Xining: a Silk Road melting pot in the shadow of the Himalayas

Culture, Travel | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: July 15th, 2011 | Updated: March 5th, 2012 | Comments

China travel_Chinese cities_China travel destinations

China lakes, China is a gargantuan nation where even the smallest municipalities can have larger populations than many a European or American city. With so much space to cover and so many stories to tell, it's all too easy to just focus on the next big adventure and trying to discover the "real China," but sometimes the real China is what's right in front of you, down the alley where you might head out to buy water and toilet paper every other day, and not on that 12-hour hard seat trip through the jungles of Guangxi. In City Watch we strive to uncover some of these little-known cities with a lot to offer, if only you know where to look. >>> It's the middle of July and if you are caught on pretty much any inhabited plot of land along the Yangtze River, you are probably wondering how on earth the humidity can keep rising and if it does, will you drown? Can one drown on water-laden air molecules? Don't wait to find out! Qinghai sun! At an average altitude of 2,100 meters above sea level, even on a hot day in Xining you'll need a windbreaker to stop the cold, Himalayan gusts from raising goose bumps up and down your arms. Sounds like heaven. And not only is Xining a cool, refreshing escape from China's sweltering summers, but the city is also a melting pot of Tibetan, Mongolian, Hui Muslim and Han Chinese cultures that have been stewing together for around 2,000 years—ever since the Han Dynasty leaders tried to fortify the area and gain control of the Silk Road splinter that traveled through Gansu Province, passed Xining and then on to Lhasa. Don't even stop to think about it—book that ticket now and you could be strolling through city streets bright with the Tibetan sun and Tibetan smiles, the smells of Muslim cooking and the cries of hawkers in a dozen different dialects! Xining! A heavenly haven for sweaty office workers!

A cultural melting pot

religion in China, Islam in China, Hui muslims Xining's cultural ascendance started during the Han Dynasty when the Silk Road was busy ferrying goods from China all the way across the Middle East to the Roman Empire. At that time the road was not at all secure and bandits hid in the mountains and valleys just south of Xining, waiting to spring upon a fat caravan of jewels and women and cart them all away to their cave hideouts. The Han stationed soldiers here and for a while caravans could count on a modicum of security. But only for five centuries. Then the bandits became an army under the flag of Tibet and they romped all over the garrison and seized control of the trade. But only for five centuries. Then the Song Dynasty wrested back control and were just starting to send jewels and women over the mountains when a horde of screaming Mongols appeared out of the north and took everything. Everything? Everything! The Mongols made a Buddhist Tibetan boss of the area and encouraged peaceful interaction between the Tibetans, the Han and the Hui Muslims, quietly minding their own business on the fringes of the city. The boss eventually turned into the first Dalai Lama, leading to a whole new complicated mess between all parties involved, but not before the Ming, the Qing, the Republicans and the Nationalists all took turns dictating to Xining from on high. The most recent masters are the current ones: the Communist Party of China who took over in the early 1950s and immediately set about industrializing, developing and building rail links and electricity grids. Today Xining is still developing, but at a leisurely pace that allows for tourism to survive intact (so far). The major draws of the city are the Dongguan Mosque (one of the largest mosques in the country) and the Kumbum Monastery, the most important monastery for the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism—which demonstrates that even after all these years, two supposedly incompatible religions/cultures can actually co-exist just fine. Throw in the Taoist North Mountain Temple, just 10 minutes north of the city with its panoramic city views and the magnificent Ningshou Pagoda, and you have a trifecta of cultures mixed into one beautiful conurbation.

It's the Himalayas, dude!

Beishan, cliff temple, Qinghai Xining has its cultural legacy and historical buildings, but step outside of town and you are met with the sweeping peaks of the highest mountains in the world and, just a couple hours' drive away, China's largest lake, Qinghai Lake. Qinghai Lake is a saline lake set in a depression in the plateau. The lake depends on seasonal rivers to fill the basin, as do the millions of migrating birds that stop here for a breather each year. Islets in the lake, like Bird Island, provide nesting spots for cormorants, sand pipers and other endangered bird species and have since become protected parkland. Qinghai lake is huge, so you can spend more than just a day here—you can visit one of the many little islands around the lake, hike or bike along the banks or rent a dinghy and head out into the waters. The ecosystem is fragile and not all who visit are aware of this fact—but if you are reading this then you should be a conscientious traveler and leave the lake as you found it. Another major natural attraction is the Mengda Nature Reserve, located around 110 km southeast of Xining in the Xunhua Sala Autonomous Prefecture, a lush oasis in an otherwise lunar landscape. The reserve is heavily forested with exotic flowers and wildlife and a mountain-top lake, Tian Chi Lake (not to be confused with Tian Chi Lake in Xinjiang , or another Lake Tian Chi in Jilin) all accessible via horse or hiking boot. The reserve has become more famous than it once was, but don't expect too much traffic if you head out there to escape the summer heat. Xining is also Xinjiang and Gansu, not to mention northern Sichuan and other awesome places to escape the summer heat. Combining a Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai tour to explore this incredible area, rich with Tibetan culture and more, is yet another reason to jump up and head out west, where the wind blows strong and the sun shines clear.
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