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Introducing Qīnghǎi

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.