Take an epic road trip through scenic Qinghai

While largely inhospitable, China's largest province offers stunning views

Prayer flags on a hillside overlooking Qinghai Lake
Qinghai doesn’t register too highly on most travel wish lists. And that’s understandable in a lot of ways; China’s largest province is a mostly inhospitable place (it’s one of the most sparsesly populated areas on earth), with few specific tourist attractions of the sort that get Chinese tour groups excited. But for some, these factors are part of the attraction of a trip way out west.

With an average elevation of over 3,000 metres above sea level, the terrain is regularly extraordinary and the sky often a striking shade of blue. Culturally, it’s strongly Tibetan, with pockets of Hui Muslims in the east. Indeed, before leaving, we were often told that Qinghai – the majority of which sits on the Tibetan Plateau – was ‘more Tibetan than Tibet’. It was a claim that we initially greeted with some scepticism, but having visited Tibetan temples and villages in the province and seen images of a certain spiritual leader prominently displayed throughout, it’s one we gave more credence.

That wasn’t quite the case with our first stop however. Qinghai’s capital, Xining, is a predominantly Hui city, its skyline punctuated with crescents and its streets filled with the aroma of barbecuing lamb rather than being characterised by prayer flags and yak butter. The central Grand Mosque can look a little drab when not filled with worshippers, though the streets behind it offer up some tasty Hui snacks and plenty of halal meat.

Located half an hour by car southwest from Xining city centre, Kumbum Monastery (also known as Taer Temple) is where Qinghai starts to look a lot more Tibetan. This sprawling complex dates back to 1583 and though there have been numerous reconstructions and adjustments since, it’s an impressive place and attracts swathes of pilgrims. There’s plenty to explore, including a striking emerald green-tiled and golden-roofed temple, but a highlight comes when we detour up to the very highest outposts of the site, affording sweeping views back across the area.

Just over two hours southeast of here, sits the town of Rebkong, referred to in Chinese as Tongren (actually the name of the county), the road to which is our first taste of the jaw-dropping scenery that driving in Qinghai can offer up. The single-lane highway zig-zags its way up toward a cloud-shrouded peak where a maroon-robed monk sits on the ground reeling out prayer flags in front of a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. As we summit, the windows are wound down on the car in front of us and hands appear from each side to toss torn pieces of scripture into the air as an offering, a kind of holy confetti.

Having wound our way down through sleepy villages along roads where goats appear to have right of way, we arrive in Rebkong. The monastery town and its surrounding villages are renowned for producing some of the most intricately beautiful thangkas (buddhist paintings) in the Tibetan world and shops selling the colourful artworks abound. The charmingly peeling structures that comprise Rongwo Gonchen Gompa – the main monastery here, founded in the early 1300s – see plenty of pilgrim visitors, but far fewer tourists, and you can easily spend an hour or two making your way around the various buildings. If you’re lucky, you might catch a lively debate among some of the 500 resident monks.

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Upper Monastery at Wutun Temple

The pair of monasteries (Upper and Lower) that make up Wutun Temple in the nearby village of Sengeshong are less important to pilgrims, but are where you’ll find the best examples of thangkas. On our visit, the roads to Sengeshong are barely worthy of the name, but new routes are under construction and even with the incredibly bumpy ride over, both monasteries are well worth making the trip for. We visit the Lower Monastery first thing in the morning and no one seems especially interested in taking an entry fee from us, with the monks instead happy to unlock doors and show us around the temple buildings before lingering in front of the donation boxes. At the Upper Monastery (which has a more stringent ticket policy), we’re again the only tourists on site, and we’re largely left to wander at will around the impressive complex, including a dedicated thangka centre, while young monks come and go. The artwork here is undeniably beautiful, but such skill doesn’t come cheap, with even an A4-sized poster accompanied by a four-digit asking price.

From here, a three-hour drive east along more stunning mountain roads will take you across the border into Gansu province and drop you at Xiahe, home to the important Tibetan Yellow Hat sect buddhist monastery at Labrang. But sticking to Qinghai, two hours north is another area of outstanding natural beauty, Kanbula National Forest Park. Here, bizarrely beautiful rust-coloured rock formations drop down to a turquoise stretch of water as the road weaves between them high above. It looks like something out of a sci-fi film – it’s little surprise that we stumble across a crew making a Chinese-style Avatar knock-off here.

Further north again is the vast expanse of Qinghai Lake, which does look feasibly like a hai (ocean), and a little way west the salt waters of Chakayan. Neither is an especially impressive destination in itself – the former a fairly bleak site surrounded by small encampments and hotels that jostle for position to host sunrise-watchers; the latter having had its natural beauty somewhat Disney-fied. Nevertheless, the two bodies of water yet again provide opportunities to traverse some picture-perfect scenery, and Qinghai Lake is a good stop-off given its relative wealth of accommodation.

During our visit, a new road is under construction north from Qinghai Lake toward the Qilianshan mountain range, and over into the Dunhuang area of Gansu. This means a mix of perfect, hardly-driven-upon tarmac, punctuated by ‘diversions’ down scree slopes and through streams. Flanked by peaks with fresh drifts of snow on either side and with few signs of life aside from the birds of prey swooping overhead in the evocatively clear blue skies, it’s a phenomenal drive through scenery that’s almost impossibly idyllic.

But by this point, we’re starting to run out of appropriate adjectives to describe the scenery; it truly is unlike anything we’ve seen outside of Tibet itself. And the journey around the destinations described above only takes in a tiny part of Qinghai. Out to the west lies the enormous Kekexili nature reserve, and further south the area surrounding Yushu, where you’ll find the basins of the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong Rivers.

Qinghai might not rank too highly on most people’s travel wish lists, but there’s a huge amount to see and we’re completely enamoured – once spring makes it driver-friendly again, we’ll be back.

Essential info

Getting around
We recommend renting a car (we paid around 1,500RMB for a week) and driving to get the most out of a trip to Qinghai. The flexibility it offers, plus the thrill of making your way along some of the most interesting roads to drive in the country, mean that it’s well worth it. There are rental outlets at both Xining Airport and at the city’s train stations and we strongly advise you pay a little more for a 4WD – we still can’t quite believe we made it through some of those /tracks in a VW Santana without any major breakdowns. If you’ve got a foreign driving license, check out our guide to getting it converted into a Chinese one below.

If you don’t drive, it’s worth considering hiring a driver – again for the freedom it gives you to stop or take a diversion when you feel like it. Private cars with a driver can often be chartered through the main hotels in Xining to undertake the ‘grand loop’ up to Qinghai Lake and into Gansu. Alternatively, there are bus services criss-crossing the region, as well as some rail lines, though with these a bit of Chinese language skill will come in handy.

Where to stay
Outside of Xining and a handful of other large urban centres, expect accommodation to be basic. If you like your creature comforts, then you’ll need to do a fair bit of research and planning, but if you can get by without five star hotels (and as long as you’re not travelling at peak times), you can generally afford to wing it – if you don’t like the look of the guesthouse with outdoor toilets and showers in Kanbula Park for example, you can just drive on to the next town. Having the Ctrip app or using Dianping to locate nearby hotels is recommended.

When to go
It’s worth planning your route around the province in advance and aiming for a spring trip, when warmer temperatures will make the mountain roads easier to navigate.

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