall and solemnly in front of me. A true beauty indeed, and something that we should cherish soon before it all melts!
6. Take a scenic plane ride
Beautiful snow-capped mountains, mountain grasslands, meandering rivers and lush pine tree forests surround Qilian. The best way to take in all of this impressive nature is to go on a plane ride! The plane ride around Qilian is unlike what you would normally associate with a plane. It is more of a glider copter, where you sit on an open-air chair so that you can enjoy the 360 degrees views of the area. I was lucky enough to watch the live camera of the pilot’s view and I was stunned at how beautiful Qilian was from above.
7. Feel the Tibetan Buddhist vibes at Arou Monastery (阿柔大寺)
Although Arou Monastery does not have a lustrous history, it is an architectural gem. Walk along the walls of the temple compound to turn the prayer wheels or observe how the Tibetans walk and kowtow around the entire temple. Admire the beautiful tangka art on display in the halls. Some are hundreds of years old and peeling, but they certainly exude an aura of beauty and perfection. There is something inexplicable about Tibetan Buddhist temples: somehow you would always feel at peace with yourself, as if someone is watching over you!
There are not many “Switzerlands” of the East in this world, and Qilian is rightfully one. Think of beautiful alpine scenery, lakes and rivers, on top of Chinese-styled pavilions and bridges and you will think of Qilian. It is a great place to just relax and have a picnic by the river, or visit the surrounding mountains that make Qilian so beautiful. Next time you visit this part of China, do not skip Qilian just because it seems like a detour (it will always be). There are many things to do in Qilian, this beautiful, quaint little town, and you will be pleasantly surprised!
I strongly recommend that you plan your trip to Qilian around greater regions such as Qinghai or Sichuan. Here are some things you can do in Qinghai as well as some suggestions for things to do in Chengdu as well as what to eat in Sichuan.
Have you heard of Qilian before this article? Share your opinions with me in the comments below. Also, do share this article with your friends so that more people know of this beautiful area!