Say "Qinghai" to people outside of China and odds are you'll get a blank stare. Say "Tibet" on the other hand, and likely as not you'll get a lively—if not outright impassioned—response. If they haven't been there yet, they'd like to go, and most Westerners have clear ideas of what they imagine Tibet to be like, accurate or not.
Yet geographically, culturally and historically speaking, Qinghai (Q?ngh?i, Tibet, at least part of it. But of course, what precise political borders constitute "Tibet" vis-à-vis "China," can be an exceedingly controversial topic. While vast Qinghai, which stretches across the northeastern reaches of the Tibetan Plateau, is many things besides the land Tibetans have long called Amdo (it also includes parts of present-day Sichuan and Gansu Provinces), travelers seeking Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, holy mountains, pristine alpine grasslands and prayer-flag adorned villages will find ample satisfaction.
They'll also find Mongolian and Hui Muslim communities living alongside a rapidly increasing Han Chinese population. Add lesser-known ethnic minorities—Golok, Salar and Tu among them—and you've got a land that is as fascinating for its people as it is for its natural splendor. Qinghai, China's largest province (Tibet and Xinjiang are technically "autonomous regions"), retains a wild purity in places like Qinghai Lake's Niao Dao (Bird Island), sacred Mount Amnye Machen (?ním?q?ng Sh?n, ?????) and the pristine Mengda Nature Reserve (Mèngdá Zìránb?ohùq?, ???????).
Most Qinghai trips involve a stop in Xining, an ancient trading center and Chinese garrison town that has grown into a city of over 2 million. A good base for the exploration of northeastern Qinghai, the city itself has a good deal to offer, including the Qinghai Provincial Museum (Q?ngh?ish?ng Bówùgu?n, Beishan Si and Jinta Si (J?nt? Sì, ???).
Qinghai's second-largest city, Golmud, has seen a boost in tourism in recent years thanks to its role as railhead for the last major leg of the Qinghai-Tibet Railroad which connects the Tibetan capital of Lhasa to China's eastern political and population centers.
The remote Yushu (Yùshù, Tongren (Repkong), a major center of Tibetan arts and crafts, are at the top of the list of places to head for those seeking a real Tibetan experience.