01 Guide National Geological Park
Guide National Geological Park offers the sort of scenes associated with epic treks laden with backpacks and water canteens, with huge blue cloudless skies stretching above towering topography, and the jade-green waters of what’s, here at least, the rather inaccurately named Yellow River.
Perfect for families and less mobile travellers, the park features the breathtaking vistas one might expect to find in the wilds of Arizona, paired with the Chinese knack for ease and accessibility.
Electric stretch-limo golf carts ferry guests from the entrance, to the start of a smooth cement pathway leading visitors through the park’s seven-coloured geology and riotous red ridges of Danxia Canyon.
Yes, there are some opportunities to sneak off the path and blaze your own trail, but your guide will have a panic attack and you’ll be doing so at your own risk.
02 Qinghai Lake
The largest lake in China, and the second-biggest salt lake in the world, Qinghai Lake is an appropriately huge draw for visitors too. The domestic set come and visit the nearby sprawling village, stay in some of the outlandish hotels, snap selfies amid the area’s breathtaking beauty (and at an elevation of 11,811ft, I mean that literally), and take brief boat cruises across to a spit of land, before bussing back to the beginning.
International visitors tend to be a bit more adventurous, visiting the ramshackle Tibetan stalls on the water’s edge, posing for photo opportunities with yaks, riding the world-famous Tibetan ponies, embarking on lengthy cycle rides on the bike tracks that lap the lake, and hiring quad bikes to tear along the briny shoreline, getting spattered with salt spray and yak cack in the process.
Both groups come to marvel at the rolling fields of butter-gold rapeseed that ripple under a dandelion sun and tumble down into cobalt waters under an azure sky, which is sometimes specked with ultra rare black-necked cranes.
03 Mt Amnye Machen
The 10-day+ trek around the top of Mt Amnye Machen is one for serious adventurers. At a heaven-scraping 20,610ft, this is the most sacred mountain on the eastern half of the Tibetan Plateau, with Buddhist pilgrims travelling from far and wide to make a reverential kora — religious circumambulation — of the mountain’s peak, at an altitude of between 13,100ft and 15,100ft.
With many monasteries along the holy route, and stunning views of the high-altitude wilderness on the roof of the world, this is a proper trek of Indiana Jones-like proportions. Pack warm clothes to brave the icy temperatures, provisions for the lengthy trek, a tent and sleeping bag. Or join an organised tour and have a yak carry your backpack.
04 The source of the Yellow River
Qinghai is the birthplace of the famous Yellow River, and for most local visitors a day trip out to Zhaling and Eling lakes — which are touted as the actual source of the river — to have a smartphone photo taken next to the sign that marks the river’s origin, is sufficient proof of an adventure well had.
However, if you want to find the proper spot where the river begins, you’ll have to go on two-day trip in a 4×4, camping out overnight and hiking a portion of the journey at an altitude of more than 13,000ft. Now that’s a proper adventure.
05 Huzhu Beishan Forest National Park
For an equally rewarding, but seriously less strenuous outdoors experience, you should look no further than Huzhu Beishan Forest National Park, which is only 60 miles to the north of Qinghai’s capital of Xining, and an excellent day trip from the city.
The entrance fee includes access to a hop-on-hop-off shuttle that makes laps of the park, dropping visitors off at waterfalls, lakes, restaurants, farmlands and the Sleeping Buddha rock. If that sounds too sedate, fear not, the whole park is riddled with hiking trails; you can make like the manifold mountain goats around here and take a 4.3-mile trek up to an elevation of nearly 10,000ft to the diminutive Heavenly Lake.
When to go
To see Qinghai Lake in all its glory, surrounded by lemon-yellow rapeseed fields and lush green scenery throughout the province, visit in July and August. You’ll find roads to the lake are clogged to a standstill with domestic tourists during weekends and holidays at this time of year though, so it’s worth thinking about coming in March to May instead, when you have the best chance of spotting black-necked cranes. The landscapes are still lovely, the air is a little cooler and the crowds a lot thinner.
For dramatic views of snowcapped peaks and photogenic mountain landscapes bathed in ethereal light, try September and October, when the weather is more dramatic, but suits the more hardcore hiker.
February and March is a good time to visit to see the Tibetan New Year festivities, called Losar, which goes on for 15 days, starting with the first day of the lunisolar Tibetan calendar. It’s a great time to meet nomadic pilgrims, and see spectacular ceremonies of costume and dance at Qinghai’s many temples.
Get high: Don’t forget that Qinghai is way up on the Tibetan plateau, with an average elevation of more than 9,800ft, and some mountain passes that are higher than 16,400ft above sea level. Combat altitude sickness by spending a few days acclimatising in Xining before heading up to the Tibetan higher plains or starting any strenuous schlepping.
Get connected: Westerners are still very much a novelty in Qinghai, which means a) you’ll get a lot of attention from locals and, b) there’s not much in the way of English signage. Remember, you’ll not have access to Google services, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter or Instagram when in China, so make sure you bring a good guide book or e-book, a translation app and/or photo dictionary, and your friends’ email addresses.
Get comfy: It never gets oppressively hot in Qinghai, but it does get chilly at night — even in summer — and very cold in winter and at high altitudes, so dress in layers, pack a waterproof jacket, bring sunblock and sunglasses, and some comfortable hiking footwear.
Published in the Qinghai guide, free with with the March 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)