Of my entire travel so far, Qinghai was probably the biggest “mistake”. Not to say that Qinghai (the 4th largest region in China) as a travel destination is one that should not do. In fact, Qinghai, which sits on the Northern most part of the Tibetian Plateau, is home to China’s biggest lake, Qinghai Hu
. Mountains, rivers, yaks, sheep, vast expanses of grasslands add to Qinghai’s picturesque scenery. Home to many Tibetian and Hui people due to its close location to Tibet and Xinjiang respectively, one is able to experience Tibetian culture in its many Buddhist monasteries and satisfy one’s palate for Muslim food in the scores of Hui restaurants (selling kebabs and such) that line the streets of Xining
, Qinghai province’s capital.
Fields of yellow flowers
Tent-shaped Tibetian prayer flags
And all this “postcard-perfectness” and mix of cultures would precisely prove to be Qinghai’s very problem. Or rather, my problem with the lovely place.
We returned to Xining after making a (pretty large) detour to Xi’an. I had barely read up on what to do in Xining and its surrounding areas prior to reaching there. HX and I were set to reach Xining the same morning as our friend, Seng, but his flight was cancelled, unbeknowst to him until he got to Chengdu, and he eventually had to buy another plane ticket for another Xining-bound flight later in the same day.
Since we now had some free time, we spent the day reading up on what to do in Xining and exploring the vicinity of our hostel. Truth be told, I didn’t think that there was much to do in Xining and already started to dread this leg of journey. The main reason, for me at least, for getting back to Xining, was to meet Seng; he’d already gotten his plane ticket there even before we started our entire trip (and Seng, if you’re reading this, no I’m not blaming you!).
We were planning our day trip to Qinghai Hu with two HongKongers we’d met at the hostel when the lady boss, who’s clearly very well-travelled and knowledgeable about the Qinghai province, decided to educate us on what to do in Qinghai.
To cut the long story short, though we were initially torn on whether to do a more thorough trip of Qinghai or stick to our original plan of going to Yunnan, the next morning, we found ourselves in a huge landcruiser that would take us on a 10-day trip through the Eastern and South-Eastern areas of Qinghai, even supposedly reaching areas usually inaccessible to foreigners. Since we are ethnically Chinese, and even sound like we are from Guangdong, as many have thought throughout our time in China, getting to these areas would not be that difficult. I personally thought doing this trip would be good as many of us often spend our travels just “touching and going” the places we visit, barely touching the surface, never staying long enough to experience the culture.
Sun Moon temple
We had probably made a rash decision and having this initial hesitance to make the trip meant that we had already started the road trip on the wrong footing. Throughout the first day of the road trip, I found that I was trying very hard to convince myself that the grasslands and the animals that occupied them were different from the barren highlands of Tibet I had recently spent seven days exploring. When we reached our destination for the night, Xia He (just outside of Qinghai province and part of the Gansu Province), I already knew that this trip was not going to bring me something new; Xia He looked like any Tibetian town we had visited in the week we had in Tibet.
The interior of the guesthouse in Xia He
HX once said that she organises her trip in “phases”. I somewhat organise any trip in “phases” too, and having to revisit a “phase” that was already, to me, complete, did not provide the feeling of something fresh and new. The nature, the Hui culture we had a taste of in Xi’an’s Muslim Quarters (which we visted everyday during our time in Xi’an), the Tibetian words, and of course, the monasteries, seemed oh-so-familiar, and not in a reminiscently-good way.No offence to the Buddhists, especially the Tibetian Buddhists, but after visiting five monasteries in Tibet, one can really get tired of visiting them. In Europe, one may complain of church/museum-fatigue. For me here, I started experiencing monastery-fatigue.
One of many Buddhist stupas
We visited Labrang Monastery in Xia He and were led by a guide/Lama, who explained the varoius chapels and histories of Buddhism and I found myself zoning out most of the time as I’d already heard all these before. The only time I paid attention was when HX was translating some of what the guide was saying in to English. After all, she too had heard all these before, and as she said, could also well play tour guide herself.
Lamas' dance rehearsal
Halfway during the monastery visit, I told HX that unless the next monastery looked really impressive, I’d probably be giving it a miss. She then something along the lines of: “Don’t you wish we went to Yunnan instead?”, to which I replied: “Well, if we are going to visit another five monasteries, then perhaps.”
Her reply? “I think there are really five more monasteries on this road trip.”
This simple conversation set off many unsaid truths that we had both not dared to voice out before. Over the next hour, we began discussing on whether we wanted to continue the trip. For me, I knew that the latter part of the trip was probably going to be pretty exciting – the places we were going to visit sounded beautiful – but I wasn’t sure if I could survive the rest of the trip with the monasteries and such. Even then, having seen loads of mountains and nature in Nepal and Tibet, I wasn’t certain that these views were going to excite that much. For HX, she felt that she wasn’t seeing or learning anything new and was afraid that she’d just sleep through most of the road trip, as she had already done so during the first day of the trip. And we were also not sure we would actually learn much about the culture of the area.
After much deliberation, we decided to turn back. It was now or never and we knew it was now.
Seng also said that he’d rather he have two happy travel companions and wasn’t completely surprised that we’d chosen to turn back; we did begin the trip with much hesitance after all.
Our driver was kind enough to allow us to turn back. We were very apologetic about it, but we knew that we couldn’t go through the trip. If we did, we’d just be doing it for the sake of it, going through the motion of the trip rather than fully enjoying it.
The lady boss of the hostel, who arranged the trip for us, was obviously not very pleased, and we did try our best to explain to her our rationale for turning back. She felt that our decision to stop the trip was not well-thought out and felt that we had made the decision based on our preconceptions of what we’d see if we had continued with the trip. Perhaps she’s partly right, but after making the decision, we were happier, and knew that the decision was indeed a right one.
We then headed straight to Qinghai Hu instead, a place we were supposed to go at the end of the road trip. Our decision to stay overnight there, though we were advised against it, would be our best time in Qinghai yet.
Though the weather was not to our favour – cloudy skies, strong winds, and rains – we had great fun. We dined and chatted with the very hospitable Tibetian family (旦却家)who owned the guesthouse, learned to eat Tsampa (a form of Tibetian barley flour mixed with butter and yak milk, something the Tibetians eat regularly, akin to the rice that Chinese eat) properly, drank Chang wine, slept in a Tibetian tent and invited ourselves to join the lady boss of the guesthouse on a one-hour trek uphill to dig Chong Cao（虫草/Chong Cao, as its name suggests is a worm that digs itself into soil in the winter, and somehow becomes a plant/grass in Summer. It has high medicinal value, and is really expensive because of the manual labour required to find and dig it out.).
Mother and daughter cooking their yak noodle meal (with son-in-law in foreground)
Father having fun playing with the 'enlarge' function on Seng's iPhone
Tsampa (before kneading)
Seng 'making' his Tsampa
Even our driver thought that we were crazy enough to stay in the tents in the outside when there was proper house we could stay in. And he thought we were even crazier to brave the rain, cold, and altitude, to make the trek up to the mountains to do the back-breaking job of digging for the very well-hidden Chong Cao. Though we didn’t find any ourselves, the experience itself is something I wouldn’t trade for. Chong Cao is not always available and can only be found some days in summer and we were fortunate to be there at the correct time.
The Tibetian -styled tents we stayed in for the night
The sunrise on Qinghai Hu
HX and Seng searching for Chong Cao
The expert digging out the Chong Cao
Overall, we only “wasted” one day (and admittedly, quite a lot of money). Perhaps it would be too unfair to say that this trip was a “mistake”; we did learn from this trip that we, as travellers, need variety and can’t keep doing/seeing the same thing.
I’m not sure whether I’ll be back in Qinghai in the future, though HX and Seng said that they’re likely to come back soon. But I’m certain that if and when we do make this trip, we’d enjoy it much better.
Credits to Seng for some of his photos
Tips for travelling in Qinghai Province, China:
Qinghai is famed for Qinghai Hu (Qinghai Lake) but there’s more to Qinghai than Qinghai Hu. If you can afford the time, do spend some time travelling around the province. It was just unfortunate that we did not plan our trip properly, if not we would have probably enjoyed ourselves more.
There is not a lot of information about Qinghai online and even Lonely Planet has not written much about it till this year; Lonely Planet only recently published a Qinghai guidebook. However, from my understanding, the guidebook is only sold in Beijing and only available in the Chinese language.
Places to stay in Xining:
Sunshine Pagoda International Youth Hostel [Website]
Sunshine Pagoda International Youth Hostel is more of a home than a guesthouse. If you are looking for some place cosy and comfortable to stay, this would be it. Conveniently located above some bars (they are not rowdy not to worry) and a walking distance away from the popular food street of Xining, one will never grow hungry, or thirsty.
The lady boss of the hostel is very hospitable and knowledgeable; ask her anything about travelling in Qinghai and she will be able to give you a good response. (Though if you have read my post, you would have known we probably did piss her off, but she and her hostel still deserve a thumbs-up). She will be able to help you arrange for transportation to travel around Qinghai.
Do note that more locals travellers than foreign travellers stay here, and if you’re afraid of cats, do beware. Other than that, a great place to stay. Read the website and online reviews for more information.
Xining Lete Hostel [Website]
While we did not stay here, Xining Lete Hostel would have been our next choice. The hostel has received quite a number of good reviews online.
Places to stay at Qinghai Hu:
There are loads of hotels to stay at the touristy part of Qinghai Hu, located along the southern part of the lake. However, those hotels are probably expensive, and according to our guide, one cannot get the best view of the lake from that area.
If you are looking for a home-stay of sort, get out of that touristy area, and move along to the western part of the lake. Look for a family called the 旦却 (Dan Que) family. Unfortunately, I’m only able to provide the details in Chinese:
旦却家(Dan que family) [More reviews about them all over Google]
My review about this place is written all over this blog post.
Zip Code: 813000
Here is a map of Qinghai Hu. The guesthouse is located at the area where the red dot/green highlights are: