Qinghai Travel Guide - How to Plan a Trip to Qinghai
Qinghai (青海), which literally means 'blue sea', is an inland province in central west China, adjacent to Xinjiang, Tibet, Sichuan, and Gansu.
Qinghai is famed for its spectacular scenery, multi-ethnic minority culture, and rich Buddhist heritage throughout the region.
As an unconventional destination, we highly recommend you put Qinghai on your travel list for its unspoiled treasures.
The province got its name from its huge inland saltwater lake: Qinghai Lake, which is the largest lake in China. The capital city of Qinghai Province is Xining, and the province is often abbreviated to Qing (青).
The Most Popular Attractions in Qinghai
Qinghai is a large province and each city has many attractions. Here, we have handpicked the must-see attractions in Qinghai:
- Qinghai Lake: This huge salt lake measures 4,635 square kilometers (1,790 square miles) in area— the size of Connecticut State or Somerset in the UK. It is popular for biking and bird watching, the spectacular high-mountain scenery, and the cultural mix of Tibetan, Mongolian, and Muslim people.
- Kumbum Monastery: One of the two most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries outside Tibet itself, it's the perfect place to see yak butter sculptures, traditional embroidery, and witness the debating of the lamas. Kumbum Monastery is a Tibetan gompa in Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province. It's well-known for being the birthplace of Je Tsongkhapa — the founder of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. As the highest institute of Buddhist studies in Qinghai, over 400 monks reside at Kumbum and visitors can see them in their daily activities.
- Chaka Salt Lake: Known as "sky mirror" in China because of its emerald-green water, Chaka Lake is a perfect place for photography, fun vlogs, and romantic strolls.
- The Qilian Mountains: With an average elevation of between 4,000 and 5,000 m (13,000–16,000 ft), the snow-topped Qilian Mountains are rich in glaciated landscapes. It is also one of the best preserved intact-ecosystem regions in the world, rich in species and pristine natural scenery.
- The Qaidam Basin: The highest plateau basin in China, it possesses abundant natural resources and has a Martian-like landscape.
Weather and Best Time to Visit Qinghai
Qinghai has a typical high-altitude plateau continental climate. The weather there has the following features: a big temperature difference between day and night, strong solar radiation, rare rainfall/snowfall, short cool summers with long days, and long harsh winters.
The best time to visit Qinghai Province is from May to October. In the middle of May every year, the grass becomes green, plenty of migratory birds congregate at Qinghai Lake, and the province comes into its period of warm-weather vigor.
July is the hottest month in Qinghai, when the highest temperature can reach 36°C (97°F). However, you should still bring warm clothes, because average daytime temperatures across the province are not higher than 18°C (64°F), and some nights are below freezing even in July outside the cities.
Summer is the best season to travel in Qinghai, because the grasslands and lakes are all at their most beautiful in this season, and many ethnic minorities celebrate their festivals in summer. Since the modest rainfall falls mostly in summer, travelers should pay attention to the weather forecast and dress/pack accordingly, though Qinghai's mild summer weather is highly unlikely to stop travel plans.
Reasons You Must Visit Qinghai
1. Qinghai Is an Untapped Destination
Far removed from the noisy metropolises, Qinghai is not an island — it’s “the sapphire on the plateau”.
Qinghai was once a part of the ancient Silk Road due to its unique geography offering a northern alternative to Gansu’s Hexi Corridor. To build the trade bridge between East and West, countless envoys and business travelers crossed this plateau land with their footsteps and horse-drawn carriages. They passed by Qinghai Lake, crossing the vast Qaidam Basin and the Altun Mountains, before finally entering Xinjiang on the road to Central Asia.
Less-traveled Qinghai Province covers a huge area and is sparsely populated. Hence, you can enjoy untarnished plateau scenery, diverse wildlife, and immerse yourself in a unique blend of Tibetan-Muslim culture without the falseness of over-tourism.
Covering an area of 721,000 square kilometers (278,000 square miles) but having a population of only 6 million, there’s definitely lots of untouched wilderness still awaiting the first blemishes of modernization.
Today, by taking the classic Qinghai Silk Road journey, you can still witness the same scenery as the traders did a thousand years ago.
2. It’s Recommendable for Everyone
For regular travelers, Qinghai offer glorious plateau scenery including stunning icy mountains and glaciers, grand prairies, alpine meadows, vast deserts, Gobi landscapes, and warm wetlands. You’ll definitely get the rewarding feeling of witnessing rich natural beauty.
For adventurers, Qinghai will also ensure you’ll get pleasure of being among the first few to reach and explore unknown areas and to have experiences that others haven’t yet had the reward of discovering.
3. It’s a Year-Round Heaven for Travelers
Qinghai serves visitors with a diversity of exclusive seasonal attractions.
In spring, verdant landscapes replace the quiet and snow of winter. You can stay in a forest house like in fairy tale, enjoy the wild flowers growing in bunches all over the mountains, discover the freshness of nature waking up and dressing the pastures in green, or stay beside Qinghai Lake, where you can witness the melting ice and welcome thousands of guests from afar - migratory birds.
In summer and autumn, Qinghai soaks in a colorful sea. It will be a pleasure to have access to the vast green grasslands and the surrounding mountains. Tens of thousands of hectares of golden rape flowers spread over Menyuan and Qinghai Lake’s shores, and the fairy-tale white Chaka Salt Lake attracts numerous bird species.
In winter, Qinghai is the perfect private escape. Snow rules the world and most of the scenic areas are in their off-season. It’s the best time to slow your pace and encounter this enchanting destination in solitude. Or meet hardier souls, who are more likely to be like-minded travelers, during your journey.
4. You Can See Diverse Geography in One-stop
Whether you are natural scenery sightseers or explorers, Qinghai has some incredible landscapes and experiences for many types of travelers. Qinghai is home to various terrains: plateau, basin, Gobi Desert, Yardang landforms, grassland, snow-capped mountains, oases, and a huge lake.
The spectacular Kunlun Mountains stretch west from central Qinghai (Golmud); the Tanggula Mountains are in the southwest of Qinghai; and the Qilian Mountains mark the north of the province. The Qaidam Basin, covering an area of 258,000square kilometers (100,000 square miles), lies in the northwest of Qinghai Province.
The vast grasslands throughout Qinghai play an important role in the pastoral economy of various peoples, unifying Qinghai's population.
The terrain of Qinghai is generally higher in the west and lower in the east. There are more mountains and basins in the north and more plateaus and plains in the south.
5. Colorful Ethnic Minority Culture
In Qinghai, you’ll meet the specific fusion of Tibetan and Muslim culture throughout their life.
Qinghai is a multi-ethnic province with many ethnicities, including Tibet, Hui, Mongol, Tu, and Salar, making up about 43% of the total population. Over half the population is Han Chinese, mostly living in the northeast around Xining.
Since ancient times, Qinghai Province has been a place for ethnic minority tribes. There were a lot of wars because Qinghai is a place of strategic importance. It was the wars which brought many different cultures into Qinghai, including Han culture, Tibetan culture, Hui culture, and cultures of other minorities. Generally speaking, Tibetan culture plays the most significant role in Qinghai Province.
Hence, the province is a great destination for having a close encounter with China's unique ethnic customs, especially Tibetan, Hui, Mongol, Tu, and Salar customs.
6. Convenient Transportation
Qinghai is adjacent to Xinjiang, Tibet, Sichuan, and Gansu provinces in the center of western China. Hence, Qinghai is great to include in a tour to explore the west of China fully.
Qinghai now has quite a well-developed transportation network. It is accessible by air, bullet train, and well-invested roads. Major cities in China have flights and trains to Qinghai (Xining), making inter-provincial transportation very convenient. Xining is the transport hub for excursion tours into Qinghai or a Qinghai-Gansu trip.
Highways are the main means of transportation in Qinghai, with railways and airports comparatively few.
- Highways: As the main means of transportation in Qinghai Province, long-distance coaches use the well-developed road network to access cities within the province and in other provinces. Private vehicle (and driver) hire is the most popular (foreign) tourist transport in Qinghai.
- Railways: There are two main railways running east-west through Qinghai Province: the Qinghai-Tibet Railway and the Lanzhou-Qinghai Railway. Together with other branch lines, some key cities in Qinghai are accessible with this vein of railways.
- Airports: There is one main airport in Qinghai Province: Xining Caojiapu Airport (by far the largest and most useful), and eight smaller airports that may be of some use: Golmud Airport, Yushu Batang Airport, Huatugou Airport, Qilian Airport, Delingha Airport, Gonghe Air Base, Golong Maqin Airport, and Haibei Airport.
Where Is Qinghai Located?
Qinghai is officially in Northwest China. The fourth largest province in the nation, it is about 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) from east to west and 800 kilometers (500 miles) from north to south, covering an area of 721,000 square kilometers (278,000 square miles).
Topographically, Qinghai Province is the northeast part of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. The height above sea level of most of the province is between 3,000 meters and 5,000 meters (10,000–16,000 feet).
As a result, Qinghai Province is the source of the three greatest rivers in China (the Yangtze River, the Yellow River, and the Lancang (Mekong) River), and the province is known as 'the water tower of China'.
Recommended Tibet Tours:
Where to Stay in Qinghai
Tourism in Qinghai has developed rapidly in recent years. Accommodation options in major cities cater for different budgets: from luxury hotels to guesthouses. Star-rated hotels are not widely available in Qinghai, and outside Xining most hotels are quite basic, even around the tourist areas.
Most rural hotels are local stilted buildings (built to avoid permafrost or the winter freeze). Hotels generally don't provide a Western breakfast or have very limited choices, and spoken English is also limited. In the long and cold “winter off season”, many hotels shut down for months.
Popular Qinghai Tours
Qinghai is such a large, complex, and remote destination that going with a tour guide and driver is almost essential to making your visit hassle-free and a more fulfilling experience. Our specialists have explored all the area’s facets and can help tailor a trip to match your interests.
- 8-Day Qinghai Lake, Zhangye, and Dunhuang Tour — Miraculous Qinghai and Legendary Silk Road Tour
Popular Qinghai Side Trips:
- 6-Day Xiahe, Langmusi and Zhagana Tour — Get a True Taste of Tibetan Culture Outside Tibet
- 7-Day Dunhuang, Zhangye, and Ejina Qi Photography Tour — When Silk Road Culture Meets Fabulous Fall Colors