China Travel Guide

Gansu & Qinghai

  • Inner Mongolia & Ningxia
  • Gansu & Qinghai
  • Xinjiang
  • Tibet Area
    Gansu & Qinghai

    For centuries, Gansu and Qinghai were regarded as frontier provinces that marked the outer limits of ancient China. A harsh and rugged region, Gansu connects the Chinese heartland with the vast desert regions to the northwest. The Hexi Corridor, running 750 miles (1,200 km) between two mountain ranges and dotted with oases, formed a link between China and the West. The Silk Road passed through here, as did the Great Wall, and later, the region’s only railway line. The Yellow River flows through Lanzhou, for centuries a major stop along the Silk Road. To the southwest lies the Tibetan town of Xiahe and its splendid Labrang Monastery. In the desert landscape northwest of Lanzhou are two great historical relics – the mighty Ming fortress of Jiayuguan and the cave art at Dunhuang. Lying between Gansu and Tibet, Qinghai is a vast mountain plateau inhabited by a mere 5.5 million people. In every respect – culturally, historically, and geographically – it is part of the Tibetan Plateau, and was once the Tibetan province of Amdo, becoming a province of China only in 1928. Due to its remoteness, it has been used as the site for several prison camps for political dissidents. The province, however, abounds in natural beauty, with lush valleys around the capital of Xining, and miles of unspoilt wilderness around Qinghai Hu, China’s largest lake. It also houses one of the country’s greatest Tibetan lamaseries, Ta’er Si, and provides access into Tibet from Golmud and Xining across some of the highest mountains in the world.

    Sights at a glance

    Towns & Cities

    Historic Sites

    Mountains, Caves & Lakes

    Monasteries & Temples

    Maiji Shan
    The site of one of China’s most important groups of Buddhist carvings, Maiji Shan (Corn Rick Mountain) rises up spectacularly like Sumeru, the holy mountain of Buddhist myth. It is likely that the first sculptures were made around the end of the 4th century AD, and work continued up to the Qing dynasty. It therefore provides an invaluable insight into the development of Chinese Buddhist artistic style. Almost 200 caves survive and are reached by a series of precipitous stairways. However, many of the best caves are closed to visitors and the gloomy interiors have to be viewed through grilles, so bring a flashlight.

    Maiji Shan

    Visitors' checklist

    • 28 miles (45 km) SE of Tianshui
    • 0938 223 1075
    • from Beidao, Tianshui
    • 8:30am–5:30pm
    • for an additional large fee, the closed caves may be opened
    • included in entry fee

    Upper Seven Buddhas: Cave 4
    The upper gallery of Buddhas includes this magnificent Song-dynasty guardian. The cave complex itself is said to have been built by the local governor Li Yunxin, as early as the sixth century.

    Colossal Buddhas: Cave 13
    These huge statues originally date from the Sui dynasty and were then repaired during the Ming dynasty. The myriad holes around the statues were probably used to support a protective framework.

    Middle Seven Buddhas: Cave 9
    These figures show a transitional phase between Indian-influenced sculpture and later Song-era figures, with pure Chinese characteristics. The statues are well-proportioned and slim in stature, with realistic drapes to their clothes.

    Gallery Views
    There are excellent views across the countryside from the network of walkways on the cliff face of Maiji Shan. If time allows, a hike around the Botanical Garden at the foot of the cliff is recommended.

    Buddha’s disciple
    Buddha’s disciple

    Colossal Buddha: Cave 98
    This finely worked 53-ft (16-m) high statue of Amitabha Buddha is portrayed attended by two smaller statues of Avalokitesvara. The move away from classical Indian-style Buddha sculptures is clearly evident here.

    Working with Clay
    Because of the friable nature of the stone at Maiji Shan, many of the statues were not hewn out of the rock but modelled from clay stuck onto a wooden frame. Although they are not as well preserved as a result, they are more lively and with more detail than similar carvings in the Buddhist caves at, for example, Dunhuang. There are a few stone statues at Maiji Shan, but these have been carved from specially imported rock.

    Star sights

  • Colossal Buddhas
  • Gallery Views

    Rock carvings at Lashao Si, Luomen, depicting Sakyamuni Buddha
    Rock carvings at Lashao Si, Luomen,
    depicting Sakyamuni Buddha


    • 155 miles (250 km) SE of Lanzhou
    • Water Curtain Thousand Buddha Caves
    • minibus from Luomen

    The small town of Luomen serves as a base for visiting the Water Curtain Thousand Buddha Caves, situated in a spectacular gorge in the nearby mountains. Remote and accessible only by a rough road, which is actually a riverbed, the caves cannot be reached in bad weather as the road becomes unusable. The main attractions are a 98-ft (30-m) Sakyamuni (the Historical Buddha), carved into a rock face, and Lashao Si, a temple built into a cave in the mountainside that has paintings and carvings dating from the Northern Wei dynasty (AD 386–534). Visitors can reach Luomen by bus or train from Tianshui, or from Lanzhou.


    • 236 miles (380 km) S of Lanzhou
    • from Lanzhou, Linxia or Xiahe to Hezuo, then direct bus to Langmusi

    Remarkable for its unhurried pace, the remote mountain town of Langmusi is inhabited by a mix of Tibetan, Hui, and Han Chinese. While the hills offer miles of unspoilt country with trails for walking and riding, several active temples dot the town. Built in 1413, the Dacheng Lamo Kerti Gompa is the place of worship for several hundred monks, who study astrology and medicine, apart from Tibetan Buddhist theology. Traditional sky-burials, where the dead are left for birds of prey, also take place here. However, visitors are not permitted to view the last rites.

    Breathtaking alpine scenery around Langmusi
    Breathtaking alpine scenery around Langmusi

    Dacheng Lamo Kerti Gompa

  • daily


    • 175 miles (280 km) SW of Lanzhou
    • Monlam (Great Prayer) Festival (Feb/Mar)

    Perched at a height of 9,514 ft (2,900 m) in a mountain valley at the edge of the Tibetan plateau – that is now a part of Gansu – Xiahe is a significant Tibetan monastery town that attracts many devout Buddhist pilgrims to its Labrang Monastery every year. As a result the town’s population is a mix of Hui, Tibetan, and Han Chinese.

    Xiahe’s location offers many opportunities to explore the surrounding grasslands preferably on horseback, although cycling is an option for some. The town itself comprises a single street, running along the Daxia River. The commercial part of town is at the eastern end; the Labrang Monastery is in the center; while the Tibetan quarter is at the western end, offering glimpses of the Tibetan way of life. This town is worth a visit, especially for those not going to Tibet.

    Lying near Sangke village, 5 miles (10 km) west of Xiahe, is a lake surrounded by the Sangke grasslands, used by nomads for grazing their yaks. This huge area of grass and flowers can be accessed by road, although a fee is charged. Another 19 miles (30 km) north lie the even more vast and picturesque Ganjia Grasslands.

    Labrang Monastery
    The most important center of the Yellow Hat Sect (Gelugpa) outside Tibet, the Labrang Monastery (Labuleng Si) attracts Tibetan pilgrims in their thousands. As a result of the Cultural Revolution the monastery was closed until 1980 and the number of monks reduced from 4,000 to about 1,500. Set in an auspicious location with the Dragon mountains to the north and the Daxia river to the south, the impressive monastery buildings are joined by a haphazard maze of alleyways that makes it a fascinating place to wander around.

    Visitors' checklist

    • Xiahe 175 miles (280 km) SW of Lanzhou
    • Linxia, Lanzhou or Tongren
    • 8am–noon, 2pm–6pm daily
    • Nov–Feb
    • required for the main temple
    • Monlam Festival 4th–16th of the 1st Lunar month
    Main prayer hall, Labrang Monastery
    Main prayer hall, Labrang Monastery
    View over the monastery with the gleaming Gongtang Pagoda to the left
    View over the monastery with
    the gleaming Gongtang Pagoda to the left

    Exploring the Labrang Monastery
    This monastery was founded in 1709 during the forty-eighth year of the reign of the Qing Kangxi emperor by a local monk, E’Ang Zongzhe. He became the first generation Living Buddha, or Jiemuyang, who ranks third in the Tibetan hierarchy after the Dalai and Panchen Lamas. The monastery’s buildings came through the Cultural Revolution relatively unscathed, but in 1985 a fire seriously damaged the Grand Sutra Hall, which has subsequently been fully restored. Today the sprawling monastery complex dominates the town. It is actually impossible to see where the town stops and the monastery begins, they are so inextricably woven together.

    The monastery is built in a typical Tibetan style and consists of six grand halls for the study of scriptures or sutras, eighteen Buddha temples, offices for the Living Buddha and many hundreds of residences for the monks. The monastery is also an academic institution and holds an assortment of around 60,000 sutras and specialized books. The large halls are colleges for the monks to study a variety of degrees such as mathematics, astronomy, medicine and other more esoteric subjects.

    The Grand Sutra Hall is the most impressive of the buildings and can hold up to 4,000 monks. It is an eerily impressive sight to see the monks chanting here each morning as they wait to go in and pray. Labrang also has a multitude of prayer wheels set in a long line that encircles the monastery. Spinning these was, and still is, a way for the largely illiterate Tibetan people to pray.

    Labrang monk
    Labrang monk
       Senior Yellow Hat monk
    Senior Yellow Hat monk

    Within the prayer wheels stands the Gongtang Pagoda, south of the main road. At nearly 100-ft high (31-m) it comprises five levels topped with a gold colored stupa containing thousands of sutras and Buddha statues. You can climb up to the upper level and get an oustanding view over the monastery and town. Parts of Labrang can only be visited as a member of a tour group, although much of the monastery can be freely explored. There are a couple of tours in English each day. Visitors, of course, should be sensitive to the religious nature of the site.

    Xiahe is also famous for its Monlam festival. Witnessed by thousands who have come from all over the country, a huge thangka of Buddha is unfurled and sanctified on a screen to the south of the Daxia River. There follows several days of festivities including processions, musical performances, and dances.

    Bunches of noodles tied up and ready for sale, Linxia
    Bunches of noodles tied up and ready
    for sale, Linxia


  • 62 miles (100 km) SW of Lanzhou
  • 200,000
  • from Lanzhou, Xining, and Xiahe

    A pleasant place for ambling leisurely through streets bustling with locals, Linxia has a predominantly Muslim character, defined by the resident Hui minority. It was once a stopover for travelers passing between Lanzhou and the South Pass along the Silk Road. The town is still a good place to break the journey between Lanzhou and Xiahe. However, it offers very few attractions aside from its numerous mosques. The most prominent is the large and impressive Nanguan Mosque, just off the main square.

    Linxia’s appeal lies in its colorful markets and teahouses. The markets are lined with shops selling carved gourds, carpets, and saddlery. Most interesting are the local spectacles, made from ground crystal lenses, which many elderly men can be seen wearing. At the top end of Jiefang Nan Lu in the south of town is the great night market with numerous stalls stocked with aromatic curry-flavored breads (bing) and huge piles of noodles – fresh and dried.

    Linxia is popular with the Dongxiang minority, who speak their own Altaic language, and are supposedly descendants of 13th-century immigrants, who moved here after Kublai Khan invaded their homelands in Central Asia.

    Elephant drum
    Elephant drum

    A large industrial city and Gansu’s capital, Lanzhou has for long been the key transport link between the Chinese heartlands and the Northwest. It was an important stop on the Silk Road at the beginning of the Hexi Corridor, and is thus culturally closer to the Northwest than to Central China. The Yellow River flows through the center of the city, and for centuries Lanzhou was the principal point for crossing the river. In fact, until the 19th century, a bridge created by chaining together a flotilla of boats was used. The first iron bridge was built in 1907. Although most of the attractions lie well away from the center, Lanzhou offers good food, shopping, and an excellent museum.

    Visitors' checklist

    • 425 miles (680 km) W of Xi’an
    • 3,000,000
    • Lanzhou Airport, 56 miles (90 km) N of city
    • Lanzhou Train Station
    • CAAC (buses to airport), East Bus Station, Private Bus Depots, Main Bus Station, West Bus Station
    • 2nd Floor, Tourism Building, Nongmin Xiang, 0931 881 3222

    Lanzhou city center

    • Baita Shan Gongyuan (1)
    • Baiyi Si (3)
    • Gansu Provincial Museum (2)
    • Lan Shan Gongyuan (5)
    • Wuquan Shan Gongyuan (4)
    Yellow River flanked by the lush Baita Shan Gongyuan & Lanzhou city
    Yellow River flanked by the lush Baita
    Shan Gongyuan & Lanzhou city

    Baita Shan Gongyuan

  • 6:30am–8.30pm daily

    To the north of the river, near Zhongshan Bridge, is Baita Shan Gongyuan (White Pagoda Hill Park). It takes its name from the 13th-century pagoda, Bai Ta, which was built as part of a temple at the hill’s summit. Steps have been carved into the steep slopes, while the walkways are dotted with teahouses, mosques, a plant nursery, and assorted pavilions. Chairlifts take visitors to the top from inside the park, or from town, on the other side of the river.

    Flying Horse statue at Lanzhou’s train station
    Flying Horse statue at Lanzhou’s train station

    Gansu Provincial Museum

    • Xijin Xi Lu.
    • Tue–Sun

    This museum is set in an old Soviet-style building west of town. The ground floor has a natural history section with a mammoth skeleton found in the Yellow River in 1973. Captioned in English, the history section upstairs is best known for the striking 2,000-year-old bronze Flying Horse, with its hoof resting on the back of a swallow, that was discovered in an Eastern Han tomb in Wuwei.

    Baiyi Si
    Baiyi Si, with its temple and accompanying stupa, was built during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) just a few hundred feet to the east of busy Jinchang Lu, on the north side of Qingyang Lu. The small temple’s unusual location, dwarfed by the department stores of Lanzhou’s main shopping district, makes it appear strikingly out of place, and worth a visit for this alone. Also worth seeing are the bronze chariots, with horses and attendants, from a tomb in the same area, as well as a fine collection of Yangshao pottery dating from the late Neolithic period. Other relics include Silk Road carvings, wooden spills, statuary, and writing tablets. In the garden, a mock tomb recreates burials in the Jiayuguan area in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. Finally, a large exhibit commemorates the Long March.

    Lan Shan Gongyuan

    • 8am–8pm daily

    South of the city, Lan Shan Gongyuan (Lan Shan Park) can be reached by chairlift from Wuquan Shan Gongyuan. The 20-minute ride to the top is a pleasant way to escape the summer heat. It is a great spot to watch the sunsets and the city lights at night. An amusement park and several eateries are also located here. A trail leads to Wuquan Shan Gongyuan.

    Ornamental door knob, Rui Yuan Si, Wuquan Shan
    Ornamental door knob, Rui Yuan Si,
    Wuquan Shan
    Gateway designed as a quatrefoil moon in Wuquan Shan Gongyuan
    Gateway designed as a quatrefoil moon
    in Wuquan Shan Gongyuan

    Wuquan Shan Gongyuan

  • 6am–5pm daily

    Also set in the south of town, the Wuquan Shan Gongyuan (Five Springs Hill Park) resembles a traditional garden, with its weathered rocks, cascading streams, elaborate-shaped doorways, and myriad pavilions, and is pleasant enough to wander around in for a while. The hill is said to be the place where the Han general, Huo Qubin, quartered his cavalry as he mounted an expedition to the northwest. According to one legend, he cut at the rocks until the water he needed for his horses and men gushed forth. Of the several temples on the site, Chongqing Si dates back to 1372, and houses an iron bell cast in 1202. Despite its venerable origins, modern materials like concrete have been used several times in building the temple, and it is now an artistic blend of Soviet and traditional Chinese design. Another one of the oldest buildings in the park, the Ming-dynasty Jingang Palace houses an impressive, 16-ft (5-m) bronze Buddha, reputedly cast in 1370.

    Bingling Si

    • 56 miles (90 km) SW of Lanzhou
    • to Liujia Xia Reservoir, then boat to caves
    • in season, when the water level in reservoir is high
    • from Lanzhou

    The magnificent group of Buddhist caves at Bingling Si (Bright Spirit Temple) is one of the most intriguing sights in Gansu. Buddhism arrived in China along the Silk Road, and these caves are among the earliest significant Buddhist monuments in the country. Carved into sheer cliffs, the caves stretch for about a mile (1.6 km) along a 196-ft (60-m) high gorge. Isolated by the waters of the Liujiaxia Reservoir on the Yellow River, the splendid sculptures and paintings were saved from damage during the Cultural Revolution, and remain in surprisingly good condition. Known as the Thousand Buddha Caves, there are in fact, only 183 of them, of which 149 can be more appropriately described as niches.

    The enormous seated Buddha carved into
    a cliff, Cave 172, Bingling Si

    The caves were created about 1,600 years ago during the Northern Wei and Western Jin dynasties. It is believed that the artists hung down the cliffs on ropes, and chiseled out sculptures into the rock-face. The style of work is similar to the Buddhist caves at Datong and Luoyang. Most of the caves contain rock-cut statues, clay sculptures, and colorful frescoes. One of the earliest caves, No. 169, dates to AD 420, and contains a Buddha and two Bodhisattvas that are among the oldest and best preserved in China. Most of the other caves were completed during the Tang era. The most impressive cave, No. 172, has an 89-ft (27-m) high seated statue of Maitreya (the Future Buddha). There are also four clay pagodas and another one carved from stone.

    Work on the sculptures continued long after the Silk Road had lost its importance, and there are examples of work from the Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties. The paintings reached their height during the Song and Ming dynasties, although there are some older and comparatively cruder paintings dating back to the Tang period.

    Getting to the caves can be slightly uncertain, as access depends on the water level in the reservoir. Autumn is usually the best time of year to visit Bingling Si, but it is best to check with other travelers before arranging a trip. It is a two-hour bus journey from Lanzhou to the reservoir and dam, followed by a three-hour boat trip to the caves, passing through some beautiful countryside with fishermen busy at work, and wheat and rice being cultivated on the riverbanks.

    Stone Buddha statue
    Stone Buddha statue
    The Great Goose Pagoda
    The Great Goose Pagoda
    The caves at Dunhuang
    The caves at Dunhuang

    The Spread of Buddhism
    Buddhism’s establishment in China was a long process and the date of its arrival is uncertain. The earliest sign of the religion in China is associated with the foundation of the White Horse Temple during the Han dynasty near the imperial capital of Luoyang. Based on the teachings of Buddha who lived in northern India during the 6th century BC, Buddhism was probably disseminated along the Silk Route by immigrants from Central Asia from the 1st century onwards. In China, Buddhism surged in popularity during periods of instability, when Confucianism’s veneration for authority did not sit well with the populace, and it was eventually adopted by China’s rulers. The Mahayana School took hold in China, breaking into different sects, such as the Chan sect, which gained a large following in Japan as Zen Buddhism.

    The caves at Dunhuang, served as the last stop on the Silk Road for pilgrim monks on their way to India. The frescoes and carvings, which celebrate the spread of Buddhism and date from the 4th to the 11th century, are amongst the most important early Buddhist works in China.

    The Great Goose Pagoda in Xi’an was built for the monk Xuanzang in AD 652 to house the sutras he brought back from India, a pilgrimage immortalized in Journey to the West . He spent the remainder of his life translating the sutras, aiding the spread of Buddhism.

Mahayana Buddhism started in India in the first century AD, finally spreading to Japan, via China, around AD 600.
    Mahayana Buddhism started in India in the first century AD, finally spreading to Japan, via China, around AD 600.
    Carved stele, Kongtong Shan, Pingliang
    Carved stele, Kongtong Shan, Pingliang
    Kongtong Shan’s lush north peak, Pingliang
    Kongtong Shan’s lush north peak, Pingliang


  • 155 miles (250 km) SE of Lanzhou

    Hidden in the hills in a mountainous region near the Gansu-Ningxia border is the sleepy town of Pingliang. Surrounded by beautiful peaks, some of which rise to heights of 6,890 ft (2,100 m), it remains one of the least-visited parts of the province, and is mostly used as a convenient base for exploring Kongtong Shan, a Daoist monastery, 6 miles (10 km) west of town. Perched dramatically on a clifftop of the same name, the monastery lies close to a glittering lake and a few other temples scattered across the landscape. The surrounding area is excellent for taking long walks across the lush green hills.

    A view of the stupa at Dafo Si
    A view of the stupa
    at Dafo Si
    A traditional incense burner in the grounds of Dafo Si, Zhangye
    A traditional incense burner in the grounds
    of Dafo Si, Zhangye


  • 140 miles (225 km) NW of Lanzhou

    Lying between lanzhou and Zhangye, this small town is where Gansu’s most celebrated relic, the bronze Flying Horse, was discovered in 1969. Found in an Eastern Han tomb in the grounds of Leitai Si, a few miles north of town, the Flying Horse is now in the Provincial Museum in Lanzhou, and its symbol can be seen all over Wuwei. The tomb, a series of empty passageways, houses replicas of its original relics and is open to visitors.

    Other sights are the brick Luoshi Ta, off Bei Dajie, and farther east, the old Bell Tower with pleasant gardens. To the south is Wen Miao, a museum set in the grounds of a temple. The South Gate (Nan Men) has been reconstructed and adds a little old-world grandeur to a rapidly-changing town.

    Wen Miao

    • 8:30am–6pm daily


    • 280 miles (450 km) NW of Lanzhou

    Once a stopover on the Silk Road, Zhangye has several sights of interest. At its center is a Ming-era Gulou (Drum Tower), with a large bell. To the east, Daode Guan is an active Daoist shrine also dating to the Ming era. South along Nan Jie lies Tu Ta, a former Buddhist monastery featuring a large stupa. Also nearby is the Dafo Si, which houses the largest reclining Buddha in China in its hall. Lying 37 miles (60 km) south of Zhangye, in the Tibetan town of Mati, is Mati Si, a fascinating complex of Buddhist caves carved into a cliff.

    A medallion with Tibetan calligraphy
    A medallion with
    Tibetan calligraphy
    The beautifully decorated door of Longwu Si’s prayer hall, Tongren
    The beautifully decorated door of
    Longwu Si’s prayer hall, Tongren


  • 66 miles (107 km) W of Xiahe
  • Lurol Festival (6th lunar month), Buddhist Festival (1st lunar month)

    Known as Repkong in Tibetan, Tongren is a transit point between Xiahe and Xining. This small Tibetan town offers fascinating insights into the life of the Tibetan people. On the outskirts of town lies the colorfully decorated lamasery, Longwu Si, containing fine relics in its many halls. Initially built in 1301 during the Yuan dynasty, today’s modern reconstruction houses three colleges and an assortment of lamaseries belonging to the Yellow Hat sect – a branch of Tibetan Buddhism. At dusk, visitors can watch the resident monks debating, using elaborate formalized body language to make a point. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, they can also be seen making sand paintings. Behind the monastery, a stream flows into the grassland for about a mile, leading to a pretty Tibetan village. Situated in another village, Sengeshong, 4 miles (7 km) from the city center, the Wutun and Gomar monasteries are home to some of the best Tibetan artists in the world. Both monasteries are magnificently decorated, with every surface of their assembly halls carved and painted with traditional Repkong designs. The residents of this village speak a mixture of Tibetan, Mongolian, and other dialects.

    Prayer wheels each containing a scroll
    Prayer wheels each containing a scroll

    Ta’er Si
    Nestled into a hillside, this walled temple complex, also known as Kumbum Monasteryis one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist sites in China. Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelugpa sect, was born here in 1357, and the first temple was built in his honor in 1577. The monastery was closed for a period under Communist rule, although the buildings were afforded protection during the Cultural Revolution, and reopened in 1979. A major restoration project has been undertaken since an earthquake rocked the complex in 1990. Ta’er Si is easily accessible from Xining, and so is popular with both tourists and pilgrims.

    Visitors' checklist

    • Huangzhong. 17 miles (28 km) S of Xining
    • from Xining (depart just west of Xi Men)
    • 8:30am–6pm
    • Monlam: 8th–15th of 1st lunar month; Saka Dawa: 8th–15th of 4th month; Tsong-khapa: 20th–26th of 9th month

    Star sights

    • Great Hall of Meditation
    • Hall of Butter Sculpture
    • Great Golden Roof Hall
    Ta'er Si

    Local monk
    Ta’er Si is a working monastery and houses over 650 monks, who spend their life studying Buddhist teachings. There were once as many as 3,500 resident monks.

    A towering chorten of 46 ft (13 m) marks the monastery’s entrance. The square base symbolizes earth, the dome water, the steps fire, and the parasol wind, all of which is topped by a crown representing the ethereal sphere.

    Lesser Golden Roof Hall
    A truly bizarre pavilion, this temple is dedicated to animals. Stuffed deer, sheep, and goats, draped in ceremonial scarves, peer down from the upper story.

    Prayer Hall
    This time-worn temple is still used for religious tutelage. The external murals are new, however, and show a mix of Chinese and Tibetan influences.

    Great Hall of Meditation
    This evocative chamber, where up to 2,000 monks could gather to chant sutras, is hung with silken thangkas. The flat roof rests on grand pillars, each wrapped in an exquisite carpet.

    Hall of Butter Sculpture
    This strongly fragrant exhibition is packed with intricately carved yak butter sculptures. The gaudily painted figures depict scenes from Buddhist lore.

    Turning a hand-held prayer wheel and fingering prayer beads, the devout walk clockwise around the perimeter of the complex.

    Great Golden Roof Hall
    This temple was built at the spot where Tsongkhapa was born and a tree is said to have grown with an image of the Buddha on each leaf. It contains a silver stupa holding his image.

    The grand Chinese-style architecture of the 14th-century Great Mosque, Xining
    The grand Chinese-style architecture of
    the 14th-century Great Mosque, Xining


  • 144 miles (232 km) W of Lanzhou
  • 1,115,000
  • Qinghai Tourism Bureau, 0971 820 3271

    A devotee in the Great Mosque
    A devotee in the
    Great Mosque

    Although blessed with very few sights, Qinghai’s captial, Xining, is home to an intriguing mix of minority peoples, mostly Hui Muslims and Tibetans with a sprinkling of Kazakhs and Mongols. It is the starting point of the railway to Lhasa, and trains depart daily. From the 16th century, it served as a stopover on the Silk Road’s lesser-used southern route, and is now a good base for exploring Qinghai. Xining lies in a remote valley, and, at 7,464 ft (2,275 m), experiences a cool summer and freezing winter.

    The Great Mosque, one of the largest and most impressive in northwest China, is situated on Dongguan Dajie, close to the city center. It was originally built in the 14th century, and is thoroughly Chinese in design, with elements such as flying eaves and vividly-colored arches. Enclosed within is a public square, that is usually bustling with thousands of worshipers.

    In the far north of town, across the Huangshui River, the Daoist Bei Shan Si sits atop a hill and is the focus for a pleasant afternoon’s hike. The route, via stone steps and across wooden walkways, passes numerous cave shrines.

    Xining’s ethnic mix is best appreciated at Shuijing Xiang Market, in the west of town off Xi Dajie, where over 3,000 stalls sell all manner of provisions and food, especially hot breads, mutton dishes, and kabobs. It is also a good place to stock up on snacks before heading off on a trip to Qinghai Hu, to the west of town.

    Mengda Tian Chi nature reserve along the banks of the Yellow River
    Mengda Tian Chi nature reserve
    along the banks of the Yellow River

    Mengda Tian Chi

  • 124 miles (200 km) SE of Xining
  • to Guanting or Xunhua, then taxi

    The remarkably beautiful Tian Chi, or "Heavenly Lake," forms the core of the Mengda Nature Reserve, situated along the Yellow River. In contrast to most other parts of the province, the land here is fertile and abounds with vegetation. Most of the reserve is woodland, offering opportunities for scenic walks and birdwatching. Accommodations are available at the reserve, while trips can be arranged through Xining’s Tourist Office. The trip to Mengda Tian Chi from Xunhua is spectacular, winding along a precipitous road that cuts into the cliffs along the Yellow River. Xunhua is home to the Turkic-speaking Salar people, who have been here for centuries but originate from modern day Uzbekistan.

    Colorful Tibetan prayer flags on the shore of Qinghai Hu
    Colorful Tibetan prayer flags on the shore
    of Qinghai Hu

    Qinghai Hu

    • 93 miles (150 km) W of Xining
    • Bird Island
    • Nov–Feb

    The largest lake in China, Qinghai Hu covers a vast area of over 1,740 sq miles (4,500 sq km). Its location on the Tibetan plateau, at a height of 10,500 ft (3,200 m) above sea level, makes it extremely remote, accessible only with the help of a tour agency. The lake is home to many Tibetan nomads, who graze their yaks and sheep near the lake, and in summer, numerous herds can be spotted grazing.

    The lake’s icy salt water is home to large quantities of fish, which feed a thriving bird population. Most trips to the lake center around a visit to Bird Island, a rocky outcrop on the western side where colonies of swans, cormorants, bar-headed geese, and rare black-necked cranes, among others, flourish during the breeding season.

    On the southern shore, the Qinghai Lake Tourist Center offers opportunities for boating, fishing, horse riding, and trekking. Accommodations are available at the tourist center.


    • 474 miles (762 km) W of Xining
    • Golmud Hotel, Geermu Binguan, 0979 413 003

    In the far west of Qinghai, Golmud is perched at 9,186 ft (2,800 m) in the forlorn Tibetan plateau. The only sizable town for several hundred miles, it is the second largest city in the province after Xining, with a largely Han Chinese population.

    The town’s bus service, which runs to Lhasa in Tibet, is not particularly cheap and very few people use it now that the 625-mile (1,000-km) railway line to Lhasa has been built, which is the highest railway in the world and has pressurized carriages and oxygen supplies on board. Train journeys to Lhasa do not originate in Golmud, however, contrary to popular belief, but pass through it only. Xining is now the starting point for journeys to Lhasa from Qinghai Province.

    One route out of Golmud is to take a land-cruiser tour into some of the remoter parts of Xinjiang.

    Golmud itself is largely unappealing, although the surrounding lunar-looking landscape has a rugged charm best appreciated on the way out.

    Rudyard Kipling
    Rudyard Kipling
    Central Asia
    Central Asia

    The Great Game
    The "Great Game" was the name, popularized by Rudyard Kipling in Kim, of the covert war fought by the Russian and British empires for influence in the deserts and mountains of Central Asia at the end of the 19th century. Afghanistan was the first target for these two great empires and both sides vied for influence, with the British eventually succeeding in establishing a sympathetic regime in 1880. Meanwhile in Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang) the Muslims broke free of China and set up the state of Kashgaria in 1863 under Yakub Beg. The Russians invaded the Ili Valley and, when China took Xinjiang back in 1877, negotiated to establish consulates in the area. The British response was to set up a trade mission in Kashgar and take a more aggressive approach in Tibet. In 1907 the stand-off ended with the Anglo-Russian Convention, which clearly defined territorial limits.

    The Pamir Mountains
    The Pamir Mountains

    Central Asia was where the Russian, British and Chinese empires touched. The British, fearful of the Russian threat to India, wanted to cultivate a buffer zone around its frontier, using Afghanistan, Kashgaria and Tibet.

    The Pamir Mountains held the passes that Alexander the Great and Timur (Tamerlane) had used to invade India. Russian advances here in 1885 and 1896 led to the mobilization of British troops, but treaties establishing new frontiers prevented war both times.

    Tibet became involved when Britain placed it in China’s sphere of influence. In response Tibet refused to acknowledge British attempts to set up a trade mission, resulting in the attack on Gyantse in 1903 by Younghusband.

      Tang musician, Dunhuang
    Tang musician, Dunhuang
    Tales of buried cities being uncovered by sandstorms emerged at the end of the 19th century. The Gaochang Ruins, discovered by von Le Coq, were found to have been a major Buddhist and Nestorian center.
    Tales of buried cities

    Race for the Silk Road Oases
    A scholarly reflection of the political rivalry between the great powers at the end of the 19th century was the race between a group of explorer-archeologists to locate (and plunder) the lost towns of the Silk Road. Between them, they succeeded in uncovering a huge number of long-forgotten, desert-scoured towns. These pioneers furthered the knowledge of life along the Silk Road and saved many items from further degradation. However, they did remove vast quantities of priceless works of art, to the eventual annoyance of the Chinese government. These are now scattered in museums around the globe. Initial interest in the region by the British was based on strategic considerations (see The Great Game); then, as stories of lost cities emerged, the interest of antiquarians around the world was aroused. Controversial though they were, their excavations captured the world’s imagination.

    This silk painting
    This silk painting
    Sven Hedin
    Sven Hedin
    This fresco of a bodhisattva and other wall paintings at the Mogao Caves
    This fresco of a bodhisattva and other
    wall paintings at the Mogao Caves

    Tales of buried cities being uncovered by sandstorms emerged at the end of the 19th century. The Gaochang Ruins, discovered by von Le Coq, were found to have been a major Buddhist and Nestorian center.

    This silk painting is from the Mogao Caves, which were reached by Aurel Stein in 1907. He befriended the Abbot, Wang, and gained access to the newly discovered silks and manuscripts of Cave 17.

    This fresco of a bodhisattva and other wall paintings at the Mogao Caves were considered sacred, so the collectors could not remove them. But Stein and the others negotiated with Abbot Wang to carry off thousands of historic items.

    Sven Hedin (1865–1952), from Sweden, was the first of many government-sponsored adventurers to explore these isolated regions. The others were Albert von Le Coq from Germany, Count Otani of Japan, Paul Pelliot of France, Sir Aurel Stein from Great Britain, and Langdon Warner from the USA.

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