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Outbound is SmartShanghai's travel features series dedicated to fascinating and wonderful places, nearby and far-flung, around China and sometimes not. See More

[Outbound]: Riding Slow With The Sheep & Yaks of Qinghai Lake

A template for traveling around China's northwestern region.
By Sep 28, 2017 Travel
When a flock of one hundred sheep merge into both lanes of the highway you're driving down, there is really nothing you can do.

You can honk, but they really don't care. Better just slow down to their pace of 5kmh, put in a DJ Screw tape, roll down the windows, and breathe in the mountain air. Along these surreal winding roads on the path to Qinghai Lake, 3205m (10,515ft) above sea level, you will also meet gangs of yak, camels, eagles, and the occasional Tibetan Mastiff, who herd the lambs and protect them from the wolves that creep at night.


You could easily spend a month or two trekking around the vast mountains, valleys, temples, and rivers of Gansu and Qinghai provinces. We only did five days, but I'll return for sure. The Silk Road is wild, beautiful, and full of adventure, nature, peace, and good food. Your soul will thank you for exploring this part of China that is so far and so completely different from Shanghai.


Lanzhou - For the Noodles


This is probably where you'll fly in. And if you've lived in China long enough to fall out of love with Lanzhou la mian, you can rekindle that romance here in the transportation hub of this whole region. Lanzhou is a raw mix of development, mountains, culture, religions, and ethnicities. Save at least one day and one night to explore the city and its lamb skewers, grilled breads, hand-pulled noodles, and sliced beef.


Here's a rough plan for your day in Lanzhou. Don't take the 50km cab from the airport – take the C train to Lanzhou West Railway instead. Get down to Zhongshan Lu and walk over the Yellow River via the Zhongshan Bridge, then hike up the hill through the temples to the White Pagoda for some panoramic views of the city and the river. Take the old cable car down and explore the banks of the Yellow River, where folks are hanging out, rapping over beats on KTV speakers, selling fruit, and just chilling next to the water. From there you can peep the Muslim influence via the mosques and markets.

For dinner, the place to hit is a BBQ spot downtown called Jia Yu Guan. Lamb kebabs, breads, and a sweet soup called Niu Nai Ji Dan Lao Zao are a must. The lamb head – eyes and everything – is… interesting. Lanzhou's local beer, Huanghe, clocks in at around 5%. If you're looking to party, stop by Taichi Club, which is kind of like a little Dada with underground music and cheap drinks.

A Steep Climb From Lanzhou To Xining


Unless you're renting a car or taking another route to Qinghai Lake, you'll need to take a train to Xining, the start of the Tibetan Plateau. This is part of the highest bullet-train route in the world, passing through deep valleys, tunnels through mountains, and Lord of the Rings landscapes. Your ears will pop as you climb from 1518m (4980ft) to 2200m (7200ft), while learning about railway etiquette from a camel named Tuo Xiaoming.


Xining is less exciting than Lanzhou, so try to arrive in the evening, sort out your travel plans, catch some sleep, then rise bright and early and take off for Qinghai Lake.

The Drive From Xining To Qinghai Lake


The voyage to Qinghai Lake is just as crucial as the actual lake, with its blue and purple skies, perilous drops, grazing animals, and feeling of being really far from everything (but still having 4G service).


We spent an hour at this "rest stop" – a huge Tibetan temple with all kinds of random village offerings to the gods, like plastic cheeseburgers and rodents.



Qinghai Lake - China's Biggest Lake


About two hours after leaving Xining, China's biggest (saltwater lake) creeps onto the horizon. In summer, you could jump off the swings right into the clear waters for a swim. Our driver found us a quasi-official gate in the southeast section with a 50rmb entrance fee and a bunch of horses, yaks, off-road vehicles, and swings. Some other spots have helicopters. Despite all this – at least in this section, in the non-peak season – the area is still rural, undeveloped, and unpolluted. The horse I rode suddenly jumped into the lake and I almost lost my phone. He was really thirsty.


You could leave around 11am and get back to Xining by 6pm. But what many do is stay one night on Qinghai Lake, wake up, catch a sunrise, then make moves west to another salt lake called Chaka, which you can walk across. Cycling to and around Qinghai Lake is super popular too, and the (brutal) annual race draws tons of spectators.


A few hours here will suffice, but combined with the drive, it's totally worth the whole journey from Shanghai. Along the route back down to Xining, we passed rolling deserts that were once open for play but now stand closed for environmental protection. Our driver said a lot of hotels were closed for the same reasons. For a long time we didn't pass any other cars on the wide, freshly paved one-way streets. Nor did we see many restaurants, or businesses of any kind really. Tourists flock to the lake in summertime, but it didn't seem like anyone was trying too hard to make some money off them. The sun set just as we arrived at Qinghai Station.

The Next Move


The great part about hiring a driver is that the good ones are down to roll anywhere – Dunhuang, Xinjiang, wherever – for any amount of time, at about 550rmb per day. This is their life. Many hotels have special rooms for drivers, who pay their own way. And with hotels, this is more of a "stop when it gets dark and find a guestroom" kind of place.


Ultimately, you'll want to roll north to Gansu to see the famous "Rainbow Mountains" (Danxia) in Zhangye. It's also an easy train back to Lanzhou. Those multicolored rocks were wild, but the mountains on the train back to Lanzhou were almost more impressive.


On the way back, we saw a thousand more sheep and yaks, but would you believe it – we never even saw one real-estate office, multinational chain, or Family Mart. Not even a Lawson.

Ride slow, sheep friends.


General Tips

-If you're dependent on coffee, peanut M&Ms, prescription medicine, whatever – bring lots of it. You won't find it here.

-Carry your ID everywhere. Car checks are common.

-English is super limited; dialects are strong.

-Eating halal is easy; a vegetarian diet is possible but more difficult.

-A bee flew in our car window and stung me in the throat. Bring in EpiPen if you have allergies.

Getting There

-Daily Flights from Shanghai to Lanzhou (~ 3 hours)

-Daily Trains from Shanghai to Lanzhou (~11 hours)

-Daily Flights from Shanghai to Xining (~ 3.5 hours but expensive, and usually include a transfer)





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