Deep in the heart of Asia, on the northeastern edge of the Great Tibetan Plateau, there is a big city under the blue mountain sky. This is Xining, a pearl of several cultures, full of life, and surrounded by highland wilderness. Many roads lead to Xining, including the famous Silk Road. Let’s make a journey to this little known amazing city, let’s reveal its secrets, and enjoy its atmosphere!
Basic facts about Xining
Xining 西宁 is the capital of Qinghai Province, China, and it is the largest city on the Great Tibetan Plateau. It is located at around 2150 m altitude, between two northeastern Tibetan mountain ranges. Its population consists of Han Chinese, Hui Muslims, Tibetans, and Tu Mongols (a branch of Mongol, called “White Mongols”), as well as some other small number of minorities, mainly immigrants. This ethnic diversity is a result of more than 2000 years of history, as well as the movement of people and stock on the northern branches of the Silk Road.
Today, Xining is a modern city with more than 2 million people living there, well-connected to the rest of China. You can see glamorous malls, skyscrapers, along with colorful markets, religious buildings, and parks. Xining is also known as one of the starting points for traveling to Tibet, passing along the stunning Qinghai Lake. One of the most popular roads is the Qinghai-Tibet railroad leading to Lhasa, the capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
But let’s look into the history of this beautiful city.
History of Xining
More than 2000 years ago, the valley of Huangshui (Yellow Water) River, a tributary of the famous Yellow River has been just a plain with forests and grasslands. An early version of the Silk Road routes has passed through the valley, leading westward to Caidam and Xinjiang, and southwestward to Tibet.
Then, the moving people gradually established a trade settlement in the valley, called Linqiang. The area became a part of the Han Empire, and the Han authorities turned Linqiang into an important military center to control the migrating Qiang tribes.
Kingdoms, empires, migrations
During the following centuries, Linqiang has been a part of various local kingdoms and empires, including the Chinese Tang Empire, the local Tuyuhun Kingdom, and the Tibetan Empire. The city grew in size and population and was renamed into Xining (which means “Western Peace”).
It was not only a wartime period, but there were many years of peace and prosperity in the region. A lot of Muslim traders from Central Asia settled across the whole Hexi Corridor (the area between Tibet and Mongolia), and they mixed with the local Han Chinese, gradually forming a new ethnoreligious group, called Hui. In the 13th century, the Mongols conquered the area, and Xining became a part of the Mongol Empire, from which the Mongol population remained. Thus the ethnic composition of Xining was formed, as well as the image of the city.
During the last several centuries, Xining was a part of the Ming and Qing Empires of China, with some periods of independence. In fact, there were local political states, ruled by Ma warlords, mainly in the later years of the Qing and the Republic of China era. But after the Communist revolution in 1949, these states were removed, and Xining was integrated as a regular part of China and a capital of Qinghai Province. It quickly grew into a modern city what it is today, preserving the local multi-ethnical and multi-religious diversity.
And along with it, Xining remained an important gate to the Great Tibetan Plateau.
Our journey to Xining
All of this was the reason why we included Xining in our journeys in Eastern Tibet. Xining was attractive for us, and it was our exit point from our first Eastern Tibet trip. We drove a rental car on an epic route from Chengdu, through Kangding, Tagong, Yilhun Lhatso Lake, Yushu, Mt. Amnye Machen, and Qinghai Lake. And Xining was the point where we had to drop the car.
We used our time in Xining to try the local food and to buy some spices. During our first visit, we didn’t have enough time to explore it, but on our next Eastern Tibet journey, we successfully walked around its center. We visited one of its landmarks- Dongguan Mosque, and the pedestrian market. We would like to visit much more, as there are many other places to explore, instead, we made a round trip deep inside Eastern Tibet, to places like Labrang Monastery, Taktsang Lhamo, Zoige Grasslands, Jiuzhaigou valleys, Mt. Nyenbo Yurtse, and again to Amnye Machen and Qinghai Lake.
But let’s see the places that we visited, and that we want to visit next time- the places that best present the image of Xining.
Places to visit in Xining
So, if your journey includes Xining, what places to visit there in order to “taste and experience” this city best? These places are where you can explore the best of Xining- its modern image, its ethnic and religious diversity, and the nature of the area. Let’s start at the center.
The center of Xining
Xining is prolonged on the valley of Huangshui River (黄水河), and its center is divided by the right tributary Nanchuan River. The area west of the river is called Chengxi (城西- “Western part of the city”), and what is east of the river is “Chengzhong (城中- “The center of the city”). Yes, you can expect the “Eastern part of the city”, and there really is (in Chinese- Chengdong， 城东), but it is not so “central” like Chengxi.
So, you can start your walk from the Central Square (市中广场）at the Nanchuan River, where you can feel the modern spirit of Xining. It is a great place for photos- photos of the cityscape, and photos of various people, including those who dance every day under live music.
Then, you can head westward on the modern streets of Xining. If you are looking for something special, go to Xinning Plaza, another square-park site with quite impressive decorations. It is surrounded by a lot of malls, restaurants, shopping and entertainment places. But while you are on this site, don’t skip the Qinghai Provincial Museum- an important point where you can learn more about the city and its region, before you proceed further to explore.
Qinghai Provincial Museum （青海省博物馆）
This is the main museum that tells the story of Xining and the whole of Qinghai Province. There are a lot of artifacts presenting the history of the region, as well as its ethnic and religious diversity. You can learn a lot about life on the Great Tibetan Plateau before you actually go there and see it by yourself. Note: The museum was closed temporarily for some reconstruction, but it will be opened at any time soon, so if you go to this part of Xining, don’t go just for the museum, be ready to skip it if it is still closed! Entrance fee: free (but it may change when they open it!)
Now, let’s cross the Nanchuan River and go to the Chengzhong area, the central part of Xining. There are more malls, more shops, more restaurants, and more entertainment, but there are also several spots worth visiting.
Gongchen Gate （拱辰门）
You can walk to the northern part of Chengzhong, and you will see Gongchen Gate. It is not far from the confluence of the two rivers- Nanchuan and Huangshui. This is a remnant of the old wall of Xining, and Gongchen Gate is the city’s northern gate. Of course, today it is renovated, and it is surrounded by a small park and city boulevards. It is a nice place to relax and photos, in a bit historical atmosphere.
Then, you can proceed east-southeastward, until you arrive at another historical site- the residence of Ma Bufang
Ma Bufang Residence (马步芳公馆，called also Qinghai Folk Art Museum)
First, who is Ma Bufang? His name and his residence lead us back to the Kuomintang era of China when warlords ruled Qinghai Province. Ma Bufang was the last military governor of Qinghai, from 1938 to 1949. He is known mainly for his contribution to the development of Xining, driving it out of its old Medieval image, to a new, modern city. Ma Bufang developed industry, education, as well as the city infrastructure. He also leads one of the strongest armies in China at that time, crushing the Japanese invaders, as well as the Tibetan rebels in the south of Qinghai.
And this residence is a large complex of buildings, established in 1943, where he lived with his family. Today, it is turned into a museum, where you can see artifacts from Ma family’s life and the spirit of the era they lived. Entrance fee: 30 CNY.
Now, turn south-southwest. Not far from Ma Bufang Residence is one of the most popular landmarks of Xining- Dongguan Mosque.
Dongguan Mosque （东关大清真寺）
There is a significant Muslim population in Xining, consisting mainly of Hui people. Consequently, there are at least several active mosques in the city. The largest of them is the Dongguan Mosque, which has become a city’s landmark, mainly due to its architecture.
Dongguan Mosque was built in 1380 and recently has been restored. It presents a beautiful arc, from which you enter its yard with a garden. And the mosque itself is designed with two minarets and one green-white dome. You can see some more devoted Muslims often stay there, reciting the Quran, or just relaxing. Since it is active now, there is no entrance fee.
There are several other religious sites, all of them active, but with less tourist value like Nanguan Mosque, Shuicheng Gate Mosque, Dafo Temple, and Confucian Temple. But one of the places you should not miss is the Mojia Pedestrian Market.
Mojia Pedestrian Market (莫家街)
This is not just a place for shopping. Yes, if you like shopping, you can enjoy it here, especially if you are looking for local spices and other kinds of food. But even if you don’t like shopping, the place is worth visiting just to dive into the local spirit of the city. As we all know, local markets are good places to taste local life everywhere in the world.
And before we leave the center of Xining, let’s go to its southern “edge”, where we can find another historic place- a beautiful park with remnants from the Tang Dynasty.
City Wall Relics Park of Tang Dynasty (青唐城遗址公园)
Tang Dynasty has ruled China between the 7th and 10th centuries, including Xining. Although Xining hasn’t been a part of the Tang Empire all the time but has been also conquered by Tuyuhun and the Tibetan Empire, Tangs have built strong walls around the city, and here is the place where you can see some of their remains. Some of these remains are renovated and turned into a decorative part of the park.
Now, it is time to explore the suburbs of Xining. Let’s head to the north.
The north suburbs of Xining
This area consists of two mountains, separated by the Beichuan River, a left tributary to Huangshui River. There is a city district along the river, and both sides of the river are not urban but natural. Here we can find some interesting sites.
And here in the urban area around the Beichuan River, you can visit two modern museums, dedicated to Tibet and life in Tibet.
China Tibetan Medicine Culture Museum (青海藏文化博物院)
This is a new museum, in a pompous building, presenting the best of the Tibetan culture. Initially, in 2005, it started as a museum dedicated to Tibetan Medicine, but later they enhanced it into a large educational exhibition of every aspect of the Tibetan culture. So, it is really worth visiting, especially if Xining is your starting point to explore the Great Tibetan Plateau. Entrance fee: 60 CNY.
Tibetan Plateau Natural History Museum (青藏高原自然博物馆)
This museum is only about 100 m away from the China Tibetan Medicine Culture Museum, just on the other side of the boulevard. As its name suggests, it is dedicated to the nature of the Great Tibetan Plateau. The museum has three floors and several halls, presenting various species of animals and plants from this region, and their natural habitat. You can also see some stones and crystals from the salt lakes. Entrance fee: 60 CNY.
Now, let’s go to the mountain east of the Beichuan River. It is called Beishan (literally- “North Mountain”). And the most significant site on its foot is the North Mountain Temple, called also Tulou Temple.
North Mountain Temple (土楼观北山寺)
This is a Taoist temple, like many other Taoist temples in China, with halls, pavilions, gates, and a pagoda. But there is something different. Initially, it has been a Buddhist temple, built somewhere in the 2nd century AD. During the next centuries, Taoism prevailed and it gradually turned to this religion.
However, the most significant feature of this temple is its location at the foot and on the slopes of the red-sand North Mountain. Some of its buildings are dug into the red cliffs. For safety reasons, some of the paths leading to these buildings are closed, but you can still see them from below.
This is only the first and closed to the city attraction on the North Mountain. But there is more. You can go above the eastern part of Xining and hike the North Mountain above it. While you do it, you can enjoy breathtaking views of the city and the mountains beyond it. And this is only the beginning of the mountain. If you want to get deeper, you have to travel northward to the areas of Tu minority, where you can enjoy the amazing Huzhu Beishan National Geopark.
Now, let’s cross the city and go to its southern suburb areas.
The southern suburbs of Xining
Again, this area is divided by the Nanchuan River. The mountains on both sides are not too high, but they are distant branches of the majestic mountain ranges of the Great Tibetan Plateau. And there are some interesting sites worth visiting there.
Nanchan Temple (南禅寺)
This is the first place you can see beyond the center of Xining, right beside the Nanchuan River. Nanchan Temple is a Buddhist religious complex, initially built during the North Song Dynasty, between the 10th and 12th centuries, and renovated during the Qing Dynasty, some 150-200 years ago. It is a typical Buddhist temple, but what makes it worth visiting is its location over the Nanchuan River, with stunning views of the city below. And of course, its historical side is also interesting.
If you proceed further above the temple, you can enjoy Nanshan Park.
Nanshan Park (南山公园)
It is located on the hills behind the Nanchan Temple, called Phoenix Mountain. The park is just like all those beautiful parks around China, full of various decorations. But what makes it worth visiting, is the views of the city from above. And of course, such a park offers a nice relaxing atmosphere.
Let’s cross the Nanchuan River and explore the hills west of it. There is another mountain park, with the Xining TV Tower built on it. There is also a Botanical Garden. But the most attractive part of this park is the Tibet Plateau Wildlife Zoo.
Tibet Plateau Wildlife Zoo (青藏高原野生动物园)
It is the zoo of the city. What makes it different is that it focuses on the wildlife of Tibet. So, you can see the animals living on the Great Tibetan Plateau- yaks, snow leopards, wolves, bears, and even pandas (yes, pandas live on the eastern edges of Tibet, near Chengdu). However, those who care for the animals may remain disappointed and may find the whole zoo poorly maintained. Anyway, it is still worth visiting this zoo, at least for educational purposes. Entrance fee: 30 CNY.
This is the most important of Xining. Maybe I could add the Science and Technology Museum, located in the western part of the city- yes, it is spectacular and interesting, but it is not a part of our main topic- the geographical and historical exploration of Xining. Instead, let’s go out of the city. There are so many amazing areas, mostly mountains and lakes, like Qilian Mountain, Qinghai Lake, Chaka Salt Lake, Rebkong, Tu Minority area, and many more, but they are already parts of other itineraries.
However, we should visit one site that is out of Xining, at the same time like a part of it, because it has become one of its landmarks. This is Ta’er (Kumbum) Monastery.
Ta’er (Kumbum) Monastery (塔尔寺)
This is one of the highest in rank Buddhist monasteries in Tibet. Initially, there was a small temple and a stupa, built on this place in the 14th century. About 200 years later, the monastery was built around the temple, and it quickly grew in size and number of monks. Today, it presents a lot of buildings in Han and Tibetan architectural styles. Among them, the most significant are The Great Hall of the Golden Roof and the Great Hall of Meditation.
Ta’er (Kumbum) Monastery is a large religious complex, surrounded by a tourist area with restaurants, hotels, souvenir shops, and other attractions. You can reach it by bus from Xinninglu Bus Station, then use a taxi to the monastery. Entrance fee: 80 CNY.
These are the places to visit in Xining. But to taste this city in full, you have to try its local cuisine.
The local cuisine of Xining
Xining is delicious, really! And it is no strange for such a place with a mix of cultures. Han Chinese bring their typical Chinese meals with rice, noodles, boiled vegetables, and some spicy Sichuan-style meat snacks. Hui Muslims bring their Islam-inspired “no pork” food, including the eastern version of the western bread. Tibetans and Mongols bring their yak meals with milk products. As a result, you can enjoy a lot of yummy breakfast, lunch, and dinner, not only in the luxury restaurant but also just on the street.
Some of the typical Xining meals include:
- Finger Mutton. It is boiled mutton meat, coming from the herdsmen on the Great Tibetan Plateau. You use your fingers and a knife to separate it from the bones, then use salt, some spice, and some vegetables in addition, for a better taste.
- Xining Yoghurt. The Xining version of yogurt is thicker than most other yogurts, with something like a cream on the surface.
- Niangpi. It is a very delicious flour-made snack, especially for those who like spicy food. Niangpi looks like “giant noodles”, and is always mixed with various spices and vinegar.
- Beef noodles soup. It is another delicious meal, usually served for breakfast. Again, there are some fragrant spices in the soup.
There are many other delicious things, but the above are the most typical for Xining and the area.
Where you can find local food
There are many restaurants and fast food stalls where you can try the local food of Xining. You can also find food courts in every mall in the city. However, if you want something more exotic, again, you should go to the Mojia Pedestrian Street market. Here, besides the dry spices, you can enjoy restaurants, fast food, and snacks with the typical Xining meals. Another place is Shuijing Alley, another pedestrian street, mostly covered, not far from the Mojia and the Nanchuan River.
All of this is great, but Xining is not a small city. Let’s take a look at transportation, how to move between your entry and exit points, your place for accommodation, and all the interesting places to visit and eat.
Transportation in Xining
As Xining is the capital of Qinghai Province, it is well-connected to the rest of the world.
How to reach Xining
You can come by plane, but most probably, you should do it from Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong or Shenzhen. The airport is connected by direct flights to other cities in China too, but although it is international, there are international flights only from Japan (Tokyo), Vietnam (Nha Trang), and Cambodia (Siem Reap).
A more attractive way is to reach Xining by train- it is located on the railway connecting Xinjiang with the eastern part of China, as well as from Lhasa in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, by the famous Qinghai-Tibet Railway. You can also travel by bus, but buses travel shorter distances to and from Xining. An attractive way is to reach Xining by bus from Kashgar in Xinjiang, traveling on the South Xinjiang Route.
Finally, you can include Xining as a part of your Eastern Tibet itinerary by rental car. It is how we visited Xining for the first time, from Chengdu. However, as everywhere in China, you can do it only with a driver who has a Chinese driving license.
Local transport in Xining
Once you arrive in Xining, you would like to set your route to your hotel, to a restaurant, or straight to the places of interest, depending on your schedule. And if you want to start from the center, the best way would be to go to a certain starting point- Central Square, Mojia Street or somewhere in the middle. And the easiest way to do it is by public bus, or by taxi.
Traveling by bus around Xining is cheap- currently, the price is 2 to 4 CNY. But the main problem is- you have to know the routes of the buses and where to stop. It can be difficult since everything is in Chinese.
So, here are some bus routes you can use to reach the more distant places to visit:
- China Tibetan Medicine Culture Museum, and Tibetan Plateau Natural History Museum: Buses 46, 65, 72, and 504.
- North Mountain Temple: Buses 10, 11, 19, 21, 66, 80, 84, and 107, to Beishan Market. Then you have to walk about 25 min (or take a taxi) to the temple.
- Nanchan Temple: Buses 16, 19, 21, 38, 49, 71, 103, 105, 601, and Tourist bus 1. But in fact, if you can from Central Square, you can just walk 10-15 min.
- Tibet Plateau Wildlife Zoo: Buses 14, k2, and Tourist bus 1.
Taxis start from 8 CNY. As everywhere, they are more expensive but more convenient. To get a better idea, a taxi from China Tibet Medicine Culture Museum to Nanchan Temple is around 30 CNY (9 min drive), and from North Mountain Temple to the Tibet Plateau Wildlife Zoo is the same. Everything else is nearer and under this price.
However, if you want to go to Ta’er (Kumbum) Monastery only by taxi, you have to pay around 70 CNY (15 min drive).
This is the best way to explore the center of Xining. You can walk around the whole of the center, and use a bus or a taxi just for some shortcuts. And finally, it is the best (and the only) way to climb the nearby mountains and enjoy the city from above.
Now, let’s take a look at the accommodation.
Such a big city is full of hotels, from luxury to budget. But as everywhere in China, not every hotel accepts foreigners. You can book a hotel from Booking or Agoda, but even this doesn’t guarantee that you can be accepted. There are some properties with registrations on these websites, but in reality, they have closed already (we had such experience). So, the best way is to contact them in advance and to be sure that they are waiting for you.
If you are a budget traveler and want to save money from taxis, the best area to look for is the center east of the Nanchuan River (Chengzhong). It is also closer to the Xining Railway Station, which can be crucial for being there on time (and if you have to take a train, you really must be in the Railway Station at least 40 min in advance, with a ticket that you have already bought!).
You can find a lot of Airbnb properties in Xining. But have in mind that according to the regulations in China, you have to go with the host to the police and register there. Some of them are not familiar with these regulations, so it can be a bit troubling. But if everything is ok, Airbnb properties can be a good way to communicate with locals.
As a traveler, I have a strong affinity for hostels. Yes, usually, privacy in hostels is decreased, but on the other side, these are the best places to meet other travelers, to share your experience with each other, and to make friends. Besides, hostels are always attractive and arrange to provide a nice time with a beer or a coffee in their bars. Finally, here you can find the best information about how to go here and there, they can also arrange trips in various directions, including a private car.
On our second trip to Eastern Tibet, we hired a van from one of the hostels in Xining- Xining Heng Yu International Hostel. We had an excellent experience, and our driver Ma Long (a local Mongolian) was a great person, just as a friend.
We have traveled to Xining two times, and we had always a nice experience there. Then, we left this city by train to Lanzhou and the eastern parts of China. But Xining remains a place that we still want to visit, making it a starting point for more journeys and adventures to this part of Asia.
Get more impressions of Xining from the video below:
Take a look at some books about Xining, Qinghai Province and Tibet!
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