This large salt lake in little traveled Qinghai Province in western China measures 4,635 square kilometers in area. Major attractions around it are Bird Island where many species of birds come to nest or rest during their transcontinental migrations, Sankuaishi (Three stones) and Sand Island. Qinghai Lake has become a tourist destination popular for biking and bird watching, the spectacular high-mountain scenery, and the cultural mix of Tibetan, Mongolian, and Muslim people.
Qinghai Lake is about 130 kilometers or 80 miles from Xining and is about 3,205 meters or 10,515 feet above sea level. This altitude is high enough to give a lot of people altitude sickness if they stay there more than a few hours. The lake is frozen over in the winter and is forbiddingly cold then. But it is a popular tourist area in the summer. The water is 6 percent salt, so the water is much saltier than sea water that is about 3.5 percent salt. But lots of species of fish live there. The average depth of the lake is 19 meters.
Part of the attraction of traveling to Qinghai Lake is the sparse population and the ethnic mix. One thing you might be able to find during this bike trip is some solitude. Qinghai Province is little known to tourists, and it may be the province of China with the smallest population. However, it is also one of the biggest provinces in the country. About 7 million people live in the province. When the weather is warm in the summer months, there are ethnic festivals of the Tibetans and Muslims. The lake is the biggest lake in China, and it is away from major towns.
Another attraction is biking. You can rent or buy bikes in Xining. There are campgrounds and hotels around the lake for accommodations. The lake is a stage for the popular Qinghai Tour professional bicycle racing event that is held every year in July at the same time as the Tour de France. So it is already a favorite biking area in China. The high altitude of an average of about 3,200 meters or about 10,500 feet makes biking around it strenuous. However, the rewards of seeing beautiful scenery that soars to 4,000 meters and seeing the local cultural mix make the strain worth it for many people.
Qinghai Lake (青海湖) is called the biggest lake in China, but it is shrinking. It is thought that part of the cause of decrease in size is overgrazing and irrigation in the area. Herdsmen have lived around the lake for hundreds of years, but now, the government wants to resettle many ethnic herdsmen away from it. The lake has been decreasing in area for the last century. Seven hundred square kilometers of its area have been lost, and its surface level has dropped by 13 meters. Big sand dunes have been blowing in and forming a peninsula of sand. If it doesn't stop growing, the lake may be split in two. Small side lakes and ponds are forming as the water level drops.
Qinghai Lake is one of the most popular rides in China. The lake is already a stage for the popular Qinghai Lake International Cycling Race that is held every year in July at the same time as the Tour de France. See Qinghai Lake biking guide.
The lake area has beautiful scenery, interesting events, and a bird park refuge. You can go to Bird Island to see the birds. Birds travel there from all over Asia, and species of birds you may never have heard of stop there on their journeys. The park is in the northwest corner of the lake. It consists of Egg Island and Phalacrocorax Island. It is open about 7 am to 6 pm. You can rent tents in the area of the bird park or stay at Bird Island Hotel (Niao Dao Binguan). Doubles are about 120 RMB or 18 USD. There are other hotels and tent camping rental spots around the lake.
Bus: Several long-distance buses leave from Xining station for a little Tibetan town called Heimahe that is on the southwest corner of the lake. These buses leave from 7:30 to 9:00. It costs 20 RMB and takes 5 hours. If you want to go to bird island, you might find a bus or taxi going north from there. Instead of going to the southwest side of the lake, you can also get off at other towns around the lake.
Train: A train leaves at 09:40 for a town called Haergai that is on the northern side of the lake. It arrives at about 14:30. Taxis and private vehicles probably wait there for passengers.
Water and food quality: A major problem is that many tourists get sick from the food and water. The piped water isn't drinkable unless it is boiled or treated. Many tourists get stomach pains and diarrhea.
Altitude sickness: Altitude sickness is the other problem. If you stay there overnight, you might need to rest. Some people may find that they have trouble breathing at night.
Bird Island Information: Tickets cost about 80 RMB or 10 USD. It is open between about 7 am and 6 pm during the season. The best time to visit to see birds is May.