Xining is the capital city of Qinghai Province, which is situated on the northeastern part of the Tibetan plateau, and full of many different cultures of China’s minority groups like the Han Chinese, Tibetans, and Muslim Hui, Salar, & Uyghur people, reflecting its past as part of the northern Silk Road route. Although it was too cold to visit most of the nearby scenic nature spots, I still planned to spend a few days exploring Xining before heading off to Tibet. Qinghai, for some reason, has always seemed interesting to me.
I also thought it would be a good place to acclimate a little, as the city is at 2275m/7,460ft. I stayed at Lete Youth Hostel, and had the place basically to myself since it was very much the off-season. The first day, I did nothing but sleep. When I ventured out on the second day, it was snowing! My first snowfall in China.
Dongguan & Nanguan Grand Mosques
The first place I set out to visit was the Dongguan Grand Mosque. More than 1/3 of Xining’s population is Muslim, so it has many mosques about the city; however, this is one of the largest in all of China, drawing tens of thousands of worshippers at peak times. The Mosque indeed was very large, and nearby were tons of little shops and restaurants with delicious Chinese Muslim food. I stopped in one called Zhenya Niuroumian which has a famous “gan banmian”, or dry mixed noodles. They definitely didn’t disappoint! They flavor was awesome, and the soup it came with was hot and peppery. I next bought a huge sesame roasted bread from a nearby vendor which was super huge and delicious. All the food definitely hit the spot. I realized this was my first time actually visiting a mosque, and I have to admit I’m not too familiar with the culture, and wasn’t sure if I was allowed to go in, being a non-Muslim, so I just took photos from the outside. Later upon more research though, I figured out I could have walked around in the mosque’s outer courtyard, so I determined to go back.
My last day in Xining, I went to visit Nanguan Mosque, which I thought was even more beautiful than the first, with its white facade, golden details, and intricate architecture. I walked all around its outer courtyard area, then made my way back to Dongguan Grand Mosque, where this time, several Chinese police were posted outside the entrance. After inferring as to whether I could go in, I was told to come back tomorrow because no one was inside, although I could literally see people in there. Disappointed, I went back to Zhenya Niuroumian for noodles that were even better than the first time! After, while walking around the neighboring market streets, I found the mosque’s side entrance, that I had seen before, wide open, so I followed the locals in and finally got to see more of the mosque. A bunch of old men with the characteristic white caps and grey beards were slowly entering the mosque, chatting amongst themselves, and upon reflection, I thought they might be starting their evening prayers soon, so I left, happy though that I had gotten to see it.
Walking home, I again passed Nanguan Mosque, which was now beautifully illuminated in the slowly setting light, with a full moon in the background. A very surreal moment to observe, as the prayer songs started, and even more white-capped men rushed in, late for prayers, evidently.
Another day, I went to visit the Kumbum Monastery, which, a little outside of Xining, is one of the most important monasteries of the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism, built in 1557, and still home to hundreds of monks. I took Bus 909, for 4元 driving for one hour outside the city, then walking another 600m to arrive at the monastery. It was FREEZING there! -10C with light snowfall, and I thought I might freeze to death at first. It got better when my appendages just went numb. After buying a big bread from a Tibetan lady for 2元, and my entrance ticket from a monk for 40元 (student price!), I entered and was instantly impressed!
First, I was the only foreigner I saw all day (not that I’d seen any others in Xining either), and most of the people there in general were Tibetans, likely on pilgrimage there for the upcoming New Year. Lots of cute old Tibetans in traditional dress, accompanied by their very modern-attired grandchildren. The temple areas and buildings themselves were beautifully designed and colored, and the light snowfall with monks strolling around gave it a surreal atmosphere.
The first temple I went to, the Dharma protector temple, left the greatest impression. No photos allowed anywhere inside so I tried to keep a good mental image of the scene. Going in, it was a square courtyard with a path down the middle and two incense burners, one on each side. The incense had a unique smell, and upon closer look, juniper seeds and twigs were burning. The temple was two stories, with the upper balcony full of stuffed dead animals native to the region, including yak, deer, and antelope-looking-things, eagles, wolves, and even a leopard. Over the main worshipping space hung a white cloth banner with black deer facing each other. What really set the mood was a monk in the corner banging this very tribal sounding drum and singing some tune in a very low voice. I really felt like I had stepped back in time, or into some movie scene, or was somewhere deep in the Himalayas where traditional life had been left untouched by modern times. The scene was surreal, and I hope never to forget it. The smoke wafting up as snowflakes fell down also added to the atmosphere in a way I just can’t explain.
Next I followed a Tibetan family & crimson robed monk up snow covered paths to a beautiful mandala. In every temple and hall, it’s respectful to walk in a clockwise circle called kora, keeping the center on your right, and I observed many faithful Tibetans doing kora around holy places, swinging their prayer wheels clockwise as well, or counting prayers on their prayer beads. Moving on to the main halls, which were full of pilgrims prostrating and the most intricate artwork like thangka and carpets, I met a young Tibetan boy and his sister at the monastery with their dad, who wanted to take a photo with me. In another temple area, I had to climb up wooden stairs to the upper section of the temple. I was the only one there, and the silence was stirring. Another area housed the most detailed ‘yak butter sculptures’, which are literally made out of butter. I did a little more wandering, then finally took the bus back to Xining after a long & cold day.
Qinghai Province Museum
Since it was so cold in Xining, I opted for some indoor activities, like the Qinghai Province Museum. The exhibits downstairs had to do with the province’s recent economic development, as well as future goals for Qinghai’s social, economic, and ecological development. I found it pretty cool to learn more about the province, which although has experienced much growth in the last few years still remains one of China’s least developed areas. I also learned a lot more about the ecological importance of Qinghai, as 3 of China’s main rivers flow through its tall mountains and grasslands, which are full of rare and unique wildlife species. Thankfully, much of Qinghai Province has restrictions on certain activities to conserve its wildlife and wilderness; however, the province is also rich in natural resources, so it will be interesting to see how conservation and extraction will be balanced. Also interesting to me, the museum discussed advances in infrastructure development, as well as social and rural development.
In addition, the museum had sections devoted to Tibetan art from the Ming & Qing Dynasty period, like thangka, mandala, and bronze statues of Buddha, monks, and dharma protectors. Another section celebrated Xining’s “intangible cultural heritage” of its many ethnic minorities. The exhibits were fairly informative (if you can read Chinese), and not too overlain with the usual propaganda — simply an explanation of artistic and religious facts, which was nice. All in all, it was interesting to learn more about Qinghai Province.
I had a great time during my few days in Xining learning about so many unique and different cultures, although the freezing weather discouraged me from spending a lot of time outside walking around. I took it easy during my time there, catching up on sleep and drinking lots of hot water for both the altitude and dry climate. The city itself seemed sparsely populated, but I soon discovered all the people when I stumbled into an underground shopping area. The city is very small, so its easy to get around, and is surprisingly modern, with a nice new train station and many new high rises. It’s clear that Xining’s development is on the rise. I hope to be back in Xining one day, hopefully in the summer to explore more of Qinghai’s vast natural beauty! From Xining, I boarded my overnight train to Lhasa, traveling hundreds of kilometers on the world’s highest railway across the Tibetan Plateau.