Golmud Travel Guide, Qinghai
Nearly 3000m up on the plateau, GOLMUD is an incredibly isolated city, even by the standards of northwest China. It still has no airport and lies at least sixteen hours away from the nearest sizeable town by the fastest possible means of transport. In spite of this, it still manages to be the second largest city in Qinghai, with a population of around 130,000. This is because it's a city of immigrants - Han Chinese have been moved in here over the years to work the potash plants from which Golmud earns its living. It's hard to imagine that anyone would have come to live in such a cold and arid place otherwise. Geographically, Golmud is located close to the massive Kunlun Mountains to the south, and to the Cai Erhan Salt Lake to the north. Both are very scenic in parts, though they remain as yet virtually unexplored by foreign tourists.
For travellers, the city is really only interesting as a transit point between Xining in the east, Dunhuang in the north and Lhasa in the south - Golmud is the only place in China from where foreign tourists are officially allowed to cross by land to Tibet.
Golmud has a plateau climate, with not overly hot summers, yet with freezing winters. The average annual temperature is around 4.3 °C, with extremes at 35 and -33.6 °C. In addition, Golmud is also characterized by its dryness--the annual average precipitation is 50mm.
At an elevation of nearly 3000m, Golmud's sunlight can be exceptionally dazzling, making the need for UV protection an essential part of any traveller's packing. Even with warm summer temperatures, night temperatures are almost always cold.
Getting there and away
By air: If you hate bumpy road journeys or longish rail trips, the best way to get to Golmud will be by plane. The only problem is that flights are all subject to availability. Planes depart from Xi'an every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday at 16:30, arriving in Xining at 17:50 and landing on the Golmud airstrip at 19:45.Leaving Golmud flights are also available on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday at 12:40. This flight arrive Xining at 14:00 and get to Xi'an at 16:00.
The Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC) office (Tel: 0979-414446) is in the Golmud Hotel. CAAC runs a bus from the hotel to the airport several hours before departures and in time for arrivals.
By land: Golmud's train and bus stations sit facing each other, way down in the south of the city. Between here and the Golmud Hotel, minibuses and bus No.1 are available.
Getting to / from Xining, the easiest way is by train(800km, around 16hrs). From Xining to Golmud, train No.5701 departs at 19:45 and arrives at 13:01 the next day. Prices are around Y55 for a hard seat and Y120 for a hard sleeper. It's possible to travel to Golmud from Xining by bus, although the ride can be a little bumpy. One thing worth mentioning is that if you hope to see views of Qinghai Lake en route, the only way is to take a bus from Xining, for the train passes the lake at the dead of night.
Leaving Golmud, there are two train services; the early afternoon one takes around 19 hours, while the one in the evening takes 23 hours. Buy your tickets in the station; the queues are unusually short here, though for same-day departures you first have to go to a second-floor office, accessible from the platform, to make a reservation. For same-day departures on the fast train to Xining, you can also buy your ticket by queuing up in an office in the front of the Golmud Hotel. Buses to Xining, surprisingly, are faster than the trains (16hr, Y130 for a sleeper). There's also an early morning bus to Dunhuang (6:30am, Y88, 13hrs), for which you require a "registration" paper (Y30) from Golmud CITS ( Tel: 0979-412746) in the Golmud Hotel to enable you to buy a ticket at normal price.
City transport in Golmud is mainly by taxis or bus. Taxi fares are Y10 or under for almost anywhere within town. There are both public buses and private minibuses within town that will take you almost anywhere that you will need to go. Most common bus route is No.1, that travels between the railway/long-distance bus stations, to the Golmud Hotel. Private buses are sometimes cheaper. Maps can be found at the Golmud Hotel CITS office.
There is only one guesthouse which accepts foreigners in Golmud, the Golmud (No.157 Kunlun Lu, Tel:0979-412066), comprising two buildings, the dorms are housed in the building on the left (up to Y30/bed) and the std. hotel rooms on the right ( Y200-300). Hot water runs between 9-11pm. A Western breakfast is supposedly available at the restaurant, but the service is extremely slack.
The hotel can be reached by taxi for around Y5-10 from either the train or bus stations. From the train station there is also bus No.1 and a few minibuses that go direct to the hotel. The CAAC office in the hotel has buses that run to and from the airport before any flight.
There is some surprisingly good food to be had in town, however. Across the road from the hotel, and a few minutes to the south, is an excellent Sichuan restaurant. You can recognize it from the English words in the window, though there's no English menu - try the old Sichuan favourite, gongbao jiding, diced chicken with chillies and peanuts. For Western delicacies, there's an amazingly good menu at the obscurely located Quanjiafu Jiulou (Happy Family) restaurant. To find it, walk north from the hotel (turn right as you come out), and then head west towards Zhongshan Park at the crossroads. It's about ten minutes' walk along here, on the right-hand side. The restaurant is immediately after the place with a mock-pagoda entrance and worth the walk for its thick, luscious banana pancakes. There's also a market north of the hotel. The entrance is on the right as you head north, and there are some outdoor eating places at the sides of the main area.
Other Practical Info.
In the smart wing of the Golmud Hotel, you'll find two travel services . One deals with tours within Golmud and Qinghai (tel 0979/413003). The other primarily deals with trips to Tibet, though it also arranges other tours. The most exciting of these is a journey, by four-wheel-drive, all the way to the city of Ruoqiang in Xinjiang over the little-explored western edge of Qinghai. For a small group expect to pay about US$150 each.
The Bank of China , south of the hotel, is open Monday to Friday from 8.30am to noon and from 2.30pm to 6pm. Ancient bicycles can be rented from a little compound just behind the hotel; go round the back of the old wing, and you'll see the doorway.
- Qinghai Potash Plant
The remote town of Golmud has grown to become the second largest city in Qinghai almost solely due to the huge quantities of potassium, in the form of potash, that can be found near to the town. The vast majority of the mostly Han migrants to the city came here to work in the Qinghai Potash Plant (Qinghai jiafei chang), that is located around 60km from the town. The locals are rightly proud of the Plant, mainly because most of them work there.
Although only a sight for those not quite ready to move on, the Plant is an interesting trip through some desolate countryside. The incredible concentrations of minerals, mainly potassium, within the soil means that plantlife is non-existent within proximity of the three reservoirs that make up the Potash Plant. Such concentration of minerals can only really be matched by the areas around the United States' Salt Lake City and the Israeli Dead Sea.
The Plant itself was originally set up with US technical support, and the finished reservoirs are now with a depth of around six meters and with a total area of three square kilometers.
How to get there: The only way to obtain a tour of the plant is through the Potash Company Office (Jiafei chang bangongshi). This can be found near to the Golmud railway station, the most modern looking building here. Managers in the General Engineering Office (Zonggong ban) will help you organise the trip.
- Salt Bridge
The whole of the area around Golmud, spanning along the Qinghai/Tibet plateau, is a highly saline area, and this is highlighted by the many salt lakes (most picturesquely the Da Buxun Salt Lake to the north and the Qinghai Lake to the east) and the Potash Plants that are situated here. A further sign of this lies in the Salt Bridge (Wangzhang yanqiao) near to the town.
The bridge is in fact a 32km stretch of road leading from Golmud to Dunhuang, crossing the above mentioned Da Buxun salt lake. The road itself is made from piled up salt, at a depth of between 15-18m. The road is as flat as satin, and is said to resemble a jade belt that tightens on the belly of the lake. The "lake" itself is made up of 100% salt.
The bridge is an amazing sight, although only really worth visiting for those on the bus heading on towards Dunhuang and the amazing Mogao Grottoes.
How to get there: The travel service in the Golmud Hotel can organise trips to the site, although it is probably not worth the journey for anyone but those heading on to Dunhuang.