Deep and far in the highest mountain land on the Earth, beyond summits, grasslands, and wilderness, there is a blue-green pearl. This is a place where the sky meets water, and clouds meet pastures. A place of several civilizations crossroad, on the “Roof of the World”. This is Qinghai Lake, a fairy tale sea in Eastern Tibet. Let’s go on a journey to Qinghai Lake and dive into its stunning world!
Where is Qinghai Lake
Qinghai Lake (青海湖- Qinghai Hu in Chinese, Koko Nor in Mongolian, and Co Ngoinbo-མཚོ་སྔོན་པོ་ in Tibetan) is far deep in the heart of Asia, far from every ocean. If you open the map, you can see it near the east-northeast boundary of the Great Tibetan Plateau, like a big eye. There are many other lakes on the Plateau, as well as in the rest of China, but Qinghai Lake is the largest. No wonder that it is called “sea”- the Blue-Green See, as the name Qinghai means.
Basic facts about Qinghai Lake
It is located in Qinghai Province, on 3205 m altitude, surrounded by grasslands and deserts, and high snowy mountains beyond them. It is a saline lake, which makes it more like a “sea”. But at the same time, it is entirely separated from the ocean, located on the bottom of an endorheic basin, without outflow. This basin is something like a “hole”, separating the extreme northeastern ridges of Tibet- Qilian Mountains, from the rest of the Great Tibetan Plateau.
Qinghai Lake is situated at the “edge” of the Tibetan cultural lands. Here is the boundary of three other neighboring cultures- Han Chinese, Hui Muslim, and Mongol. They meet here, creating a unique mix, combined with the fantastic beauty of the grasslands, water, sand deserts, and mountains, in a nomadic lifestyle existing for many centuries.
Our journeys to Qinghai Lake
All this stunning beauty has made Qinghai Lake attractive for many people, including many travelers. So we included it in our Eastern Tibet itineraries. We made two trips to Qinghai Lake, both from the south, from the deep and high interior of the Great Tibetan Plateau, and the giant snowy Mt. Amnye Machen.
Both our Qinghai Lake trips were in August, and we experienced changing weather, from a heavy rainstorm to a deep pure blue sky with white clouds. Thus we had the opportunity to enjoy various breathtaking colors and views of water, sky, and grassland.
Our main area of exploring Qinghai Lake was its southern coast. We walked at the coastline, enjoyed the stunning views with flocks of sheep, yaks, and horses, experienced the local Tibetan culture and hospitality, and played on the dunes of the nearby desert. But there is much more to see and do around (and on) the lake, so below is what we experienced, and what we would like to experience if we had more time, to explore in full this incredibly beautiful spot on the Earth.
What to see and do on and around Qinghai Lake
First, let’s look at the map of the Qinghai Lake area. The lake is just slightly larger than Luxembourg or Rhode Island of the USA. And there are two directions to exploring it. First- circumambulating around it, following its coastline. And second- floating on it.
Around the Qinghai Lake
This is an activity, performed by Tibetan pilgrims since ancient times. They circumambulate around the lake for 10-18 days by horse riding or 18-25 days on foot. Today Qinghai Lake attracts an increasing amount of tourists and travelers who do the same, but by local buses, by car, by tourist buses, by motorcycles, or the most attractive way- by bike. Let’s follow them in a clockwise direction, starting from the iconic gate of Qinghai Hu National Park, at the lake’s southeast shore.
Qinghai Lake coast
If you come from the east (as most travelers do), you would travel on a straight road (National Highway 109) west-northwestward, on a flat plain covered by grassland and some fenced areas. You pass through the main gate and soon you can see the blue horizon in the distance- this is Qinghai Lake.
The road proceeds westward, passing by a lot of yurts and some buildings, most of which are hotels and restaurants. You will also notice large fields covered by yellow flowers (in summer)- this is Rapeseed- an iconic flower that has become one of the Qinghai Lake’s symbols. You can also see some small temples, Tibetan stupas, and prayer flags.
Let’s stop and go right off the road, reaching the waters of the lake. Small waves break on the stony coast, but if the weather is calm, the lake is calm too, flat as a mirror. Unfortunately, in recent years commercial tourism has covered most of the coastline, so you can’t reach the waters without pay 5 to 10 CNY at the gate (yes, most of the lake is surrounded by a fence). And when you reach the water, you will see beautiful yaks, lead by locals. But don’t think that it is something natural- it is a tourist trap, where you have to pay for a photo, and a ride.
Erlangjian Scenic Area (二郎剑景区)
Some villages around the Qinghai Lake have recently turned into resorts. One of these resorts is Erlangjian. This is the place where we spent the night during our trips to the lake. Here we enjoyed not only the fantastic lake landscapes but also the delicious food in the local restaurants, which offer not only yummy meals but also a cozy traditional environment.
The most attractive part of the resort is its center, especially on the coast. Here is one of the main wharves of the lake, a starting point for Qinghai Lake cruises. It is touristy, but at least you can enjoy the unique atmosphere of the lake and its culture.
However, this is only the resort of Erlangjian. Let’s move west of it, to the real Erlangjian, which means “Erland Sword”, or “Double Sword”. And you can see it on the map- two bent sandspits pointing eastward. Here the land turns into a narrow strip, penetrating deep into the lake’s interior, creating fantastic landscapes of blue, yellow, and green. Again, the eastern sandspit is marked by a stupa, prayer flags, and monument stones. But you have to pay more to enter the sandspits and reach their end tips- the entrance fee is 100 CNY.
Let’s proceed further west on the coast of the lake. The next place is Heimahe.
In English, the name means Black Horse River. It is a small river, coming from the nearby mountains covered by grassland. And there is a village on the southwestern coast of the Qinghai Lake with the same name. Again, today it is turned into a resort, which is another starting point for exploring the lake. Here you can see the mountains more closely located to the coastline, rising above the blue-green waters. The best spot nearby is marked by another stupa and prayer flags.
From here, the coast gradually turns northward, then eastward, reaching one of the most beautiful parts of Qinghai Lake- the Buha River Peninsula and the Bird Island.
The Buha River Peninsula and the Bird Island (鸟岛)
Do you know that Qinghai Lake is an important hub for the migrating birds which use it for a temporary stop on their routes? And their favorite part of the lake is its western coast, the Buha River Peninsula.
Buha River is the longest river flowing into the lake, and its peninsula is actually a river delta. Its easternmost tips are covered by dunes and some rocks. One of these rocks is particularly popular- it is like a rocky dome and you can see hundreds, even thousands of birds resting on it.
Actually, the area of Bird Island (鸟岛) is something like a small dune desert, almost connected to the mainland, and only its famous rocky dome is considered the island.
Again, if you want to visit this amazing place, you have to pay an entrance fee- 115 CNY, but the visit is worth it. Besides Bird Island, you can also see the nearby Fusi Ancient City Ruins and Shatuo Temple.
Now, let’s proceed further, to the northern coast of the Qinghai Lake. Here you can enjoy Fairy Bay.
Fairy Bay Scenic Area (仙女湾景区)
This is a wetland, located on the north-northwestern shores of the Qinghai Lake. Its name describes the beauty of the place- full of colors and reflections. Fairy Bay (仙女湾) wetland is particularly beautiful in summer when you can dive into its flower fields, and watch countless flocks of migratory birds. Here you can meet graceful swans in an extravaganza of blue, white, and green, where the sky meets waters.
This area is a traditional Tibetan sanctuary. At the same time, here you can feel more Mongol influence- Fairy Bay is the place with the most cultural exchange between those two civilizations- Tibet and Mongolia. All of this makes it another worth visiting spot. Entrance fee: 60 CNY.
Let’s proceed to the northeastern shores of Qinghai Lake, where waters meet sand.
Sand Island (沙岛) and Jinshawan Desert (金沙湾)
You can see it on the satellite map- the yellow sand area along the east-northeastern coast of the lake. And you can see several small lakes amidst the sands. They are remnants of the ancient times when the level of the Qinghai Lake has been higher. Now, these lakes are surrounded by dunes, and the largest one, called Jinsha Lake (Golden Sands Lake) separates the dune area into Sand Island (沙岛) and Jinshawan (金沙湾) Desert.
In fact, Sand Island is not a real island- it is just dunes surrounded by lakes, making a feeling like a desert island. I remember when we reached the sands of Jinshawan when we began to wander among the dunes. It was a fantastic experience to enjoy the dark blue sky with white clouds, the vast “sea” of yellow dunes, and the distant blue-green mountains behind them. And on the other side of the desert, down below we could see how the sands gradually disappeared into its fairy-beautiful waters. We paid for this experience 70 CNY, but it was more than worth it!
Thus we encircle the whole lake. Now it’s time to look at its interior, on the vast blue waters of the lake.
On the Qinghai Lake
If you float on the waters of Qinghai Lake during a calm windless misty day, you can enjoy a breathtaking view of a water meeting sky in an unreal picture. Then, suddenly, you can see an island. Yes, there is a small island in the middle of the lake, called Haixin Island, or Haixin Hill- 海心山 (Hill of the Sea Heart).
Haixin Island has a long shell shape- a piece of grassland in the middle of the lake. There is a temple on its top, as well as several other buildings. But the most beautiful side of the island is its wildlife and plants. And the panoramic view of the lake around its top is breathtaking.
Another islet in the lake is Sankuaishi Island (三块石岛)– a long strip of rocks, completely uninhabited, a paradise for the migrating birds. It is again in the middle of the lake, but closer to the southwestern coast.
Both these islands are not opened for tourism, but still can be reached by private boat at a relatively high price, from the Erlangjian Wharf. But before getting to the cruises on the Qinghai Lake, let’s focus on the transportation to the lake, and around it.
The whole lake is encircled by a good road, and well-connected to the neighboring cities and counties in Qinghai Province. Xining, Qinghai’s capital is on the east, Golmud is on the west, Yushu- on the south, and Zhangye- on the north. And there are several ways to reach the lake- by public or by private transport. If you just want to visit Qinghai Lake, your starting point is Xining. But if Qinghai Lake is just one of your journey stops, you would reach it from the other directions too. Let’s see the options.
By public bus
Qinghai Lake is not the end stop for the public bus routes, but many buses from Xining pass by the southern or the northern coast of the lake. Most of them travel from Bayi Bus Terminal in Xining to Delingha, Wulan, or Golmud. So, you just can buy tickets to Erlangjian, Heimahe in the south, or Gangcha in the north. The whole trip is 1:30-2:00 hours, and the ticket price is between 30 and 50 CNY.
By organized tour from Xining
This is an easier way. Every travel company in Xining offers one or more days’ trips to Qinghai Lake. Their trips cover the most important places of interest around the lake- in general, all of the above described, depending on the trip duration. Your hotel or hostel in Xining should direct you to a travel company, and you just join the trip.
There is a railway connecting Xining with the gorgeous wild west of China- Xinjiang or Tibet (Lhasa). One of these trains stops in Gangcha, and it is the cheapest transport to the lake. This is train No. 7581 to Golmud, departing from Xining at 7:50 am, and arriving in Gangcha at 10:19 am, for only 26.5 CNY.
By private car
This would be the most convenient way to travel to Qinghai Lake- you could easily rent a car from Xining, or just include the lake on a long journey from Chengdu (as we did) or other places, then you can visit and enjoy all the interesting places around it.
But the problem is that you can’t drive a car, and can’t rent a car in China unless you have a Chinese Driving License. So, the only way is to hire a car with a driver. Normally, it can be arranged from your property in Xining, and if you are a larger group of people, sharing 1000 CNY per day would be relatively cheap.
Or you can just find some shared taxis and minivans near the hotels and bus terminals. But just remember to bargain with them- not all of them are honest to foreigners.
Around the lake
Once you arrive at Qinghai Lake, you can find various options to travel around it. You can still use some local buses which travel between the towns and villages on the coast. There are also a lot of taxis that you can find.
But the best experience is to circumambulate around the lake by bike. There are four cycling supply depots on the route, where you can rent a bike and enjoy- in Erlangjian Resort, Shinaihai Town, Gangcha, and Xihai Town. Usually, Xihai is the most popular starting point for cyclists. And the rental bike prices go in a wide variety- from around 60 CNY for some low-quality bikes to more than 200 CNY for high-class road bikes.
Qinghai Lake cruises
From ancient times, the local Tibetan and Mongolian fishermen have wandered on the lake for their fishing business. Now, this practice gradually remains in the past. Instead, Qinghai Lake is gradually conquering by developing tourism. And yes, it is worth to enjoy the stunning lake scenery from within.
The most popular cruise on the Qinghai Lake is the route from Erlangjian Resort to the Erlangjian Peninsula. There are 20, 30, and 60 mins routes, with prices from 100 to 150 CNY per person, and with slow or fast boats. The cruise boats are good, some of the luxuries and in general, designed for the tourist’s pleasure.
There are more routes on the lake, but they are private, not official, without a schedule. They are more expensive and can reach most of the points on the coastline, including the two islands (they at least approach the islands).
There are plenty of accommodation options around Qinghai Lake. Not every hotel accepts foreigners (usually the cheaper and low-quality hotels are only for Chinese), but since this is a touristy place, foreigners have a lot of choices. There are some luxury hotels in every resort. But I would advise finding a local traditional place like a yurt hotel, a guesthouse, or a hostel. Only there you can spend an exciting time in the local cultural and adventurous atmosphere.
In our trips to Qinghai Lake, we chose a nice Tibetan style hostel in the small Wenxiyuan Resort, just east of the bigger Erlangjian Resort (Zhaxi Tibetan Youth Hostel- 青海湖扎西度假藏式e家酒店). You can’t find it on Booking, Agoda, or Trip.com, but only on some local Chinese websites, as most of the properties around Qinghai Lake and the whole of Tibet. But you don’t have to worry about it- you don’t need to make any reservation, just go to some of the resorts, and you will see a bunch of hotels, hostels, and guesthouses. You will definitely find something good.
If you are looking for a camping opportunity, Qinghai Lake is not so proper place. There are only a few places allowing camping, but they are hotel properties and you have to pay for your tent just like in a hotel. Besides, they are not exactly on the lake coast.
Seasons and other tips
Qinghai Lake is located at 3205 m altitude, so don’t expect hot weather there. The best time to travel to the lake is summer, especially July and August. This is the greenest and warmest time of the year, so this is the high season- the time of the most beautiful “game of colors”. At the same time, it is the wettest season of the year, with short but often rains.
After the summer, the lake landscape changes- it becomes yellowish, with more and more white- from frost, snow, and ice. Winter is cold, with temperatures reaching -20, even -30°C, seldom rising more than 0. It is dry and the lake is frozen most of the time- ice and crystal clear cold blue sky over it.
Then, the spring comes and the weather becomes warmer. It takes time until the mild and green summer, but before that, you can enjoy the bird crowds, mainly at the western and northern shores of the lake. April-May is their season, and your season to explore the best of Bird Island and Fairy Bay.
Qinghai Lake was our last stop before we left the Great Tibetan Plateau and descent to the “civilization”- Xining. At first, after the vast wild spaces of the Tibetan grasslands, Qinghai Lake looked too touristy for us. But when we ignored this fact and focused on the nature, we could dive into this fantastic place and its incredible beauty. Thus we left Qinghai Lake, but it remained our inspiration for more and more new horizons to explore.
Get more Qinghai Lake impressions from this amazingly beautiful song:
Check some travel books about Tibet:
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