Qinghai: a province named after an inland lake

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Qinghai is located on the northeastern part of the Tibetan Plateau. The Yellow River originates in the southern part of the province, while the Yangtze and Mekong have their sources in the southwestern part. Qinghai is separated by the Riyue Mountain into pastoral and agricultural zones in the west and east.

Most of the province consists of mountains and high plateaus, and it has an average elevation of some 9,900 feet (3,000 metres).

The province derives its name from the large lake, Qinghai Hu (“Blue Lake”), in the northeastern part of the province that is conventionally known as Koko Nor. A historical home of nomadic herdsmen, Qinghai is noted for its horse breeding, and it has earned more recent prominence as a source of both petroleum and coal.

The Land and the People

Qinghai Lake is the largest salt water lake in China, and the second largest in the world. The Qaidam basin lies in the northwest part of the province. About a third of this resource rich basin is desert. The basin has an altitude between 3000 and 3500 meters.

In the middle of 3rd century CE, nomadic people related to the Mongolic Xianbei migrated to pasture lands around the Qinghai Lake (Koko Nur) and established the Tuyuhun Kingdom. In the 7th century, Tuyuhun Kingdom was attacked by both the Tibetan Empire and Tang dynasty as both of them sought control over trade routes. Military conflicts severely weakened the kingdom and it was incorporated into the Tibetan Empire.

There are over 37 recognized ethnic groups among Qinghai’s population of 5.2 million, with national minorities making up 45.5% of the population.

Most of Qinghai’s population is Han (Chinese). Because the Han form Qinghai’s ethnic majority, and because none of its many ethnic minorities have clear dominance over the rest, the province is not administered as an autonomous region.

Qinghai is the fourth largest province-level political subdivision in China in terms of land area, but the sparseness of its population is second only to that of Tibet.

Qinghai has been influenced by the interactions “between Mongol and Tibetan culture, north to south, and Han Chinese and Inner Asia Muslim culture, east to west”.

The predominant religions in Qinghai are Chinese folk religions (including Taoist traditions and Confucianism) and Chinese Buddhism among the Han-Chinese. The large Tibetan population practices Tibetan schools of Buddhism or traditional Tibetan Bön religion, while the Hui-Chinese practice Islam.

Winter is long, dry, cold, and windy; summer is short and warm.

Economy

Economically, Qinghai is divided into two major parts by the Koko Nor and the Qinghainan (South Qinghai) Mountains to the west and south of the lake. On the eastern side is the Huang He drainage area, consisting of large tracts of farmland crisscrossed by irrigation canals and dotted with settlements. Spring wheat, barley, and Irish potatoes are produced in much improved yields. Irrigated acreage is low, however, as is the use of chemical fertilizers. On the western side is the plateau basin, where herds of cattle, yaks, horses, and sheep—which represent the province’s major source of wealth—graze on vast stretches of grassland. The output of sheep and yak wool is high and of good quality.

The exploitation of mineral resources long has constituted a major component of the province’s economy. Petroleum and natural gas reserves are located in the Qaidam Basin, which contains most of the province’s mineral reserves. Qinghai has become China’s largest producer of lithium, and the province has rich deposits of potassium, strontium, bromine, salts, silicon, and magnesium; there are also reserves of copper, lead, and zinc.

Tourism

Qinghai Lake from space, November 1994

Many tourist attractions center on Xining, the provincial seat of Qinghai.

During the hot summer months, many tourists from the hot Southern and Eastern parts of China travel to Xining, as the climate of Xining in July and August is quite mild and comfortable, making the city an ideal summer retreat.

Qinghai Lake (青海湖qīnghǎi hú) is another tourist attraction, albeit further from Xining than Kumbum Monastery (Ta’er Si). The lake is the largest saltwater lake in China, and is also located on the “Roof of the World”, the Tibetan Plateau. The lake itself lies at 3,600m elevation. The surrounding area is made up of rolling grasslands and populated by ethnic Tibetans. Most pre-arranged tours stop at Bird Island (鸟岛niǎo dǎo). An international bicycle race takes place annually from Xining to Qinghai Lake.

The Lanqing Railway, running between Lanzhou, Gansu and Xining, the province’s capital, was completed in 1959 and is the major transportation route in and out of the province. A continuation of the line, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway via Golmud and western Qinghai, has become one of the most ambitious projects in PRC history. It was completed in October 2005 and now links Tibet with the rest of China through Qinghai.

Cultural Life

Urban cultural institutions such as museums, theatres, and libraries are few. The largely rural lifestyle of Qinghai’s population is strongly influenced by the traditional culture of the several ethnic and nationality groups that make up the population. Among the Mongols and Tibetans, for example, one son from every family was once expected to enter a lamasery, a custom that once limited population growth. However, the effect on the population ceased to be a factor with the decline of this practice and changes in celibacy rules for some sects.

Whilst the vast Qinghai Lake is like a translucent sapphire sparkling under the sun, Kumbum Monastery (Ta’er Monastery) is considered one of the six great monasteries of Gelugpa in Tibetan Buddhism. With both considered as the highlights of the province, they attract people from all over the world who have a fascination with Buddhism as well as nature lovers who enjoy camping, hiking and bird-watching. Other places of interest amongst tourists are the ‘Small Imperial Palace in Qinghai’ called the Qutan Monastery, snow-capped A’Nyemaqen Mountain, beautiful Chaka Salt Lake, the best-preserved Hoh Xil Nature Reserve and the Highland Xishuangbanna Mengda Nature Reserve.

Others that are worth mentioning here are, firstly, that Qinghai is also the Three-River Source Region where the Yangtze River, Yellow River and Lantsang River originate.  Secondly, the cultural Repkong Art shows the creative talents of local people through painting and sculpture. And finally, the Qinghai Lake International Road Cycling Race (UCI 2.HC) is held annually around July, attracting over 20 teams of about 150 participants from all over the world and plenty of media attention.

Nature has endowed Qinghai with both beauty and mystery. Indeed it is a paradise for adventurers.

Edited by staff

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