QINGHAI PROVINCE is in a region of barren, desolate mountains and high deserts located mostly on the Tibetan Plateau but also touching the Gobi Desert. Regarded as a Chinese Siberia in the 1950s and 60s when many political prisoners were sent there, it used to be so poor that plows were pulled by people instead of animals because there was not enough food to feed a donkey, a mule, an ox or a horse. Things are better now.

Qinghai is a lot like Tibet. The average altitude is above 3,000 meters and almost every inch is covered by brown mountains, brown deserts or brown grasslands. Water is so scarce that some people take baths and wash their faces in yak milk instead of water. In many places the only locally-grown vegetables are raised in crude greenhouse made from plastic stretched over bamboo frames.

Qinghai is the fourth-largest state division in China but has the third-smallest population. Established in 1928 under the Republic of China and then ruled by Chinese Muslim warlords, it was where China's first atomic and hydrogen bombs were exploded and the present Dalai Lama was born. Called Qing for short, Qinghai was named after Qinghai Lake, the largest inland salt water lake in China. It was formerly known in English as Kokonor, derived from the Oirat name for Qinghai Lake. Today it is known for its vast expanses, stunning scenery and melting pot of cultures.

Qinghai Province covers 720,000 square kilometers (280,000 square miles), is home to about 5,7 million people and has a population density of 7.8 people per square kilometer. About 54 percent of the population lives in urban areas. Xining is the capital and largest city, with about 1.5 million people. Ethnic make up of Qinghai: Han Chinese: 54 percent; Tibetan: 21 percent; Hui: 16 percent; Tu: 4 percent; Mongol: 1.8 percent; Salar 1.8 percent. 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

Maps of Qinghai: chinamaps.org

Geography and Climate of Qinghai

Qinghai map
Qinghai is situated in the northeast of the Tibetan Plateau in Northwest China, The Tibetan Plateau is mainly composed of Qinghai Province and The Tibet Autonomous Region (Tibet). Qinghai ranks fourth in China in terms of size behind Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia.

Qinghai borders Gansu to the northeast, Xinjiang to the northwest, Sichuan to the southeast and the Tibet Autonomous Region to the southwest. The Yellow River originates in southern part of the province, while the Yangtze and Mekong have their sources in the southwestern part. Qinghai is separated by the Riyue Mountains (literally "Sun and Moon” mountains) into pastoral and agricultural zones in the west and east.

The average elevation of Qinghai is over 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) above sea level. Mountain ranges include the Tanggula Mountains and Kunlun Mountains. Due to the high altitude, Qinghai has quite cold winters (harsh in the highest elevations), mild summers, and large day and night temperature variations. January temperatures range from −18 to −7 °C (-0 to 19 °F) and July temperatures range from 15 to 21 °C (59 to 70 °F). The province experiences heavy winds as well as severe blizzards and sandstorms from February to April. Measurable rainfall falls mainly in summer. Precipitation is generally minimal in the winter and spring. Most of the province is semi-arid or arid.

Qinghai Lake is the largest salt water lake in China, and the second largest in the world. The Qaidam basin lies in the northwest part of the province. About a third of this resource rich basin is desert. The basin has an altitude between 3000 to 3500 meters. The Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve, is located in Qinghai and contains the headwaters of the Yellow River, Yangtze River, and Mekong River. The reserve was established to protect the headwaters of these three rivers and consists of 18 subareas, each containing three zones which are managed with differing degrees of strictness.

Tibetan Plateau

Most of Qinghai sits on the Tibetan Plateau, the most extensive high plateau in the world. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it has an average altitude of 4,500 meters (14,800 feet) and covers 2,500,000 square kilometers (970,000 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 2,500 kilometers (1,600 miles) from east to west and 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from north to south. It is bounded by the Himalayas, to the south, by the Karakoram range to the west, by the Tangkula Mountains to the east, and the Kunlun and Nan Shan mountains and the Taklamakan Desert to the north. 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 the dry plateau that its is today.

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. 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.

Qinghai plateau


Amdo is one of the three traditional regions of Tibet (the other two are Ü-Tsang and Kham) and the the birthplace of the 14th (present) Dalai Lama.Amdo encompasses a large area stretching from the Yellow River to the Yangtze, embracing much of modern-day Qinghai Province. The region was historically, culturally, and ethnically a Tibetan area and has been ruled by local rulers since the mid-18th century and presided over but not ruled directed by the Dalai Lamas. There are many dialects of the Tibetan language spoken in Amdo due to the geographical isolation of many groups. Amdo is featured in a famous epic story known to both Tibetans and Chinese and traditionally been regarded as place where magnificent horses were raised and allowed to run wild.[Source: Wikipedia]

From 1917 to 1928, much of Amdo was ruled off and on by Hui Muslim warlords of the Ma clique. In 1928, the Ma Clique joined the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party), and during the period from 1928 to 1949, much of Amdo was gradually absorbed into Qinghai province (and part of Gansu province) of the Kuomintang Republic of China. By 1952, the Communist had driven out both the Kuomintang and the local Tibetans and had taken control of the region, In 1958, Amdo was formally expunged as a distinct Tibetan province.

Amdo has traditionally been an important source of Tibetan Buddhist monks, lamas and scholars — such as the 14th Dalai Lama, Choekyi Gyaltsen, 10th Panchen Lama, and the great Gelug reformer Je Tsongkha — who had a major influence on the politics and religious development of Tibet. In historical times, many non-Tibetans, such as Mongols, lived in Amdo. Today, ethnic Tibetans predominate in the western and southern parts of Amdo, which are now administered as various Tibetan, Tibetan-Qiang, or Mongol-Tibetan autonomous prefectures. The Han Chinese are majority in the northern part (Haixi Mongol and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture) and eastern part (Xining city and Haidong city) of Qinghai province. While Xining city and Haidong city are geographically small compared to the rest of Qinghai, this area has the largest population density in Qinghai, with the result that the Han Chinese outnumber other ethnicities in Qinghai generally.

The majority of Amdo Tibetans live in the larger part of Qinghai Province, including the Mtshobyang Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (TAP), Mtsholho TAP, Rmalho TAP, and Mgolog TAP, as well as in the Kanlho TAP of the southwest Gansu province, and sections of the Rngaba (Aba) Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous prefecture of north-west Sichuan Province. Additionally, a great many Amdo Tibetans live within the Haidong Prefecture of Qinghai which is located to the east of the Qinghai Lake and around Xining, city, but they constitute only a minority (ca. 8.5 percent) of the total population there and so the region did not attain TAP status. The vast Haixi Mongolian and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, to the west of the Qinghai Lake, also has a minority Tibetan population (10 percent), and only those Tibetans in the eastern parts of this Prefecture are Amdo inhabitants.

Mongols have been long-term settlers in Amdo, arriving first during the time of Genghis Khan, but particularly in a series of settlement waves during the Ming period. Over the centuries, most of the Amdo Mongols have become highly Tibetanised and, superficially at least, it is now difficult to discern their original non-Tibetan ethnicity.

People and Culture in Qinghai

About a fifth of the population of Qinghai are Muslims. Most of these are Hui Muslims but many are Salar. Another fourth are Tibetan Buddhists, most of which are Tibetan but also includes the Tu minority. Significant numbers of Mongols, Uyghurs, and Kazakhs live in the province. Han Chinese make up about slightly more than half the population. Most people live in eastern Qinghai. Qingahi Tibetans are given more freedom to practice their religion than Tibetans in Tibet (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.

Qinghai has been influenced by the interactions between Mongols and Tibetans culture, North and South, Han Chinese and Inner Asia Muslim culture, and East and West. The languages of Qinghai including Zhongyuan Mandarin, Amdo Tibetan, Salar, Yugur, and Monguor — all of them borrowing from and influencing one another. In mainstream Chinese culture, Qinghai is most associated with the Tale of King Mu, Son of Heaven. According to this legend, King Mu of Zhou (r. 976–922 B.C.) pursued hostile Quanrong nomads to eastern Qinghai, where the goddess Xi Wangmu threw the king a banquet in the Kunlun Mountains.

The main traditional religions of Qinghai are Tibetan Buddhism and Islam. The Dongguan Mosque has been continuously operating since 1380. Muslim ethnic groups such as the Hui and Salar sometimes have prefered to send their children to madrasahs rather than secular schools. The yak, which is native to Qinghai, is widely used in the province for transportation and its meat. The Mongols of Qinghai celebrate the Naadam festival on the Qaidam Basin every year.

Silk Road Sites in Qinghai Province

Silk Road Sites in Qinghai Province: 1) Reshui Tomb Complex, Haixi Mongolian and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (Coordinates: N36 10 44 E98 18 00); 2) Ancient Path of Mountain Riy ue. Xi’ning City (Coordinates: N36 20 00 E100 54 05); 3) Haibei Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture; 3) Site of the old Xihai Prefecture (Coordinates: N36 44 03 E100 23 01); 4) Site of old Fusi City, Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (Coordinates:N37 04 14 E99 25 43)

Riyue Mountain is a mountain pass situated in Huangyuan County, Xining that is 3,399 meter (11,152 feet) above sea level and separates the Qinghai Lake basin from the basin of the Huangshui River, a tributary of the Yellow River. The pass separates Qinghai Province into a pastoral zone in the west and an agricultural zone in the east. The pass is currently crossed by China National Highway 214 that follows the ancient trade route into Tibet.


Golmud is a center for mining and chemical manufacturing and is has been listed near the top of the most polluted places in China — and the world. It used to be where people worked out overland travel to Tibet, which has been made obsolete by the new railroad to Tibet. It is now the second-largest city in Qinghai and the third largest in the Tibetan Plateau (after Xining and Lhasa), with a population of about 205,000. 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.

Before the Tibetan railroad was built CITS charged US$150 for the bus trip between Golmund and Lhasa, which included a thee'day tour (locals paid US$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 Tibetan-Qinghai Highway was built in the 1950s. The new trains follows it much of the way.

Wenzhuan (part of part of Tanggula Town in Golmud County) is the world's third highest town according to a Wikipedia list. Founded in 1955 on the Quinghai-Tibet road north of the Tangla road, it is 4,870 meters (15,980 ft). It the highest "city" in the world according to The Guinness Book of World Records although it has a small population and is hardly a city.

Golmud Diversifolious Poplar Forest (60 kilometers from Golmud) is the only forest of the its kind in Qinghai Province, as well as the one with the highest altitude forests in the world. The diversifolious poplar is the only type of tree that can grow naturally in deserts and sandy lands. It appeared 60 million years ago. It is a heat-and-cold-resistant plant, whose root can reach 13 meters underground to absorb water in an extremely dry environment. Facing Kunlun Mountains in the south and Gobi and salt flats in the north, the forest sits in the an arid area with a seasonal river. Desert plants including reed, Kalidium and Chionese tamarisk, and wild animals such as pheasants, foxes and wolves, live here. Admission: 50 yuan (US$7.85) per person;

Qarhan Salt Lake

Qarhan Salt Lake (80 kilometers east-northeast of Golmud) is one of the largest natural salt lakes in China, as well as one of the most well-known inland salt lakes in the world, covering about 5,800 square kilometers. It is located in the southern Qaidam Basin in the northeastern part of Qinghai Province)

As a natural resource for a number of important minerals, the lake is famous for its deposits of more than 50 billion tons of sodium chloride, or table salt, which is enough to supply 6 billion people for 1,000 years. The briny water of the lake crystallizes into salt under the searing heat, forming a hardened salt bed around the lake.

The most amazing feature of the lake is the 32-kilometer-long salt bridge built across the lake. The bridge, 15-18 meters thick, is made with salt. “Floating” on the lake, the bridge is straight and smooth on the surface, which divides the lake into two parts. Driving on the bridge is an interesting experience; Admission: 100 yuan (US$15.69) per person;

Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve

Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve, or the Three Rivers Nature Reserve, contains the headwaters of the Yellow River, the Yangtze River and the Mekong River. The reserve, established in 2000, is to protect the headwaters of the three rivers. Located in the hinterlands of the Tibetan Plateau in southern Qinghai with at an altitude of over 4,000 meters, the reserve covers an area of about 150,000 square kilometers (15 million hectares), larger than the total area of England and Wales of the UK. It is the largest and highest natural wetland in China.

The Sanjiangyuan Area covers the southern and eastern parts of Qinghai and has an area of about 363,000 square kilometers (50.4 percent of Qinghai), including it wholly or partially are 18 counties of the four Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures Yushu, Guoluo, Hainan, and Haungnan, and Haixi Mongol and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.

The Tibetan Plateau is the source of several of the world's great rivers, including the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow River. In Tibet, the Yangtze river is known as the Jinsha. It marks the boundary between Tibet and Kham (a region of Tibet in Yunnan and Sichuan).

Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve boasts for its beautiful scenery and rich resources including grasslands, mountains, rivers, snow mountains, wetlands and wild life. It is home to many precious animals such as Tibetan antelopes, Tibetan gazelles, wild yaks and wild asses. It has been described as "Asia's water tower," providing the lower reaches of the three rivers with 60 billion cubic meters of water annually; Admission: 80 yuan (US$12.56) per person; Qarhan Salt Lake

Source of the Yangtze on the Tibet Plateau

The Yangtze originates from several tributaries in the eastern part of the Tibetan Plateau, two of which are commonly referred to as the "source." Traditionally, the Chinese government has recognized the source as the Tuotuo tributary (33°25 44"N 91°10 57"E) at the base of a glacier lying on the west of Geladandong Mountain in the Tanggula Mountains. This is not the furthest source of the Yangtze, but is the highest source at 5,342 meters (17,526 feet) above sea level. [Source: Wikipedia]

The true source of the Yangtze — hydrologically the longest river distance from the sea — is at Jari Hill (32°36 14"N 94°30 44"E) at the head of the Dam Qu tributary, approximately 325 kilometers (202 miles) southeast of Geladandong. This source was only discovered in the late 20th century and lies in a wetlands area at and 5,170 meter (16,960 feet) above sea level just southeast of Chadan Township in Zadoi County, Yushu Prefecture, Qinghai. As the historical spiritual source of the Yangtze, the Geladandong source is still commonly referred to as the source of the Yangtze.

Other source tributaries include Tuotuo (Ulan Moron) River (33°23 40"N 90°53 46"E); Chumaer River (35°27 19"N 90°55 50"E); the Muluwusu River (33°22 13"N 91°10 29"E) and Bi Qu River (33°16 58"N 91°23 29"E). These tributaries join and the river then runs eastward through Qinghai (Tsinghai), turning southward down a deep valley at the border of Sichuan and Tibet to reach Yunnan. In the course of this valley, the river's elevation drops from above 5,000 meters (16,000 feet) to less than 1,000 meters (3,300 feet).The headwaters of the Yangtze are situated at an elevation of about 4,900 meters (16,100 feet).

Source of the Yellow River

According to the China Exploration and Research Society, the source of the Yellow River is at 34° 29' 31.1" N, 96° 20' 24.6" E — about 150 kilometers north of Yushu in southwestern Qinghai Province — in the Bayan Har Mountains near the eastern edge of the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Regarded as a branch of the Kunlun Mountains, the Bayan Har Mountains ( formerly known as the Bayen-káras or Bayan-Kara-Ula) are a mountain range in Qinghai Province who name is Mongolian for "Rich and Black". These mountains separates the drainage areas of both the Yellow and the Yangtze rivers.

The source of the Yellow River is in the basin of Yueguzonglie, which is located in the northern part of the Bayan Har Mountains at an elevation of 4,800 meters (15,700 feet). Source tributaries drain into Gyaring Lake and Ngoring Lake on the western edge of Golog Prefecture high in the Bayan Har Mountains of Qinghai. From here the river heads towards Zoige Basin along the boundary with Gansu. The water of huge Qinghai Lake used to flow into the Yellow River water system but 210,000 years ago, Qinghai Lake became endorheic (retaining it water with no outflows) due to the uplift of the Tibetan-Qinghaian Plateau.

The source section flows mainly through pastures, swamps, and knolls between the Bayan Har Mountains, and the Anemaqen (Amne Machin) Mountains in Qinghai. The river water is clear and flows steadily. Crystal clear lakes abound in this area. Lake Gyaring (Zhaling) and Lake Ngoring (Eling) are situated at elevations over 4,290 meters (14,070 feet) and are the two largest plateau freshwater lakes in China. Sanjiangyuan ("'Three Rivers' Sources") National Nature Reserve in Qinghai contains the headwaters of the Yellow River, Yangtze River, and Mekong River. The reserve was established to protect these headwaters and consists of 18 subareas, each containing three zones which are managed with differing degrees of strictness.

Maduo (in Qinghai Province about 500 kilometers southwest of Xining) , means "the source of the Yellow River" in Tibetan. Although it has a small population and has a severe climate, many people come to Maduo because of its name and claim as the Yellow River source. Maduo (amso spelled Madoi) County has more than 4,000 lakes. Zhaling Lake and Eling Lake are the most famous. Between the two lakes, an Ox Head tablet marks the origin of the Yellow River. The crystal-clear lakes attract thousands of migrating birds in winter and spring. Madoi County is in Golog Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, to the east of the source recognized by the China Exploration and Research Society.

Upper Reaches of the Yellow River in Qinghai and Gansu

The upper reaches of the Yellow River extends from its source in the Bayan Har Mountains to at Hekou Town (Togtoh County) in Inner Mongolia just before it turns sharply to the south. This segment has a total length of 3,472 kilometers (2,157 miles) and total basin area of 386,000 square kilometers (149,000 square mile), 51.4 percent of the total Yellow River area. Along this section, the Yellow River drops 3,496 meters (11,470 feet). [Source: Wikipedia]

Flowing east at the eastern edge of the Amne Machin Mountains, the Yellow River enters Maqu County in Gansu. Here, the river passes through the edge of the Zoigê Wetlands — a high-altitude peat bog — as and makes a sharp turn towards the northwest forming the border between Maqu and Zoigê County in Sichuan. Flowing now along the northern edge of Amne Machin, the river reenters Qinghai and gradually curves north towards the Longyang Gorge at Xinghai.

The valley section stretches from Longyang Gorge in Qinghai to Qingtong Gorge in Gansu. Steep cliffs line both sides of the river. The water bed is narrow and the average drop is large, so the flow in this section is extremely turbulent and fast. There are 20 gorges in this section, the most famous of these being the Longyang, Jishi, Liujia, Bapan, and Qingtong gorges. The flow conditions in this section makes it the best location for hydroelectric plants. The Yellow River exits Qinghai for the second and final time in these gorges and enters Gansu for the second time just before Liujia Gorge. Downstream from the Yanguo Gorge, the provincial capital of Lanzhou is built upon the Yellow River's banks. The Yellow River flows northeasterly out of Gansu and into Ningxia before the Qingtong Gorge.

After emerging from the Qingtong Gorge, the river comes into a section of vast alluvial plains, the Yinchuan Plain and Hetao Plain. In this section, the regions along the river are mostly deserts and grasslands, with very few tributaries. The flow is slow. The Hetao Plain has a length of 900 kilometers (560 miles) and width of 30 to 50 kilometers (19 to 31 miles). It is historically the most important irrigation plain along the Yellow River.

Guide: in the Upper Reaches of the Yellow River

Gui'de County in Qinghai Province is in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Known in Tibetan as Trika, the county is divided into north and south by the Yellow River. The town of Guide became part of Ming Dynasty China in 1370. Its earthen walls and buildings were built between 1375 and 1380 and were expanded in 1590. After the founding of the People's Republic, the moats were filled in and the North and South gates were pulled down, as well as the towers. In 2010 work commenced to restore the gates and towers.

On his visit to the area, On traveler wrote for CRI :”One Our bus drove along the gentle slopes of Mt. Laji. Although the mountain is at an altitude of 3,858 meters above sea level, the road was smoother than we could have imagined. From time to time, we'd see several white or blue tents emitting wisps of kitchen smoke scattered on the grassland, where yaks and sheep grazed leisurely. After hours of driving, we suddenly entered a russet world with ranges of fantastic red rock formations all around. Our guide, Wang Xiaofang, told us that this is Danxia, a special type of landscape formed from red-colored sandstones and conglomerates mostly dating from the Cretaceous age. [Source: CIR August 7, 2009]

“Danxia is located in Ashigong Village, which is about 40 kilometers away from the county seat. I met a local girl there who was standing alone by a tractor on the side of the road. She was shy when we asked her if we could take a picture with her. In no time, she was no longer afraid of us. She told me that her name was Lei Zhuoma, and she was a 12-year-old student in the fourth grade at the local primary school. She often helps her parents do farm work on her summer holiday, and now she was taking care of the grass that feeds the family's sheep.

“After saying goodbye to this lovely girl, we moved on to lunch at a Muslim restaurant with several century-old pear trees in its yard. The trees were laden with little green pears. They were obviously not ripe; however, the restaurant owner invited us to try them. He told us that we didn't have to wash them because they are completely organic food. For me, this was really the first time I had ever eaten unwashed fruit, and it was really great. The pears were not sour at all and tasted slightly sweet.

After an authentic meal in this Muslin restaurant, we returned by the way we came and stopped at Huangheqing Bridge. Huangheqing in Chinese means "the Yellow River water is clear." Unfortunately, it was raining and what we saw with our own eyes was nothing but muddy river water roaring down below. The guide however told us when it clears up, the water will become clear again.

By Huangheqing Bridge, local vendors were selling fruit and pebbles from the Yellow River. However, I picked up many cute pebble stones on my own without spending one cent when we stood on the bank of the Yellow River. Under the direction of experts, we paid a fact-finding visit to Guide Huangheqing National Wetland Park. It was a brief visit since the rain was falling steadily.”

Hoh Xil: Qinghai Vast Virtually Uninhabited High-Altitude Grasslands

Qinghai Hoh Xil (800 kilometers west of Xining) was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017. According to UNESCO: “Qinghai Hoh Xil is located in the northeast corner of the vast Tibetan-Qinghaian Plateau, the largest, highest and youngest plateau in the world. This extensive area of alpine mountains and steppe systems is situated more than 4,500 meters above sea level, where sub-zero average temperatures prevail all year-round. The site’s geographical and climatic conditions have nurtured a unique biodiversity. More than one third of the plant species, and all the herbivorous mammals are endemic to the plateau. The property secures the complete migratory route of the Tibetan antelope, one of the endangered large mammals that are endemic to the plateau. [Source: UNESCO]

“Qinghai Hoh Xil covers an extensive area which is virtually free of modern human impact. It “covers 3,735,632 hectares with a 2,290,904 hectares buffer zone and encompasses an extensive area of alpine mountains and steppe systems at elevations of over 4,500 meters above sea level. Sometimes referred to as the world’s “Third Pole”, Hoh Xil has a frigid plateau climate, with sub-zero average year-round temperatures and the lowest temperature occasionally reaching-45°C. With its ongoing processes of geological formation, the property includes a large planation surface and basin on the Tibetan Plateau. It is the area with the highest concentration of lakes on the Plateau, exhibiting an exceptional diversity of lake basins and inland lacustrine landscapes at high altitude. With its sweeping vistas and stunning visual impact, this harsh and uninhabited wild landscape seems like a place frozen in time. Yet it is a place that illustrates continually changing geomorphological and ecological systems.

“Qinghai Hoh Xil “is a place of extraordinary beauty at a scale that dwarfs the human dimension, and which embraces all the senses. The contrast of scale is a recurring theme in Hoh Xil as high plateau systems function unimpeded on a grand scale, wildlife is vividly juxtaposed against vast treeless backdrops and tiny cushion plants contrast against towering snow covered mountains. In the summer, the tiny cushion plants form a sea of vegetation, which when blooming creates waves of different colours. Around the hot springs at the foot of towering snow covered mountains, the smells of dust, ash and sulphur combine with the sharp cold wind from the glacier. Glacial melt waters create numerous braided rivers which are woven into huge wetland systems forming tens of thousands of lakes of all colours and shapes. The lake basins comprise flat, open terrain incorporating the best preserved planation surface on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau as well as an unparalleled concentration of lakes. The lakes display a full spectrum of succession stages, forming an important catchment at the source of the Yangtze River and a spectacular landscape. The lake basins also provide the major calving grounds of the Tibetan antelope. In early summer each year, tens of thousands of female Tibetan antelopes migrate for hundreds of kilometers from wintering areas in Changtang in the west, the Altun Mountains in the north and Sanjiangyuan in the east to Hoh Xil’s lake basins to calve. The property secures the complete antelope migratory route between Sanjiangyuan and Hoh Xil, supporting the unimpeded migration of Tibetan antelope, one of the endangered large mammal species endemic to the Plateau.”

Qinghai Hoh Xil Ecosystems and Wlidlife

According to UNESCO: “The unique geographical formation and climatic conditions of the property nurture a similarly unique biodiversity. More than one third of the plant species, and all the herbivorous mammals dependent on them are endemic to the plateau, and 60 percent of the mammal species as a whole are plateau endemics. The frigid alpine grasslands and meadows surrounding Hoh Xil's lake basins are the main calving grounds for populations of Tibetan antelope from across the plateau and support critical migration patterns. The property includes a complete migration route from Sanjiangyuan to Hoh Xii. This route, despite being challenged by crossing the Tibetan-Qinghai Highway and Railway, is the best protected among all migration routes of Tibetan antelope known today. [Source: UNESCO]

“Inaccessibility and the harsh climate have combined to keep the property free from modern human influences and development while at the same time supporting a long-standing traditional grazing regime that coexists with the conservation of nature. Nevertheless, this ''Third Pole" of the world appears to be suffering from the impact of global climate change with disproportionally warming temperatures and changing precipitation patterns. The ecosystems and geographic landscapes are extremely sensitive to such a change and external threats need to be controlled to allow ecosystems to adapt to environmental change.”

“High levels of endemism within the flora of the property are associated with high altitudes and cold climate and contribute to similarly high levels of endemism within the fauna. Alpine grasslands make up 45 percent of the total vegetation in the property dominated by the grass Stipa purpurea. Other vegetation types include alpine meadows and alpine talus. Over one third of the higher plants found in the property are endemic to the Plateau and all of the herbivorous mammals that feed on these plants are also Plateau endemics. There are 74 species of vertebrates in Hoh Xil, including 19 mammals, 48 birds, six fish, and one reptile (Phrynocephalus vliangalii). The property is home to Tibetan antelope, wild yak, Tibetan wild ass, Tibetan gazelle, wolf and brown bear, all of which are frequently seen. Large numbers of wild ungulates depend on the property including almost 40 percent of the world's Tibetan antelope and up to 50 percent of the world's wild yak. Hoh Xil conserves the habitats and natural processes of a complete life cycle of the Tibetan antelope, including the phenomenon of congregating females giving birth after a long migration. The calving grounds in Hoh Xil support up to 30,000 animals each year and include almost 80 percent of the identified birth congregation areas in the entire antelope range. During the winter, some 40,000 Tibetan antelopes remain in the property, accounting for 20-40 percent of the global population.

Qinghai Hoh Xil Conservation and Environmental Challenges

According to UNESCO: The west section of the property, the Hoh Xii National Nature Reserve, is completely uninhabited and thus remains in a pristine state; the east section, the Soja-Qumar River sub-zone of Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve, is also in near pristine state. This area supports the traditional nomadic lifestyles of Tibetan pastoralists who have coexisted with its conservation for a long time, and these communities have demonstrated a strong commitment through various initiatives to participate in conservation efforts. A few self-guided tourists (mostly in summer) along the Tibetan-Qinghai highway do not significantly affect the integrity of the property. In addition, with strict enforcement by the authorities, the number of large poaching and illegal mining incidents has been substantially halted. [Source: UNESCO]

A notable challenge in the protection of the property is the highway and a railway that connect Qinghai and Tibet, and which pass through the eastern section of the property from the north to the south. Animal migration in this area is facilitated via the construction of corridors and active management of the transport corridor during the migration season. These measures have helped Tibetan antelope and other species adapt to the changes quickly and there is no evidence that the migratory patterns have been adversely disrupted.

Climate change presents a potential threat to the integrity of the property's endemic species and ecosystems. The site’s vastness and marked elevation gradients should contribute substantial resilience to ensure the impact from human activity and invasive species can be well managed, nevertheless records show a notable rise in average temperature in the 60 years prior to inscription on the World Heritage List. As a consequence, the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau ecosystem is facing significant change for example the melting of permafrost and glaciers, encroachment of alpine shrub into the alpine meadows, and desertification of grassland. In the meantime, numerous new hot springs and faults are being formed following earthquakes. Glacial melting and increased precipitation have flooded one natural lake shore and formed new lakes downstream creating habitats in a state of dynamic flux. These geological and ecological dynamics offer a rare opportunity for scientific observations and long-term research. Warming temperatures may lead to species from lower altitudes moving up into new habitat refugia on the Plateau. Warmer conditions may also trigger greater pressure from human settlements moving into previously inhospitable areas.

Yushu and the Devastating 2010 Earthquake There

Yushu County (700 kilometers southwest of Xining) in southern Qinghai Province near the Tibet border is a remote and mountainous area sparsely populated by farmers and herdsmen. The region contains copper, tin and coal mines and is rich in natural gas. More than 90,000 people live in the county, which borders Tibet and is about a 12-hour drive from the provincial capital, Xining. The population is more than 96 percent Tibetan and overwhelmingly poor, with rural residents earning an average of $342 a year, largely from agriculture. The prefecture that includes Yushu is located on the Tibetan plateau, and many villages sit well above 16,000 feet, with freezing temperatures not uncommon in mid-April. Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, an area the size of South Korea that has a population of 350,000. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, April 14, 2010]

In April 2010, an earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale struck Yushu County. More than 2,000 people were killed, 200 went missing and 12,000 were injured, with about 1,000 of them severely. The quake and a series of aftershocks collapsed houses, schools and offices and left entire villages of mud-brick buildings in ruins. Photos showed large concrete building were largely intact but some collapsed, with witness saying they could here voices inside. Nearly all the victims were Tibetans. [Source: Reuters]

The quake struck at 7:49 am. The epicenter of the earthquake was in the mountains that separate Tibet and Qinhai. The town of Jiegu (Gyegu), where most of the region's 100,000 people live, was badly damaged, with the town's main Buddhist monastery in ruins in a hillside. A local spokesman told Xinhua soon after the quake struck, “I see injured people everywhere. The biggest problem now is that we lack tents, we lack medical equipment, medicine and medical workers." The area that was truck is fairly remote and hard to reach and the weather at the time of the disaster was still very cold with temperatures often dropping below the freezing mark.

Reuters reported that part of an office building and some schools collapsed. Some vocational school and primary school students were trapped in the rubble but residents said most were able to escape to playgrounds. A volunteer worker for the Chinese charity Gesangua told Reuters, “Most of the schools in Yushu were built fairly recently and should have been able to withstand the earthquake," though, he added, “many homes have been damaged." A resident said, “A lot of one one-story houses have collapsed. Taller buildings have held up, but there are big cracks in them."

The earthquake in Yushu destroyed the Taklung monastery, a Tibetan Buddhist sanctuary just east of Jiegu town, and its surrounding community. At Taklung," at least 88 of the 1,000 residents died. Most of the monastery collapsed; what remained was too dangerous teams to enter. Amid the wreckage Buddhas sat unscathed; stupas toppled over on the hillsides; and all that remained of many homes were jumble of bricks and wood that had tumbled down the slopes. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, April 16, 2010]

Kunlun Mountains

The Kunlun Mountains comprise one of the longest mountain chains in Asia, extending for more than 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles). In a broad sense, the range forms the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau south of the Tarim Basin. Located in Tibet, Qinghai and Xinjiang, the Kunlun Shan sits to the south of the Gobi Desert, the Tarim Basin, Taklamakan Desert, the Altyn Tagh. and the Tibet-Xinjiang highway. The range has very few roads and in its 3,000 km length is crossed by only two. In the west, Highway 219 traverses the range en route from Yecheng, Xinjiang to Lhatse, Tibet. Further east, Highway 109 crosses between Lhasa and Golmud. [Range coordinates: 36°N 84°E]

The definition of the Kunlun Shan range varies and the origin of the name appears to come from a semi-mythical location in the classical Chinese text Classic of Mountains and Seas.. Ancient sources use the term to refer to a mountain belt in the center of China, taken to mean the Altyn Tagh and the Qilian and Qin Mountains. The great ancient Chinese historian Sima Qian (Records of the Grand Historian, scroll 123) said that Han Emperor Han Wudi (ruled 141-87 B.C.) sent men to find the source of the Yellow River and gave the name Kunlun to the mountains at its source. [Source: Wikipedia]

From the Pamirs of Tajikistan, the Kunlun Mountains run east along the border between Xinjiang and Tibet to Qinghai province. A number of important rivers flow from the range including the Karakash River ('Black Jade River') and the Yurungkash River ('White Jade River'), which flow through the Khotan Oasis into the Taklamakan Desert. Altyn-Tagh or Altun Range is one of the chief northern ranges of the Kunlun. Its northeastern extension Qilian Shan is another main northern range of the Kunlun. The main extension in the south is the Min Shan. Bayan Har Mountains, a southern branch of the Kunlun Mountains, forms the watershed the Yangtze River and the Yellow River basins.

The Kunlun Mountains highest point is 7,167 meter (23,514 foot) -high Liushi Shan (the Kunlun Goddess in the Keriya area in western Kunlun Shan. Some say the Kunlun extends to northwest and includes 7,649-meter-high Kongur Tagh and 7,546 meter-high Muztagh Ata but the these mountains are more associated with the Pamirs and kind of stand by themselves anyway. The Arka Tagh (Arch Mountain) lies in the center of the Kunlun Shan; its highest points are Ulugh Muztagh (6,973 m) and Bukadaban Feng (6,860 m). In the eastern Kunlun Shan the highest peaks are Yuzhu Peak (6,224 m) and Amne Machin [also Dradullungshong] (6,282 m); the latter is the eastern major peak in Kunlun Shan range and is thus considered as the eastern edge of Kunlun Shan range.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Nolls China Web site; CNTO; Perrochon photo site; Beifan.com; University of Washington; Ohio State University; UNESCO; Wikipedia; Julie Chao photo site

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), China.org, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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