A quartet of must-see wild attractions in China’s high-altitude hinterland
Qilian Mountains: Gorgeous grassland
Skirting the edge of Qinghai Lake, the Qilian Mountains (also known as Nan Shan in Chinese) extend for about 500 miles along the edge of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Summer and early autumn are the best times to visit, when the vast rolling grasslands below the mountains are in full bloom. Bordering Qinghai Lake, the Jintan and Yintan (Gold and Silver) Grasslands are a particular highlight at this time, their lush landscapes carpeted with wild flowers and grazed by meandering herds of sheep and yak. Once home to the Qiang, the ancient forebears of the Tibetans, in more recent times the area was home to China’s atomic weapons programme.
Qinghai Lake: Pearl on the plateau
Qinghai Lake (Qinghai Hu in Chinese, Tso Ngonpo to Tibetans) is famed for its clear, turquoise waters, and is widely known across China as the ‘Pearl of Qinghai’. Sitting at an altitude of 10,500ft and ringed by snow-dusted peaks, it extends over 1,500sq miles, making it China’s largest inland body of water. “Buddhist people believe that Qinghai Lake is holy, so it attracts many pilgrims from Tibet, Qinghai and Mongolia,” says Xining-based Tibetan guide Tashi Samdup. “You can often see people circumventing the shoreline on a sacred kora (path), prostrating themselves next to the water.” The lake is also famous for its bird population. Situated on the lake’s western shore, Bird Island is an amazing spectacle in the summer months, as tens of thousands gather to breed.
Chaka Salt Lake: Saline splendour
Chaka Lake is China’s very own take on Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. This shimmering, oval salt lake sits at an elevation of over 9,840ft and covers 40sq miles. Known as the ‘mirror in the sky’, it’s ringed by mountains and verdant grassland, its shallow waters reflect everything with stunning clarity. There’s salt everywhere at Chaka Lake: on the hills and rocks around the lake, on the salt-encrusted beaches and paths, and on everyone’s feet (visitors are given the option to buy lightweight plastic boots for walking out onto the lake surface). Meaning ‘saline lake’ in Tibetan, Chaka is one of several salt lakes in the area, which has a long history of salt production. A visit to the lake is particularly recommended at sunrise and sunset.
Kanbula National Forest Park: Dramatic day trip
A dramatic area of weathered red sandstone, overlooking a reservoir on the headwaters of the mighty Yellow River, the park is famous for heavily eroded geology, pristine nature and Buddhist temples. With numerous paths and trails, it’s easily explored on foot. Covering nearly 60sq miles, Kanbula’s rock forms are a major attraction, with columns, cliffs, and tabletop mesas carved naturally from the sandstone karst landscape. These are particularly impressive at sunrise or sunset, when they appear to glow, and many of the more curiously shaped examples have been given names: Scissors Rock, the Waiting-For-Husband Cliff, the Stone Bamboo Shoot and the Fairies’ Get-Together are a few of the more imaginative titles.