Lying on the northeastern border of Tibet, Qīnghǎi is one of the great cartographic constructions of our time. For centuries the area was part of Amdo in the Tibetan world; these days it’s separated from the Tibetan Autonomous Region by little more than the colours on a Chinese-made map.
A relatively unknown province, nicknamed ‘China’s Siberia’ for its gulags and nuclear dumping grounds, Qīnghǎi may not immediately strike you as an ideal travel destination. Think again: this vast area is also home to dozens of Tibetan monasteries, epic grasslands, one of Tibet’s holiest mountains (Amnye Machen) and the headwaters of three of Asia’s greatest rivers – the Yellow (Huáng Hé), Yangzi (Cháng Jiāng) and Mekong (Láncāng Jiāng).
Add to this a mix of ethnic groups, including Tibetans, Goloks, Tu, Mongols, Salar and Hui, and a vibrant religious life. The current Dalai Lama, the 10th Panchen Lama and Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism, were all born in present-day Qīnghǎi.
For the traveller, Qīnghǎi forms the launching pad for some of China’s wildest journeys: the new train link to Lhasa; overland to Yùshù (Jyekundo) and on into the wilds of western Sichuan; through the back door to Gānsù and the Labrang Monastery; or west from Golmud, following the deserts of the southern Silk Road into Xīnjiāng.
China’s economic miracle has been slow to come to Qīnghǎi; it’s the country’s fourth-largest province but its third poorest. Travel can be a little rough here and few travellers make it further than Xīníng. Those visitors that do explore the region keep their secrets well; Qīnghǎi is one of the frontiers of adventure travel in China.