QINGHAI (Xining, Taer Lamasery, Koko Nor)


QINGHAI PROVINCE is in a region of barren, desolate mountains and high deserts between the Gobi Desert and the Tibetan Plateau. Also regarded a Chinese Siberia, because so many political prisoners were sent here in the 1950s and 60s, it is so poor that plows are pulled by people instead of animals because there is not enough food to feed a donkey, a mule, an ox or a horse.

The average altitude of Qinghai is above 4,500 meters and almost every inch is covered by brown mountains, brown deserts or brown grasslands. Water is so scarce that the people take baths and wash their faces in yak milk instead of water. The only locally-grown food is raised in crude greenhouse made from plastic stretched over a bamboo frame.

Qinghai is where China's first atomic and hydrogen bombs were exploded and the present Dalai Lama was born. About a fifth of the 6 million people are Muslims. Most of these are Hui Muslims. Another fifth are Tibetans. There are also large number of Mongolians, Uyghurs, and Kazakhs, and of course Han Chinese, who make up about half the population. Most people live in eastern Qinghai. Qingahi Tibetans are given more freedom to practice their religion than Tibetans in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Pictures of the Dalai Lama are openly displayed in temples, craft workshops and small stores in way unthinkable in the TAR.

Residents there say their homeland has three "too manys" and three "too littles:" too many stones, winds and sand and too little rain, grass and soil. Few people live further west past the "Gate of the Bravest People in the World" in the "Land of Ghosts." In southern Qinghia are mountains over 7,000 meters high. Tourist Office:Qinghai Provincial Tourism Bureau, 21 Huaghe Rd. 810001, Xining, Qinghai China, tel. (0)- 971-900-6020, fax: (0)- 971-823-9515

Qinghai map
Tibetan-Qinghai Plateau is the most extensive high plateau in the world. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it has an average altitude of 16,000 feet and covers 715,000 square miles (including areas outside of Tibet). Accounting for a forth of China’s total land area, it also is the home of the world's highest lake, an unnamed 19,000-foot-high body of water---with a maximum length of 5 miles and a maximum width of 3 miles---and the highest named lake, 18,400-foot-high Burog Co, with a maximum length of 11 miles and a maximum width of 5 miles.

The Tibetan plateau is bounded to the south by the Himalayas, to the west by the Karakoram, to the east by the Tangkula Mountains and to the north by the Kunlun and Nan Shan mountains and the Taklamakan Desert. Movement into the area has traditionally been made along mountain corridors. The most difficult obstacles were often at the lower elevations were mighty rivers created valleys with step slopes and cliffs. The upper elevations were often marked by plains and plateaus and relatively gentle slopes.

The Tibetan Plateau if the source of several of the world’s great rivers, including the he Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow River. Before it was pushed upwards by mountain building activity, it was a well watered plain but as it and the Himalayas were pushed up it was deprived of rain and became he dry plateau that its is today.

Tibetan-Qinghai Climate: Tibet is sometimes called the "Land of the Snows" even though it snows relatively infrequently. Tibet receives 46 centimeters of precipitation or less a year. Wind is constant and the air is very dry. It. Tibetans often wrap a bandanna or shawl around their mouths for protection against windblown sand and dust. The best time to travel to Tibet is June through October. Other times of the year it is too cold. June and July are often rainy in eastern Tibet.

The temperatures frequently drop below minus 30̊F in the winter and sometimes rise above 100̊F in the summer. The temperature can drop 80̊F in a single day, and the extremes of hot and cold are enough to break up the granite mountains into dust and sand, and release fierce winds, stinging hailstorms, and blinding dust storms. It is no surprise many Tibetans believe that hell is a bitterly cold place not an inferno.


halal butcher in Xining
Xining (4½ hours from Lanzhou by train) is the capital of Qinghai. A desolate frontier town and the last major town before Lhasa, it is populated by a mix of Muslims, Chinese and Tibetans. The train to Xining climbs to altitude of 8,000 feet on its way to the Tibetan plateau, passing cliffs with troglodyte caves with dizzying stairways.

Tourist Office: Qinghai Provincial Tourism Bureau, 21 Huaghe Rd. 810001, Xining, Qinghai China, tel. (0)- 971-900-6020, fax: (0)- 971-823-9515 Web Sites: Travel China Guide Travel China Guide Maps: China Map Guide China Map Guide Hotel Web Site: Sinohotel Sinohotel Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Travellerspoint (click China and place in China) Travellerspoint Getting There: Xining is accessible by air and bus on is on the train line between Langzhou and Golmud. Travel China Guide (click transportation) Travel China Guide Lonely Planet (click Getting There) Lonely Planet

Taer Lamasery

Dongguan mosque in Xining
Taer Lamasery (25 kilometers southwest of Xining) is one of the six largest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries of the Yellow Hat Sect and one of the largest lamaseries outside Tibet. Covering over 100 acres, it contains 35 buildings and temples filled with Han and Tibetan art, butter sculptures, murals and appliques that are known as "the three wonders of the Taer." One erotic sculpture shows a woman having sex with an ox.

Inside the monastery halls, monks beat on drums while chanting in shrieking voice in rooms filled with smoke from yak butter lamps and incense burners with cypress leaves. Stuffed yaks, goats and bears are placed around the temple and offerings are pinned to them. The huge kitchen smells like a tannery. Meals there are sometimes cooked in seven-foot vats capable cooking 13 yaks at one time.

Taer Monastery
Taer is located at the site of the former home of the founder of the Yellow Sect, Zong Kapa, who preached here 500 years ago before moving onto Ganden monastery near Lhasa. While in Lhasa, Zong's mother wrote him and asked him to return, Zong wrote back he couldn't make it. At that instance, the story goes, a pipal tree miraculously sprang up at his birthplace, the same way a Bodhi tree arose when Buddha received the enlightenment. The monastery was built around the pipal tree in 1560.

Taer Monastery is also known as Kumbum or Kumbun Monastery. Among the other miracles that have occurred there over the years have been the sudden appearance of trees at the Flower Temple and strange inscriptions that have been mysteriously carved into in their trunks. On display in one of the temples is the white horse that dropped dead after bearing the 9th Panchen Lama here in 1903.

The present Dalai-Lama was born in the hills nearby Taer and the 3rd Dalai Lama is buried in the monastery's Nine-Roomed Hall. Before the period of Chinese repression, 3,600 monks lived here. During the Cultural Revolution there were virtually none. By the mid-1980s, the number of monks had increased to 500 again.

Taer Monastery is regarded as the most Beijing-friendly Tibetan monastery. It was recently restored as part of a four-year, $5 million project paid for by Beijing because the main lama who resided there was deemed to be cooperative (the lama ended up escaping to India and the California in 1998). Former President Jiang Zemin visited the monastery.

Kumbum monastery
(Taer monastery)
Sometimes there is a heavy police presence at the monastery and lamas have been paraded in front of the foreign press to tell reporters they have religious freedom. More than 600 monks have been put through three-month re-education classes and have been forced to disavow Tibetan independence and the Dalai Lama.

The monks have been at the center of the controversy over support of the Beijing-selected Panchen Lama versus the Dalai-Lama-selected Panchen Lam (they have publicly said they supported the Beijing-selected but privately said they supported the Dalai-Lama-selected one). Portraits of the Dalai Lama are visible.

The monastery is very busy. Pilgrims arrive in great numbers and young boys study to be monks. Renovations have been done with money donated from Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong as well as Beijing.

Kanbula National Geopark (120 kilometers from Xining) features specular rock formations like those found in Arizona and Utah. Visitors can stay in beach ball-colored cabins called space capsules for $14 a night.

Taktser, Birthplace of the Dalai Lama

Taktser (an hour by car from Xining) is where the present and 14th Dalai Lama was born on July 6, 1935 in a mud and stone hut when the village had 20 families. Known in Chinese as Hongyacun, it is situated in a remote and desolate region in western China formally known as Amdo region. The village is comprised of households clustered on a red-rock hill that villagers say resembles a crouching lion. The Dalai Lama’s parents gave him the name Lhamo Dondrup (which means "Wish-fulfilling Goddess"). In his autobiography the Dalai Lama wrote: “my family was one of twenty or so making a living from the land there.” In Tibetan Taktser means "Roaring Tiger.”

Today Taktser is made up of 250 or so households clustered on a red-rock hill. Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “Neighbors pointed us to the nicest home in the village, a courtyard was later rebuilt, and is now maintained by a relative of the Dalai Lama’s. The authorities keep him close; according to the state news agency, he receives a salary from the government and serves on a local political advisory body.

An old woman with silver teeth and a pair of braids opened the wooden doors. The courtyard was lined with cobblestones and flanked by flower beds; prayer flags fluttered overhead. When she saw me, she said, “Sorry, they’ve told us foreigners aren’t allowed inside. If we let them, there will be problems for us.”

Koko Nor

Koko Nor
Koko Nor (100 miles west of Xining) means "Sky Blue Sea" in Mongolian and is known to the Chinese as Qinghai Lake. Situated on a 10,000 foot plateau, this saline body of water is the largest lake in China and Central Asia but it may not be that way for long. Even considering seasonal fluctuation, which can reduce the lake by almost a third in the dry season, the lake is shrinking.

In 1965 the average size of the lake was 10,000 square kilometers. Today it averages much less than that. In the last three decades the water level has dropped almost four meters, exposing an area the size of Singapore, and number of rivers feeding have dropped by half. Smaller lakes are breaking off from the larger lake and large sand dunes tower on the eastern edge of the lake.

The terraces of salt that rise up from the shore indicate that the lake has been shrinking for a long time: the result of the shrinkage of some glaciers which help feed the lake as well as less rain and desertificition caused by overgrazing. The whole region is dotted by salt lakes, which are often completely evaporated and look like basins of freshly fallen snow.

China’s first atomic bombs were prepared at a site on the northeastern shore of the lake in 1964. Salt and potash was mined from the central plain around the lake. A naval torpedo testing station operated until the 1980s, when water levels dropped too low. For a while the station was a museum but now it is abandoned more than 100 meters from the shore.

The lake used be full of fish and fisherman pulled in large catches of an unusual scaleless naked carp. But fish levels have dropped off catastrophically and all fishing ins now banned Web Site and Getting There: The north side is accessible by train but unfortunately most of the bird life is on the southern side. Most people get there as part of an organized tour or rent a vehicle and driver. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet Travel China Guide Travel China Guide Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Travellerspoint (click China and place in China) Travellerspoint

20111125-220px-Bird Island.jpg
Bird Island
Bird Island
(360 kilometers from Xining) is a 800,000-square-meter piece of land that is more often a peninsula than an island. Over 100,000 birds of different species can be found here at certain times of the year pecking through the muck looking for worms and things. It is now an island in name only because the water has dried up around it. This has put crimps on the birdwatching activities and tourism.

Nongbaotan Nature Reverse (Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province) was established to protect a major breeding ground for black-necked cranes. Embracing spectacular lakes and wetlands, the reserve is 30 kilometers long and four kilometers wide. The grand Bayankela Mountains form a backdrop in the distance.


Xihai (near Koko Nor) is where China designed its first nuclear weapons in a facility known as Factory 221. At its height Factory 221 employed 30,000 people, mostly soldiers and scientists, most whom had no idea they were involved in making nuclear weapons. Those that did felt great pride about what they were doing. Xihai is a town of 10,000 that grew out of factory 221. When it opened 1,715 Tibetan nomads that occupied the 660-square-mile grassland were forced by the government to move

One researcher told the Los Angeles Times, “This place vanished from the map, We didn’t have an address, only Mining Area, Mailbox 210.” He said he was paid 82 yuan a month ($11 at current exchange rates), including 18 yuan to remain quiet about what they were doing. He said they endured -20̊F winters and were given rations of buns made with highland barley. But wasn’t enough. “Sometimes we had to dig [and eat] wild grass or catch fish from the lake or plant potatoes in the grassland to fill our stomach.”

Yaks and yak-cow hybrids

Factory 221 opened in 1958 and closed in 1983. was and open to tourists in 1995 but didn’t really begin attracting large numbers of people until 2007 when it was packaged as “Nuclear City.” The first thing that tourist see are chimneys rising from the ground and railroad tracks buried in the grass. As of 2007, a $10 million Nuclear City museum was being built and factories, bunkers and old sentry posts were being restored. Most of the work is financed by Beijing’s Propaganda Department.

The command headquarters for China’s first nuclear weapon research program is underneath ten meters of earth and reached through a three-ton steel door with three heavy locks. The rooms are said to be explosion- and poison-gas proof. .

In one room is old radio-telephone switchboard. In another is a 1.8 horsepower Soviet electrical generator. There are chairs and air filter machines. The presence of pencils give the appearance of the facility was just abandoned. Most of the equipment has been removed The room where the button was pushed to activate China’s first nuclear device is about nine meters square. A wax figure depicts the general who telephoned Zhou Enlai to report ths bomb’s success.

In the environmental protection room are pictures of masks and protective clothing. The clothes are made from a denim-like material that created an illusion of protection without really providing any. It widely believed that many who worked at the site suffered from radioactivity exposure. A concrete enclosures surrounds the last remaining radioactive material.

Among the exhibits are a bunker with portholes used by scientist to observe test explosions. The radioactive waste is said to have ben buried din a pit five miles from Xinhao. The government insists no one was affected by radioactivity but locals tell a different story: of children coming down with strange diseases and four people killed by an explosion in 1969. In 2001, two Tibetan tried to dynamite into the facility. One died a the scene. One escaped but probably died of radiation sickness. Web Site: Travel China Guide Travel China Guide


Golmud is a center for mining and chemical manufacturing. It used to be where people worked out overland travel to Tibet, which has been made obsolete by the new railroad to Tibet. Web Site: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Getting There: Golmud is accessible by train from Lanzhou and is on the Beijing to Lhasa train line.

Qinghai plateau

Bus from Golmud to Lhasa: Before the Tibetan railroad was built CITS charged $150 for the bus trip between Golmund and Lhasa, which included a thee-day tour (locals paid $10 for the same bus). The road is unpaved and in bad condition. The bus drivers didn't stop very often. Bathroom stops meant the men went to one side of the road and women to the other. The trips took about 28 hours and passed through deserts and moonscapes. Passengers often saw wild horses, antelopes and yaks. The Qinghai-Tibet Highway was built in the 1950s. The new trains follows it much of the way.

Ravine of Baboons (Xingxing Xia) has traditionally been regarded as the frontier of Chinese Turkestan. Describing this region the famous English explorer Mildred Cable wrote: "The desert which lies between Ansi and Hami is a howling wilderness, and the first thing which strikes the traveler is the dismalness of its uniform, black, pebble-strewn surface."

Image Sources: Province maps from the Nolls China Web site. Photographs of places from 1) CNTO (China National Tourist Organization; 2) Nolls China Web site; 3) Perrochon photo site; 4) Beifan.com; 5) tourist and government offices linked with the place shown; 6) Mongabey.com; 7) University of Washington, Purdue University, Ohio State University; 8) UNESCO; 9) Wikipedia; 10) Julie Chao photo site ; Wikipedia; Wiki Commons

Text Sources: CNTO, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

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