Outside a medieval monastery, an old Tibetan man waves a curious weapon in the air, defending one of the most important sites of Buddhism’s Yellow Hat sect. A cross between a military flail and a cat o’nine tails, the narrow haft whips the sky, trailed by strings attached to its striking ends: an assortment of empty fizzy pop bottles, which crash onto the pavement with a hollow clattering.
A score of pigeons takes flight; it’s this man’s job to protect the hallowed gates of Kumbum Monastery from their guano bombardment. Built in 1577 at the birthplace of Tsongkhapa, founder of Yellow Hat Buddhism, this sprawling complex may now be a turnstiled tourist attraction that’s complete with human scarecrows on the payroll, but it’s still a bona fide religious site with monks going about their daily business, and perambulating pilgrims flocking to make reverential laps in the bustling Assembly Halls…
Qinghai is not China as you know it. Step outside of its bustling capital, Xining, and you’re transported to another world. A vast, majestic landscape of parched plains; rolling foothills sparsely populated with yaks and nomads; snow-frosted mountaintops, dotted with Tibetan temples and solitary stupas strung with vibrant, multicoloured prayer flags.
Despite China’s mercurial rise to global superpower and the accompanying super-quick development of transport infrastructure, Qinghai still feels thoroughly remote, delightfully intrepid, an off-the-beaten track exploration into a land that — let’s be honest — many will never have even heard of. Although it’s the fourth-largest province in China, Qinghai has the third-smallest population, giving visitors a sense of space to breathe, high up among the breathless altitudes of the Tibetan plateau. Start your explorations at a gentle pace in Xining before heading out into panoramic plains and precipitous peaks to discover Qinghai’s cultural delights…
Friends in high places
Of the nine temples open to visitors, the Grand Hall of Golden Tiles is billed as the big-ticket sight. A 35ft-high golden stupa is crammed inside, marking the spot where Tsongkhapa was born. More impressive, in my opinion, is the Yak Butter Sculpture Temple, which — housed within huge, glass-fronted refrigeration units on three walls of the temple — is a jaw-dropping (if not quite mouthwatering) sculpture depicting religious icons, intricate human forms, and pastoral and architectural landscapes… carved entirely out of yak butter. Resculpted each winter, the ornate tableau, depicting the legend of Tsongkhapa, takes 35 monks two months to create.
Not just a home to Buddhism’s big hitters, Dongguan Grand Mosque in Xining is the biggest in Qinghai, and one of the largest in China. A fascinating blend of Chinese and traditional Islamic architecture, with minarets rising heavenward above the pagoda-style roof of the main hall, Friday prayers here regularly attract crowds of 50,000.
Highlight: Packed with 200 copies of the sacred, Buddhist Kangyur texts, at 90ft in height and 30ft in diameter, the China Fortune Wheel — certified by Guinness World Records as the world’s largest prayer wheel — takes some serious welly to get moving. I’m here, at its complex on the banks of the Yellow River on a relatively quiet day, so when the crowd dwindles to just two nomadic Tibetan ladies, I lend a hand and gallantly throw my weight behind all 200 tonnes of its gold-plated enormity… with disappointingly negligible effect. Ahem.
The path to the past
In the midst of the modern-day town of Chengguan in Huangyuan County, around 30 miles from Xining on the north bank of the Yellow River, lies the 600-year-old, Ming Dynasty era, Dan Gar Ancient City.
Located in a key position on the Southern Silk Road — a portion most notable for its trade in Chinese tea in exchange for Tibetan ponies, and sometimes referred to as the Ancient Tea Horse Road — Dan Gar was also an important economic centre and trading station for wool, textiles, incense, and (of course) silk and china.
Dan Gar is likely named in honour of the Tibetan words for conch shell (dung dkar), the rare, clockwise-whorled varieties of which are considered auspicious symbols in Tibetan Buddhism and were, no doubt, also traded here for use in religious ceremonies in the city’s Chenguang and Wen temples.
Dan Gar today is an extensively restored walled town, and a popular tourist attraction where visitors can stroll around streets built over the course of the Ming and Qing dynasties, and visit temples and museums.
Highlight: Dan Gar has been a trading post for centuries, so visitors should shop for some souvenirs from its many stalls — although nowadays you’re more likely to pick up giftware and ornaments rather than mountain mares and Buddhist sacraments.
Art of the land
I’m lost. The Tibetan Culture and Medicine Museum in Xining is expanding in scope and scale, sure, but this looming edifice — filled with examples of traditional Tibetan clothing, pottery, lifestyle and lore — is easy enough to navigate. I’ve simply become hopelessly enveloped in the labyrinthine folds of the world’s longest thangka scroll. A sacred Tibetan art-form, this thangka was completed in 1997, taking 400 artists four years to finish. What at first seems impressive in scale and scope — covering 2,000ft and the edited highlights of Chinese Tibetan history — soon becomes bewildering in its enormity. As you wander the maze-like display, the atmosphere is almost claustrophobic, as it details innumerable forms and incarnations of myriad deities, and encompasses topics as diverse as the human body, history, evolution, celestial charts, and portraits of the first 13 Dalai Lamas.
Highlight: If you fancy bringing home your own thangka, or seeing them being painted by some of the world’s most skilled artists, then head to the two Wutun Si monasteries and the nearby town of Tongren. The Lower Monastery offers the chance to tour the workshops and buy directly from the monks who craft these exceptional examples of the genre (they’re expensive), while the Upper Monastery is lined with jaw-dropping murals.
There are no direct flights to Xining but it’s connected by air with China’s main urban centres; Air China flies via Beijing or travel via Guangzhou with China Southern or Shanghai with China Eastern. British Airways flies to Beijing where a connecting flight can be made. It’s also possible to travel by train into Xining from Beijing, with a journey time of around 20 hours.
There is one rail line, the Lhasa Express; in Qinghai the train stops at Xining and Golmud. It’s possible to catch buses to most places in the province from Xining. For more remote areas it’s best to hire a private car and driver.
Qinghai has a typically cool continental climate, with cold nights. Rainfall is low and mainly in summer. Short cool summers with highs of 21C are followed by long freezing winters with lows of -18C; the best time to visit is from May to October.
Need to know
Currency: Yuan (RMB).
£1 = RMB 8.85
Time: GMT +8
International dial code: 00 86
Language: Mandarin, Tibetan, Monguor, Oirat Mongolian, Salar and Western Yugur
Visas: British nationals require a visa to visit mainland China
Health: Check the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s travel advice
Published in the Qinghai guide, free with with the March 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)