Geographically Qinghai is on the Tibetan Plateau and is the source of several of China's major rivers. The Yellow River (Huang He) starts in central Qinghai and flows north and east through much of North China. The Yangtze and the Mekong both start near the southern edge of Qinghai and flow across Tibet into Yunnan where they are two of the three rivers in the Three Parallel Rivers National Park, then diverge to flow into different oceans.
Historically, what is now Qinghai was one of the three provinces of the old Tibetan Kingdom and was called Amdo. It has its own dialect, Amdo Tibetan. Tibetans are still the main ethnic and cultural group, but Mongols, Hui (Chinese Muslims) and Han (ethnic Chinese) have been present for centuries and more Han have been moving in over the last few decades.
There are eight prefecture level districts in Qinghai:
- Xining - the capital city, on the Qinghai-Tibetan Railway
- Golmud - second largest city in Qinghai, start of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway
- Huangzhong - home of the famous Kumbum Monastery
- Tongren - known as Rebkong in Tibetan.
- Guide - a small predominantly Tibetan city near the start of the Yellow River. Featuring hot springs, unrestored Qing dynasty walls and lovely scenery.
- Yushu - known as Jyekundo in Tibetan
- Qinghaihu National Park (青海湖 - also called Lake Koko Nor in Mongolian and Tso Ngonpo in Tibetan) - this 5,694 sq km lake is the largest lake in China, and is located between Hainan and Haibei
Qinghai, owing to its location in the heart of China, close to Mongolia and near the Silk Road, is ethnically mixed - Han, Hui, Kazakh, Mongolian, Tibetans, Tu and Salar inhabit the province. Most of Qinghai forms the traditional Tibetan province of Amdo. Yushu prefecture, in far southern Qinghai, is a part of the Kham region of Tibet. Outside the two main cities - Golmud and Xining -- population centers are tiny villages and towns, scattered along the desolate Tibetan Plateau.
Qinghai is perhaps China's most scarcely populated province. There are only 5.2 million people in an area bigger than France. Labor camps, prisons and nuclear testing sites are scattered among the ice-capped mountains. The extreme eastern part of the province is less harsh, with two major Tibetan monasteries and the charming capital of Xining. The southern regions of Qinghai sit at an average elevation of over 4000 m (13,120 ft) while the northern regions sit between 2500 m and 3500 m (8200 to 11,500 ft). Qinghai has some of the largest pasturelands in China. Many yaks and sheep are herded by Tibetan and Mongolian nomads. The prefectures of Haidong and Huangnan consist mostly of farming communities. The far northwest region of Qinghai is home to the Chaidam Basin which is one of the largest deserts in China.
- While most inhabitants understand and speak Mandarin, Tibetans take pride in their culture and often prefer to speak Tibetan. Any effort you can make will be appreciated.
- Local Han speak a regional variant of Chinese called Qinghaihua. The province's many ethnic groups all have their own languages, including Dongxiang, Mongolian, Salar, Tibetan and Tu. At any travel agency, big restaurant or hotel, standard Mandarin works fine.
- The Amdo Tibetan dialect is spoken widely by Tibetans in the prefectures of northern and eastern Qinghai, while Kham Tibetan is spoken by Tibetans in Yushu prefecture in southern Qinghai.
- Xining is connected by air to China's main urban centers, including Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Xi'an and Guangzhou. There are less frequent flights to Urumqi, Zhengzhou, Shenzhen and Chongqing.
- Golmud is the only other city in Qinghai with an airport, but the only regularly scheduled flights run to Xining and Chengdu.
- Xining is connected with daily trains to many cities across China including Beijing, Shanghai, Xi'an, Chengdu and Lhasa.
- Yushu plans to open an airport sometime in 2008 with regular flights to Xining and Lhasa.
- There's only one rail line, the long, isolated Lhasa Express. In Qinghai the train stops at Xining and Golmud.
- To go to most places within Qinghai you can use the province's extensive bus service. The hub is definitely Xining. From here it's possible to catch buses to most places in the province.
- Xining has extensive buses connecting all parts of the city. The city buses usually cost Y1 per person. Taxi's start at Y6 and are an additional Y1.3 after the first 3km. After 9PM taxi's are Y1.5 per km after the first 3 km.
- Jyekundo (Yushu) Horse Festival- This is one of the largest and most exciting horse festivals in the Greater Tibet area. It begins each year on July 25th.
- Amnye Machen- This is one of the holiest mountains in Tibet rising to 6282 m (20,605 feet). This is one of the best places in Qinghai to go trekking.
- Mengda Lake- An alpine lake in Xunhua county surrounded by forests.
- The Gyanak Mani Temple, just outside of Jyekundo, has the largest collection of carved prayer stones anywhere in Tibet. There are over 2 billion prayer stones stacked neatly in a 1 square kilometer area.
- Mt. Bukadaban- The highest mountain in Qinghai at 6860 m (22,500 ft).
- Nomad Grasslands- Much of Qinghai is covered in high altitude grasslands which are home to Tibetan and Mongolian nomads. These grasslands are full of yaks and sheep.
- Ngoring and Kyaring Lakes- These two beautiful lakes west of Maduo are the main sources of the Yellow River. These huge lakes sit at 4400 m (14,435 ft).
- Kumbum Monastery (known as Ta'er Si in Chinese)- This famous Tibetan monastery was the birthplace of the famous buddhist reformer Tsongkhapa. There are currently over 650 monks at Kumbum.
- The 14th Dalai Lama's Birthplace- The current Dalai Lama was born in Qinghai, close to Xining. His birthplace is considered a holy site to Tibetan people.
- The sources of the Mekong, Yellow and Yangtze Rivers - All three of these rivers have their starting points in Qinghai.
- Bei Shan Park in Huzhu county- This large park is surrounded by forests and rivers and is a great place to go hiking or camping.
- Kanbula Lake about a two hour bus ride from Xining. 180 kuai admission includes bus rides throughout the park and a boat ride across the stunning lake.
- With a week to 10 days, it's possible to make a loop from Xining or Lanzhou that hits several important sites. Start in Xining. Take a minibus outside of town to the Ta'er Si Monastery, a Yellow Hat Tibetan temple where that celebrates the first Dalai Lama. Head back to Xining and catch one of the hourly buses to a small town Tongren (4 hour trip), where Tus have painted elborate thangka paintings for several centuries. From there head on to Xiahe, just over the border in Gansu province. The three hour drive passes 4,000 meter peaks and small Tibetan settlements. Xiahe's Labrang Monastery is the Yellow Hat's most important outside of Lhasa. Plan to spend a couple days wandering through the temple and surrounding hills before taking the 6:30AM bus to Lanzhou with a large Hui population and a cool scenery along the Yellow River. More than a dozen buses make the three hour trip back to Xining every day, along with about a half dozen trains.
- If your focus is more on natural scenery, with a lesser interest in temples and no desire to spend every night in Xining, it is possible to hit virtually every major scenic area short of Dunhuang in 5 days. Charter a private car and driver out of Xining (550 RMB/day is a fair rate as of July 2013), and your driver can make a grand loop of the Gansu-Qinghai area. First, stay a night at Zhangye's Danxia mountains--on the way, there are at least three scenic overlooks which provide sweeping views of Qinghai's verdant valleys. Then, head toward Ox-Heart Mountain (dubbed "the Chinese mini-Alps", and rightly so). On the way, you'll pass several ancient temples, and scenery that would not look out of place on the Scottish highlands. Then, spend a few hours driving through alpine, permafrost scenery as you wind your way above 4500 meters. Then, you'll wind your way to lower altitudes, heading towards Qinghai Lakes. Along the way, you'll pass through the massive Qinghai grasslands, which will take half a day (especially when you stop for scenic photo ops). Dominated by Tibetan yak and sheep herders, the grasslands stretch as far as the eye can see (and then some), encompassing lush rolling hills, winding tributaries, probably the occasional burst of rainfall. At Qinghai Lake, stay the night on the west side of the lake, and at dawn, watch the sun rise directly from the lake itself. Bicycles are available for rent essentially everywhere on the lake. Then, drive a few hours to Gui De, which is at the origin of the Yellow River. Here, the Yellow River is a turquoise-green hue, and the geology is much like that along the US's Colorado River. Heading out from Gui De, take the rear entrance into Kambula National Geopark, and enjoy the spectacular scenery. On your way back to Xining, stop at Ta'ersi Monastery, and walk through a practicing Tibetan temple that dates back 600 years. Finally, arrive back at Xining, and enjoy a couple of bowls of niangpi from a tiny mom-and-pop noodle shop. Add a day to the itinerary if you want to visit Chaka Lake.
- Rafting the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers - Both rivers have sections perfect for whitewater and float rafting trips
- Mountaineering - 16 mountains are open for climbing by non-Chinese
- Singing Festival on 6th of 6th Lunar Month - Various locations throughout Qinghai, singing contests by Tu, Hui, Sala and Han folk singers
- Qinghai's climate in winter is harsh. Vast parts of the province are high, treeless steppe. Don't go off the beaten track on your own. Bring warm clothes and extra food supplies. It can snow year-round, and even in July temperatures regularly dip below freezing at night in regions above 4000m. Winters are brutally cold in much of Qinghai with temperatures at night between -20C and -30C.
- Sunlight is intense here. The province receives very little rain, so those cloudless days and lack of shade mean it's very easy to get burned here. Bring plenty of sunblock. A hat is also a good idea.
- When trekking through nomadic areas be careful around the dogs. Tibetan dogs in Qinghai are used as guard dogs and will attack anyone they are unfamiliar with. These dogs are quite large and often can weigh 60 kg or more.
- Altitude sickness is a reality in Qinghai with much of the province being over 3000m. Give yourself plenty of time to acclimatize before going to high altitude regions. Try to ascend as slowly as possible.
The Qinghai-Tibet railway was inaugurated in July 2006. All of the trains to Lhasa pass through Xining, making the city the gateway to Lhasa. Getting train tickets from Xining to Lhasa is easier than in the larger cities of Chengdu, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. The train from Xining to Lhasa takes a little over 24 hours.
Currently all foreigners who travel to the Tibet Autonomous Region need a Tibet Travel Permit. Permits to go to Lhasa can be easily arranged at travel agencies in big cities eg Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Chongqing and in Qinghai province in Xining or Golmud. In Golmud it is reported that travel agencies there charge a higher price for the permit.