The June Festival in Tongren (Shaman Festival)

“A mysterious local festival known for its fascinating “gruesome” customs

According to legend, the land was once plagued by venomous snakes and fearsome beasts. One day, a giant bird, known as Peng in Chinese, flew to the region and defeated all of these dangerous creatures, thus ridding the land of a terrible blight. It turns out that the winged savior was actually a god known as Xiaqiong, so every year people in this area host the June Festival in honour of this beneficent deity.

This traditional folk festival is celebrated widely among the Tibetan and Tu ethnic minority communities in Regong (Tongren) of Qinghai province. Held every year between the 17th and 25th day of the sixth lunar month according to the Chinese Lunar calendar, it has been an integral part of the festival calendar for over 1,400 years.

Only young men and unmarried young women are allowed to actively participate in the festival, but children and married women are allowed to watch and dance together during the end of the ceremony. 

Throughout this magnificent festival, the local people pray for a good harvest, peace, prosperity, and a happy life. Many sacred ceremonies can be seen during the festival, such as: Shang Kou Qian, where the master of ceremonies uses two steel pins to pierce the cheeks of a volunteer; Shang Bei Qian, where the master of ceremonies uses between 10 to 20 steel pins to pierce a volunteer’s back; and Kai Shan, where the master of ceremonies makes a small mark on his own forehead using a knife and then ceremonially sprinkles a few drops of his own blood on the surrounding ground. Many people regard these ceremonies as having an air of magic about them, since the steel pins that the master of ceremonies uses never seem to draw blood and do not leave a scar on the volunteers.

Alongside these holy rituals, the entire festival is conducted by the master of ceremonies, who will either be a shaman or the head of the local religion. During the festival, women will assemble at the Mountain-Gods Hall, where they will sing and dance to appease the God of the Mountain. 

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Qinghai Local Snacks

With its bitterly cold climate and high altitude, Qinghai province isn’t the ideal location for growing lush vegetables or tropical fruits! However, it’s the perfect place for growing barley and raising yaks, both of which thrive on its rugged terrain. Thus many of the local snacks in Qinghai contain wheat flour and yak-based products, such as yak’s milk or yak butter. The large constituencies of Hui Muslim and Tibetan people that occupy Qinghai also imbue many of its signature snacks with a delightful ethnic flair. So be prepared for food that’s simple, full-bodied, and full of heart!

Liangfen (凉粉)

qinghai LiangfenLiangfen is arguably the most famous and popular street snack in Qinghai province. It’s normally sold from small vendors or market stalls and is served cold, so it’s the perfect treat to help you cool down during the summer months! Although it looks a lot like a noodle dish, the “noodles” are actually finely cut strips of mung bean or pea jelly. These are topped with a sumptuously aromatic blend of vinegar, mashed garlic, crushed mustard seeds, and chilli flakes. Some vendors also add ground peanuts and sesame seeds to the mix in order to give the slippery “noodles” a nutty crunch.

Yak Milk Yogurt (牛酸)

Yak Milk YogurtWith yaks being so prolific in the region, yak milk, yak yoghurt, and yak butter are everyday staples for locals in Qinghai province. While yak butter is typically used for cooking or making tea, Yak Milk Yoghurt is a smooth treat that’s eaten straight from the bowl! You’ll be able to spot this type of yoghurt immediately thanks to the unique yellow sheen that forms on its top. The creamy texture and slightly sour tang of the yak’s milk gives it a flavour that is delightfully distinct from cow’s milk yoghurt. It can be eaten as is, although some people prefer to sprinkle a teaspoon of sugar on top first to sweeten the deal!

Sanzi (馓子)

qinghai SanziThis popular street snack is traditionally a festival food of both the Hui Muslims and the Salar Muslims. To make Sanzi, you first mix wheat flour with vegetable oil and crushed Sichuan peppercorns. This is kneaded into dough and then gently pulled into long, thin noodles. Deep-frying the noodles requires the most skill, as they must be a crisp golden brown before being removed from the hot oil. Take them out too early, and they’ll be undercooked; leave them in for too long, and you’ll be faced with a burnt mess! The snack itself is neither salty nor sweet, but is celebrated for its satisfyingly crispy crunch.

Cooking Pot Bread (焜锅馍馍)

Cooking Pot BreadCooking Pot Bread is so-named because its distinctive shape and pattern depends on the pot in which it was baked. To begin, wheat flour dough is rolled up with oil and turmeric, which is what gives this fluffy bread its characteristically yellow tinge. The dough is then placed layer by layer into a deep cooking pot or tin and is baked until it turns a soft golden brown. Finally, sesame seeds or caraway seeds are sprinkled on top of the finished bread to give it an extra touch of flavour. The result is a light, slightly crisp loaf that is perfect for eating with meat, soup, or noodles.


Qinghai Cuisine

Hui-style Dumpings

The high altitude and rugged terrain in Qinghai province means that agriculturally the land can only sustain a limited array of vegetables and fruit. However, it’s the ideal place for growing barley and raising yaks, both of which thrive in the cold climate. This means that signature Qinghai dishes tend to be hearty and full of yak-based products, from yak meat to yak butter. In short, Qinghai locals are always yakking on about something! Qinghai itself is populated by a wide variety of China’s ethnic minorities, but is dominated by the Han, Hui, and Tibetan people. Thus Qinghai cuisine is characterised by its simplicity and sustenance, with a unique blend of Tibetan and Hui Muslim influences adding a touch of flavour to each dish.

Hui-style Dumpings (回式饺)

Hui-style Dumpings02Hui-style Dumplings are so delectably plump, they appear to have been filled to the point of bursting! Unlike other types of dumpling, these tasty treats are filled with unusual, hearty ingredients such as carrot shreds or tiny cubes of potato. The meat filling is heavily seasoned with mustard seeds, cumin, cassia bark, cardamom, pepper, and sugar to give it an added burst of flavour. Different vendors will shape their dumplings in unique and captivating ways. Sometimes these shapes even provide clues as to what the dumplings contain. So, if you see a little fish-shaped ball of dough, you know just what to expect! They may look small but these dumplings are very rich, so two or three is normally enough for a decent meal.

Grabbing Mutton (手抓羊肉)

qinghai Grabbing Mutton 02This dish is popular with several of China’s Muslim ethnic minorities throughout the regions of Xinjiang, Ningxia, Gansu, and Qinghai. Its name derives from the fact that historically it was sold on the street and, in order to eat it on the go, people would simply “grab” a piece of the mutton with their hands. That being said, be sure to pay for it first! To make the dish, a joint of mutton is first stewed for a long time, until it becomes so tender that the chops can be easily separated and the meat melts off the bone.

The mutton is then chopped into small pieces and arranged on a plate, where people are free to grab a piece and dip it into their condiment of choice. It is often served simply with a sauce made from salt, crushed garlic, parsley, soy sauce, vinegar, chilli oil, and sesame paste. Variations on the sauce depend on who’s serving it, but the juicy mutton alone is enough to sate most people’s hunger.

Blood Sausage (血肠)

qinghai Blood SausageBlood Sausage may not sound like the most appetising of snacks, but its rich and mildly spicy flavour is surprisingly pleasant. Like Black Pudding in England, Blood Sausage is made using a mixture of spiced sheep’s blood and roasted barley. Another variation, known as White Sausage, contains all of the same ingredients except for the sheep’s blood. Travel to one of Qinghai’s city markets and you’re sure to come across tables full of Blood Sausage, coiled into large piles like shimmering black snakes. In restaurants, it is normally sliced into small pieces and fried on a griddle, to be served as a side dish. With its full-bodied texture and umami flavour, fried Blood Sausage makes the perfect accompaniment to any meal.

Flag Flower Noodles (旗花汤)

Flag Flower NoodlesThis sumptuous dish is so-named for the unusual shape of its wheat noodles, which are rolled thin and then cut into tiny, diamond flag-shaped pieces before being added to a clear broth. This broth is usually flavoured using tomatoes, squash, carrots, celery, white radishes, spinach, and small pieces of mutton. The result is a light soup with a clean and refreshing taste that is perfect as a palate cleanser or to simply cool you down during the summer months!


The Kunlun Mountains

The snowy Kunlun Mountains stretch 2,000 kilometres (1,250 mi) from the far reaches of the Pamirs in Tajikistan through to the centre of Qinghai province in China and represent one of the longest mountain chains in Asia. They tower along the border between Xinjiang and the Tibet Autonomous Region and, at their westernmost point, form the Inner Asian rampart between the Tibetan Plateau and the Tarim Basin. At the southern edge of the Takla Makan Desert, these snowy mountains form a protective barrier against the icy expanses of Tibet and appear strangely beautiful surrounded by the soft golden sands. This range is so colossal that it branches off into several other mountain ranges, including the Altun Mountains and the Qilian Mountains. Unsurprisingly this has earned it the nickname the “Forefather of Mountains”.

The highest peak of the range, Mount Keriya, can be found in Yutian County of Xinjiang and sits at a staggering elevation of 7,120 metres (23,300 ft.), making it over 1,000 metres (3,300 ft.) higher than Mount Kilimanjaro! Unfortunately this high altitude and the desert conditions that prevail throughout the range largely inhibit the growth of vegetation and make the area virtually uninhabitable. Or so it would seem!

Much of the terrain consists of rock deserts, punctuated only by the occasional stagnant pool of water. Not exactly the most welcoming sounding place! Yet a number of rare animal species still manage to scrape a living in these barren wastes, including the Tibetan gazelle, Tibetan antelope, and wild yak. In the more humid and hospitable western portion of the mountains, argali sheep graze on the high grasslands and the upper crags are home to blue sheep and ibex. The willow thickets provide the perfect habitat for brown bears, wolves, and the occasional snow leopard, so don’t tread through them lightly!

In fact, the animals aren’t the only ones making a home out of this seemingly desolate place. The mountain range supports both permanent and migratory populations of people from the Uighur, Mongol, Tibetan, Tajik, and Kyrgyz ethnic minorities, as well as large constituencies of Han people. This is evidenced by settlements around the Kunlun Mountain Pass, just 160 kilometres south of Golmud City, which once made up part of the Silk Road.

It is an obligatory section on the route between Qinghai and Tibet and represents a sudden rise in altitude from 2,800 metres to 4,700 metres (9,200-15,400 ft.). The temperature and air pressure drop rapidly as you ascend, so this hike isn’t for the faint of heart. It has also enjoyed great fame for the stunning Kunlun Jade, which is predominantly mined here.

The mysticism surrounding this mountain range is undeniable and it has featured in numerous Chinese folk legends, including those of Chang’e (the goddess of the moon), Journey to the West, and The Legend of the White Snake. In other legends, it was believed to be the origin or father of all mountains. That being said, it is unclear whether the Kunlun Mountains were named after the legendary Kunlun Mountain of Chinese mythology or whether they are believed to be the site of the Kunlun Mountain itself.

In terms of the Taoist faith, these mountains are incredibly sacred and, according to legend, were first visited by King Mu (976-922 BC) of the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1045-256 B.C). It was here that he supposedly discovered the location of the Jade Palace, where the mythical Huang Di or “Yellow Emperor” lived, and met the Queen Mother of the West, who was the focal figure of an ancient religious cult that peaked during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD).

The Taoist connection to the mountains has led to a style of kung-fu known as Kunlun Mountain Fist being associated with it, although it bears great similarity to another style called Kunlunquan that originated from Kunlun Mountain in Shandong province. Its history can be traced all the way back to the Zhou Dynasty and it is one of the few Taoist sects of martial arts where students of both genders are accepted and members are allowed to marry. So in short, don’t mess with any of the married couples around the Kunlun Mountains!

Dongguan Mosque

With over 25% of Qinghai’s population being religiously Muslim, it’s no surprise that mosques play a focal role in several of the province’s cities. And none are more magnificent than Dongguan Mosque, the largest in the province and one of the largest in China as a whole. It’s situated in the provincial capital of Xining and was originally built in 1380, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), but was renovated in 1979. Its characteristic jade-green dome, towering minarets, and pearl white arches betray a mixture of Han and Central Asian influences in its architecture. In many ways, it resembles a traditional Chinese palace far more than a typical Central Asian mosque. Yet, combining the best of both worlds, its unusual hybrid nature has only served to boost its popularity with tourists!

The entrance is marked by a huge white arch with the name of the mosque inscribed upon it and, on either side, the 8-metre-high (26 ft.) Xuanli Pavilion is where the imams perform the call to prayer every morning. Beyond the gate, a large square covering a colossal 30,000 square metres (323,000 sq. ft.) stretches out in front of the mosque’s main building, the prayer hall. This splendid hall, resplendent with ornaments and wood carvings, can hold more than 3,000 people at any one time. It faces the east so that worshippers can easily pray in the direction of Mecca.

Within the Muslim community, this mosque is revered as a centre for higher learning and over 7,000 devout Muslims gather here every day to worship. Every Friday it regularly attracts more than 50,000 worshippers for lunchtime prayers, while during the festival of Ramadan it can draw crowds of over 300,000. That’s over three times the number of people that attend Reading Festival each year!

Kumbum Monastery

The Kumbum Monastery in Huangzhong County is considered the most prestigious “gompa” or Buddhist university monastery after the “great three” gompa of Tibet: Drepung Monastery, Ganden Monastery, and Sera Monastery. These four monasteries are basically The Beatles of the Buddhist world, with Kumbum being Ringo! It is located just 25 kilometres (16 mi) from the provincial capital of Xining and is dedicated to the Gelug branch of Tibetan Buddhism. The vast Qinghai Lake sprawls out nearby, reflecting the sapphire sky in its still waters, while all around birds can be heard softly chirping in the trees.

The founder of the Gelug sect, Tsongkhapa, was born in a nearby town known as Tsongkha in 1357. According to legend, several drops of blood from his umbilical cord soaked into the earth after he was born and a white sandalwood tree miraculously sprouted where the blood had fallen. The tree came to be known as the “Tree of Great Merit”, for its 100,000 leaves were adorned with images of Buddha and its bark bore mystic symbols. When it blossomed, it gave off an irresistible aroma that somehow settled the soul of anyone passing by.

In 1379, with the help of locals, Tsongkhapa’s mother erected a small temple and a stupa[1] on the site where her son was born. The temple was expanded in 1481 thanks to the support of wealthy nomads. Then, in 1560, a monk named Tsöndrü Gyeltsen arrived and decided to build a small monastery for meditation practice, which he called Gonpalung. Not long thereafter, in 1576, the famous Mongolian leader Altan Khan invited the future 3rd Dalai Lama, Sönam Gyatso, to Mongolia in an effort to help the dissemination of Buddhism.

On his way, Sönam spotted the holy tree that marked Tsongkhapa’s birthplace. He was so struck by the sacred tree that he commissioned Tsöndrü to build a larger monastery on the site and appointed him the head lama. The magnificent Kumbum Monastery was finally completed in 1583 and the Tree of Great Merit was surrounded by a protective fence. The name “kumbum” literally means “100,000 enlightening bodies of Buddha” and is derived from the 100,000 images of Buddha found on the leaves of the tree. By the 20th century, the monastery had been expanded to include thirty temples and fifty-two halls.

Nowadays, though the legendary tree unfortunately no longer stands, parts of it are now preserved in the stupa that rests in the Great Hall of the Golden Roof. Before the 1950s, the monastery supported a colossal 3,600 monks, although now there are only about 400. The majority are from the Tibetan ethnic minority, with the rest representing a mixture of Mongol, Yugur, and Han people. These monks are divided into four monastic colleges or “dratsang”: the Debate College, the Tantric College, the Medical College, and the Kalachakra[2] College.

Of these, the most popular is the Debate College. After all, who doesn’t love a good argument! During these heated debates, a student will stand in front of his seated teacher and think of a difficult question regarded the sutras[3]. Once he has thought of one, he will clap his hands loudly, extend his right arm to his teacher, and ask the question. Usually the teacher will only respond with cursory two or three words, but a longer response will elicit great joy from the student. Tourists are welcome to watch the debates and come face-to-face with this exciting practice.

The Great Hall of the Golden Roof sits at the centre of the complex and is its core building. It is so named for its remarkable three-tiered golden roof, adorned with patterns of lotus flowers and small statuettes of animals. From its colourful gates to the jade tiles and precious stones that are embedded in its walls, the hall is a luxurious feast for the eyes. Its main feature is an 11-metre-high (36 ft.) silver stupa that enshrines a gilded statue of Tsongkhapa. This stupa is surrounded by embroidered silk brocade, golden Buddha statuettes, burning butter lamps, and ornaments of all kinds.

Yet the monastery’s greatest claims to fame are its Three Treasures: Suyouhua or yak butter sculptures, embroidered silk brocade, and murals. Suyouhua are prepared at least three months in advance by resident monks for the grand butter sculpture show on the night of January 15th according to the Chinese lunar calendar. This art dates back over 1,300 years and involves a phenomenal degree of discipline. To prevent the butter from melting as they sculpt it, they must work in sub-zero temperatures and constantly dip their hands in freezing cold water. The elder monks must really have to butter them up so they don’t get cold feet!

Kumbum Monastery 01

[1] Stupa: A hemispherical structure with a small interior designed for storing Buddhist relics and for private meditation.

[2] Kalachakra: The term literally means “Wheel of Time” or “Time Cycles” and can be applied to both the practice and the name of the Tantric deity attached to it. It revolves around the concept of time and cycles, from the cycles of planets to the cycles of breathing.

[3] Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha.

Qinghai Lake

The name “Qinghai” literally means “Cyan Sea” and, as the largest lake in China and one of the largest saltwater lakes in the world, it commands so much prestige that the entire province of Qinghai is named after it! This colossal water-body has an average depth of between 19 to 21 metres (62-69 ft.) and covers a surface area of over 4,300 square kilometres (1,660 sq. mi). That’s over five times the size of New York City! According to local Tibetan Buddhists, who regularly circumambulate this watery behemoth as part of their pilgrimage, it can take upwards of 15 to 23 days to complete a full circuit of it on foot.

The lake is located about 100 kilometres (62 mi) west of Xining, the provincial capital of Qinghai, and has unsurprisingly become a popular tourist attraction in the region. Since it rests at an altitude of about 3,600 metres (11,800 ft.), it benefits from temperate, dry summers and is thus the perfect retreat for those wishing to escape the oppressive humidity in other parts of China. In spite of its salinity, the lake also supports several species of fish so you know that, if you enter any of the small restaurants on the lake’s shore, fresh fish is bound to be on the menu!

Yet the lake’s greatest attractions are the many islands dotted across its surface, the most famous of which is Bird Island. Every year throughout April and May, many species of birds use the lake as a resting stop whilst they migrate across Asia. In some cases, the birds settle here and even lay their eggs, which led to the establishment of the Qinghai Lake Natural Protection Zone in 1997. The vast majority of these birds gather on a couple of little islands in the northwest of the lake known collectively as Bird Island. During peak season, over ten thousand birds can be seen perched on these small rocks, laying their eggs or chirruping their sweet songs. Whether you’re a bird-watcher or not, the spectacle of seeing so many birds in one place is not to be missed!

Towards the west of the lake, an island known as Mount Haixin or “Heart of the Lake” is host to several stunning temples and was supposedly once home to a Buddhist monastery. According to legend, the monks who lived there did not own a boat and had no other means of traversing the water. They would wait till winter each year, when the lake would freeze over for three months, and then would cross the icy expanse on foot. It is also rumoured that Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty (581-618) commissioned his officials to raise horses on this isolated island.

Nowadays the lake is the site for the annual Qinghai Lake International Cycling Race. Fortunately it takes place in July, around about the same time as the Tour de France, so that’s already a lot of the competition out of the way! Approximately 250 cyclists from about 15 countries gather for this prestigious race, which covers a gruelling 1,300 kilometres (808 mi) at an altitude of 3,300 metres (10,800 ft.). Considering the distance from Beijing to Shanghai is only about 1,200 kilometres (746 mi), we won’t blame you if you decide to remain a spectator!


xining 02

It may seem odd that Xining is the provincial capital of Qinghai, especially when you take into account the fact that, up until 1928, it belonged to the province of Gansu. Yet it appears Qinghai has stolen a real gem, as this city has been sought after and warred over for nearly 2,000 years! It has a population of just over 2 million people, most of which are from the Han, Hui, Tu, and Tibetan ethnic groups, although the city is home to 36 of China’s ethnic minorities. It has recently enjoyed much fame and popularity as the starting point for the new Tibetan Railway.

Yet this is only a small part of Xining’s illustrious heritage as a centre for travel. During the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), the city’s proximity to the Hexi Corridor made it a focal trade hub along the Silk Road and thus it enjoyed a period of exponential growth. It functioned as a western stronghold throughout the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties but was tragically overrun and annexed by the Tibetan Empire in 763. It was eventually recovered in 1104, during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and was then symbolically renamed Xining or “Peace in the West”. In keeping with this spiritual name, the city is a site of religious significance for both Muslims and Buddhists, with the Dongguan Mosque resting within the city and the Kumbum Monastery just outside of it.

Nowadays the city enjoys a fine reputation as one of the summer resort capitals of China, owing to its temperate, balmy summers. Though in January the temperature can plummet to depths of −7 °C (18 °F), the average July temperature of 17 °C (63 °F) makes Xining far more comfortable than other Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. It’s the ideal place to get away from the oppressive humidity in other parts of China; just be sure to book a ticket out of there before the icy winter hits!

xining dongguanWith its substantial Muslim population, Xining is home to over 80 mosques, of which the Dongguan Mosque is undoubtedly its star attraction. It was originally built during the 14th century and is one of the largest mosques in the country. Every Friday it regularly attracts over 50,000 worshippers for lunchtime prayers, while during the festival of Ramadan it can draw crowds of over 300,000. That’s over three times the number of people that attend Reading Festival each year!

Within the city itself, the South Mountain Park is a favourite haunt for locals and has a viewing platform from which visitors can take in a breath-taking panorama of the city. It’s a wonderfully secluded slice of greenery and makes for a welcome escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. For those dedicated history nerds, there are numerous spectacular museums littered throughout the city that give an insight into its decorated past. The Qinghai Provincial Museum at the east end of Xining Square is resplendent with historical artefacts that date back thousands of years, including pottery, paintings, and Tibetan carpets. It’s the perfect place to learn about the history of the province and pick up a few souvenirs in the process!

The Tibetan Culture and Medicine Museum is another real treat and boasts some excellent displays on traditional Tibetan medicine, astronomy, and science, as well as the culture and lifestyle of the Tibetan people. Its crowning jewel is a 618-metre-long (2,030 ft.) Tibetan thangka or sacred art scroll, which was painted by 400 artists over four years and was finally completed in 1997. To put that into perspective, it’s over twice as long as the Eiffel Tower is high!

About 25 kilometres (15 mi) to the southwest of Xining, the Kumbum Monastery welcomes visitors to marvel at its stunning architecture and witness its monks debating over Buddhist sutras[1]. It is the most prestigious Buddhist monastery outside of Tibet and attracts flocks of worshippers every year. Still further, approximately 95 kilometres (60 mi) outside of the city, the colossal Qinghai Lake can be found sprawling its sapphire expanse across the countryside.




[1] Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha.


Qinghai is located far to the northwest and is the fourth largest province in China. Yet, with a population of just 5.2 million, it is the third least populated province in the country. To put that into perspective, it covers an area larger than the country of France but only has about a thirteenth of the population. So, if you fancy some serious alone time, Qinghai is the place to be! It is named after the resident Qinghai Lake, the largest lake in China, but is occasionally referred to by its alternate name of Kokonor.

It is bordered by Gansu in the northeast, Xinjiang in the northwest, Sichuan in the southeast, and the Tibet Autonomous Region in the southwest. This, coupled with its location on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, means it has long been a melting pot for various nomadic cultures. Nowadays, though the Han people still represent the majority, the province is home to 37 of China’s recognised ethnic minorities, with large constituencies of Tibetan, Hui, Tu, Mongol, and Salar people. With 5 out of its 8 prefectures being designated as Tibetan autonomous regions, the province itself is noticeably dominated by Tibetan culture.

Qinghai’s main claim to fame is its wonderful scenery and diverse landscapes. In the north, the snowy Altun and Qilian mountains rise up and form a protective barrier along the sparsely populated northern border. The magnificent Kunlun Mountains strike through the centre of the province while the Tanggula Mountains in the south represent the point where the Yangtze River begins. So be sure to pack your hiking boots, or you’ll end up with some pretty sore feet!

The province is home to the headwaters of three major rivers: the Yellow, Yangtze, and Mekong rivers. Qinghai is thus renowned as a paradise of rolling hills, snowy mountains, verdant grasslands, and rushing waters. Over 250 of its animal species are under national protection, including the wild camel, Tibetan antelope, white-lipped deer, snow leopard, and yak.

Since Qinghai rests at a relatively high altitude compared to other provinces, it experiences cold winters, mild summers, and huge variations in daily temperature. In January, temperatures can plummet to between −7 and −18 °C (19 to 0 °F), while in July they raise to a modest 15 to 21 °C (59 to 70 °F). From February to April, the region is plagued by heavy winds that blow in sandstorms from the Gobi Desert, so avoid this season unless you want to end up looking like Lawrence of Arabia!

During summer, domestic tourists flock to the provincial capital of Xining to enjoy the temperate and balmy weather. The comfortable temperatures throughout July and August, coupled with the relative lack of humidity, make Xining an ideal summer retreat. It’s also home to the Dongguan Mosque, which has been continuously operating since 1380 and is the largest mosque in the province.

That being said, the province’s star attraction is undoubtedly Qinghai or “Cyan Sea” Lake, which is surrounded by misty mountains, lush meadows, and communities of fascinating Tibetan people. There are several islands on the lake that are open to tourists, including Bird Island, Haixin Mountain, and Sand Island. For nature lovers, the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve and the Kekexili State Nature Reserve are idyllic locations divorced from man’s influence. The former is the location of the headwaters for the Yellow, Yangtze, and Mekong rivers, while the latter is home to a large community of precious Tibetan antelope.

In terms of Qinghai’s religious significance, the Kumbum Monastery in Huangzhong City was founded in 1583 and is the most prestigious “gompa” or Buddhist university monastery after the “great three” gompa of Tibet; Drepung Monastery, Ganden Monastery, and Sera Monastery. The Gyanak Mani Temple just outside of Yushu City boasts the country’s largest collection of carved prayer stones, with over 2 billion of the stones neatly stacked in an area of just 1 square kilometre (0.4 sq. mi). In a place this sacred, be sure to expect a stony silence!

Kekexili State Nature Reserve

Hoh Xil, also known as Kekexili, is an isolated region situated in the northwest part of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and its main claim to fame is that it’s the third least populated area in the world. So if you’re not a people person, Kekexili is the place to be! The region stretches across a colossal 83,000 square kilometres (32,000 sq. mi) and sits at an average elevation of 4,800 metres (15,700 ft.). That makes it larger than Scotland and nearly four times higher than Ben Nevis!

It rests between the Tanggula and Kunlun Mountains and borders the Tibet Autonomous Region in the southwest, and Qinghai and Xinjiang in the northwest. Divorced from mankind and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, the verdant grasslands and dense forests that populate this region have become a safe haven for a variety of animal species. This truly unspoiled wilderness is a wonder to behold and, in an effort to preserve it, 45,000 square kilometres (17,400 sq. mi) of it was carved out to form the Kekexili State Nature Reserve in 1995.

The nature reserve is located at the border between Zhiduo County and Qumalai County in Qinghai. Its rushing waters, shimmering lakes, and rolling meadows are home to 16 species of mammal, 30 species of bird, and 210 species of plant, of which 18 animal species and 84 plant species are endemic to the region.

The preserve is home to many animals that are currently under national protection, such as snow leopards, Tibetan antelope, golden eagles, and brown bears. Thus the region is precious not only for its natural beauty, but for the many endangered species that inhabit its plains. Unlike other mountainous areas in China, the region is densely covered with lakes, such as Kekexili Lake, Sun Lake and Xuelian Lake, meaning that its animal residents are never too far away from a good drink and a good meal. Unfortunately, if you’re a cuddly little plateau pika[1], that means you’re on the brown bear’s menu!

The region has become so beloved that there was even a film made about it in 2004 called Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, which detailed the struggle of several noble locals trying to protect the rare Tibetan antelope from poachers. This helped highlight the current endangerment of several animal species in Kekexili and, in an effort to further raise awareness, the Tibetan antelope or chiru was made into one of the five mascots of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The mascot’s name, Ying Ying (迎迎), literally means “Welcome! Welcome!” and, with the chiru’s adorably fluffy face, you couldn’t ask for a warmer one!

[1] Plateau Pika: A small burrowing rodent with tan-coloured fur.