Qinghai Lake Travel Guide
Perched at 3,200m above sea level and sandwiched between the Hainan and Haibei Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures, lies Qinghai Lake (Qinghai hu). This huge expanse of deep, salty liquid receives its name, literally Blue Sea Lake, from the vastness of its azure waters. It is the largest salt water lake in China, with a circumference of 360km and a surface area of over 4,500km squared. In ancient times the lake was known as the Western Sea, and in Tibetan it is known as Koko Nor.
The lake has a number of attractions that draw travellers in this region in. Ornithologists, campers, hikers, botanists, swimmers, sailors, fishermen, loners and nomads all find areas of interest around the lake. The beauty here lies in its salty vastness and the remote peace that it instills. The colours that can be found around the lake are of purity and contrasts, from the deep yellows of oil seed rape against the cold blues of the lake to the dark greens of distant mountains against the fluffy white of bilious clouds.
Highlights of the lake include the Bird Island, a peninsular in the westernmost part of the lake and the most impressive sight, especially in season. For most of the summer rare species can be seen here in great multitude. The cuisine at the lake is also of interest, composed of variations on a fish theme. Especially notable is the naked carp, whose tender flesh is served in most local restaurants and hostels.
Climate & Best Time to Go
In the winter months, the lake area is extremely cold and inhospitable and throughout the year the lake's temperature rarely gets above 15 degrees C. Most travellers come here in summer, when the nights are a little warmer. At this time the lake feels fairly hot, despite the cooling winds that breeze from the lake that are refreshing, bringing moisture and birds off the lake's surface. For ornithologists, the optimum time to visit is also between March and June, when the birds are in breeding and so flock here in large numbers.
August and September are also a good time to visit, mainly for the scenery around the lake, as the oil-seed rape bursts into sunbeam yellow blossom and contrasts with the salty blue of the lake beyond.
Getting there and away
The lake can be reached by both bus and train. 3-4 long distance buses leave from the Xining station for a little Tibetan town called Heimahe between 07:30-09:00 for Y20, 5hrs. The return journey is about the same schedule. Buses from Golmud also arrive at Heimahe (about Y50, 11hrs). Unless you are able to hitch, it will then be a taxi, Y50, on to the lake. On the weekend in summer, buses leave from the Dashizi crossroads in Xining (Y40) for Bird Island. Tickets can be bought from the ticket office at the corner of Changjiang lu and Xiguan dajie.
The best train to catch will be the 09:40 train for Ha'ergai, on the northern side of the lake, arriving at 14:32. Buses leave infrequently from here to the Bird Island. Ha'ergai has a few hostels that may be useful for brief stopovers.
There are a few tour agencies in Xining organising tours to the lake. Most tours are for transport only, excluding dining, accommodation and entrance fees. Most also run daily over the summer, but are limited by tourist numbers out of season.
- The Qinghai Nationalities Travel Service offers one day tour to the lake for Y100. Two day tours will cost Y180, often including a trip to the Kumbum Monastery and the Sun Moon Mountain.
- The Xining Transport Travel Service does daily day trips to the lake for Y150, stopping off at the Sun Moon Mountain on the way.
- CITS also provides tours to the lake, dependant on the size of the group you are with (best above 10 people). Prices vary from Y125-370 for the basic one day tour of the Kumbum Monastery, Bright Mountain (Ming shan) and the lake. English speaking guides cost an extra Y120/day. Additional days for further exploration can be obtained.
Accommodation around the lake is a little limited. Many of the travellers here opt to camp rather than stay in one of the less than impressive guesthouses. Bear in mind that the area can get very cold at night, thus warm clothes, sleeping bag and a tent would be wise. The best way to camp is to head off from one of the town's on the southern shore of the lake, and settle wherever you like. If you are not confident in your fishing skills or prefer not to drink highly saline beverages, then a supply of food, cooking utensils and fresh water is worth bringing. Fish can be bought from the locals.
There are basically two options, one in Gonghe and the other on Bird Island. The Qinghai Lake Tent Hotel (Qinghai hu zhangpeng binguan, Tel: 0974-513520) is a two star hotel that lies around 30km from the Sun Moon Mountain (Riyue shan), in Jiangxigou Township, Gonghe. The hotel has about ten cabins and a restaurant. A Mongolian cabin for two costs Y280, a double with bath is Y240, without bath is Y160. The hotel also offers dorm beds for Y30 in a triple. Hot water is available between 20:00 and 23:00.
The Bird Island Hotel (Niao dao binguan) is on the island, a little rough but cheap. Doubles are Y120, dorm beds are Y25. It is also possible to rent tents from the locals around the Bird Island. Generally these are pre-set up, with beds within, and will cost around Y10-20.
The Chinese like to say that if the Qinghai Lake were a crown on the head of the plateau, then the Bird Island (Niao dao) would be the largest pearl on it. This island, in fact a large rocky peninsular that juts from the lake, is located in the northwest corner of the Qinghai Lake, near to the Buha River.
The island holds its name due to the approximately 10,000 birds that, at different seasons throughout the year, migrate here from all over the world. Of the rarer species that can be found, included are Griffon vultures, Mongolian larks, black-necked cranes, bar-headed geese and giant swans. For those not ornithologically wise, there are more common varieties that can also be found including gulls, cormorants, egrets, sandpipers, skylarks, swans, geese, crows, minivets and many more. Because of the highly saline and cold waters, the huge lake teems with fish and it is this that makes it the perfect breeding ground for many of these species. The island has a number of bird watching pavilions and is nice to simply wander about, with the vivid and contrasting colours that are a part of the lake's scenery.
The optimum time for bird watching is between March and July, when many of the birds migrate here to breed and take their summer holidays. If you can weather the cold and are an intent bird watcher, November to February are the time to catch the famed giant swans. The island also contains the Longbao Black-necked Crane Sanctuary, a conservation project for these protected species.
How to get there: The island can be reached as either a tour or independently as a stopover between Xining and Golmud. Those traveling independently can get off at the Tibetan town Heimahe, and then hitch on from there. It is also possible, in summer, to take a boat to the island from a dock that is found behind the Qinghai Lake Tent Hotel. The journey will take around two hours. For tour information see the Qinghai Transport Overview.
Entrance fee: Y58.