Northwestern China is the Yukon Province of PRC.
It’s a lot less developed than the coastal part of the country where I grew up. Nobody goes to northwestern China expecting a Maldives vacation. It’s a solid amount of road travel, fierce gusts of wind, hours and hours of gobi* desert populated only by dusty thorny shrubs, tiny hotel rooms and the dry climate. It’s mysterious rather than desolate, quiet rather than bleak, spacious rather than lonely, breathtaking rather than stifling.
It’s little infrastructure and convenience, but you don’t go to northwestern China for a decent washroom or a luxurious hotel.
You go there for the wind, for the mysterious feeling of a certain type of ancient sorrow, Edgar Allen Poe’s “lost Lenore”, and “nevermore”.
There is the Silk Road- the ancient network of trade routes connecting the East and West- the ancient capital of China, the UNESCO world heritage- the Mogao caves, the lakes and the tibetan buddhist temples. There is also the people, who move you more than the wind moved the sand and dust which formed the peculiarly shaped rocks of the Yardangs*, hundreds of years ago.
Northwestern China include the provinces Gansu, Qinghai, Shanxi, Xinjiang, Ningxia and Inner Mongolia.
This time we decided to travel the vicinity of Qinghai Lake, one of the most iconic natural sites in the region, so we were only in Qinghai and Gansu.
Xining- the City
We landed in Xining, the capital city of Qinghai province. Xining is an amazing city with lots of local food, and starting our trip there took away my worries about weird food and shady hotels.
I will make a post dedicated to just the food there.
Ta’er Temple- the Pistil of the Eight Petal Lotus
The next day, we went to Ta’er Temple（塔尔寺）, otherwise known as Kumbum Monastery. It’s the second most important temple in Tibetan Buddhism (the first is Lhasa). It is the birthplace of Tsongkapha, one of the greatest figures in tibetan buddhism. He was the teacher of the first Panchen Lama and the first Dalai Lama.
Ta’er Temple does live up to all the sacredness boasted by local legends. Our tour guide told us that after the temple was constructed, people realized that it’s surrounded by eight hills, as if in the center of a lotus flower.
Our tour guide Drolma was an amazing lady. A tibetan buddhist herself, she is beautiful and amiable, with just the right amount of sass required by her job. She was shy about her tanned skin, but in our eyes she was beyond pretty.
And the first time the religious richness of northwestern China really struck me, was when I saw the tibetan buddhist people doing full body kowtows at the temple.
They take at least two months out of a year to do 100,000 full body kowtows, a gesture of reverence in Buddhism. For the elderly, it would take up to six months.
Qinghai Lake- the Cyan Sea
Qinghai Lake means “the Cyan Sea” in Mandarin. The largest lake in China, it has a surface area of 4,317 square km.
It is phenomenally blue, but when you walk closer, it turns a baby blue.
e careful when you decide where to hop off and go take photos near the lake. There are different tourism spots along Qinghai Lake, and the views from these various spots are essentially the same. However, some of them charge you more, and some of them offer more things to do. Where we got off, they charged us 50 RMB per person, and the place smelled horrible because there were horses nearby.
During our time on the road, we came across a yak yogurt stand.
Qinghai is famous for its yogurt. Their yogurt is thick like Greek yogurt, but not sticky at all. The texture is more life tofu.
At first I couldn’t quite place its taste, because all I could think of was how this is yak yogurt instead of cow yogurt. But after we added some sugar (the six of us needed almost a whole tub of sugar), I started to understand (for lack of better words) its very special taste.
First of all, like I said, it’s super thick and not sticky at all, so that’s new.
Second of all, there isn’t any weird smell, even though it’s dairy made of an animal most of us are unfamiliar with.
Also, the yellowish liquid (it’s not as gross as it sounds) balances out the dry sourness, and sugar surely makes everything a whole lot better.
It was a very Tibetan experience, and the lady selling the yogurt was very nice, so we all somehow reached the consensus that it tasted great.
Next time you go to Tibet and its vicinity, give their yak milk products a shot and let me know what you think! For me, yak yogurt was a good experience, but derping around on a pasture like a yak myself was much more fun.
Hei Ma He Town- the Tents
At night, we arrived at Hei Ma He, a town near Qinghai Lake, where Mongolian yurts (a tent-like structure) seem to go on and on. These are the local hotels geared mainly towards tourists from other provinces.
The tents are right by the lake, and tourists usually choose these “hotels” to watch the sunrise at Qinghai Lake in the morning.
HOWEVER, something happened during the night and we didn’t see the sunrise… but we’re saving that for the next post.
Definitions from Wikipedia
*Gobi:A large desert region in Asia. It covers parts ofnorthern and northwestern China, and of southern Mongolia.
*Yardang: A streamlined protuberance carved from bedrock or any consolidated or semiconsolidated material by the dual action of wind abrasion by dust and sand, and deflation which is the removal of loose material by wind turbulence. Yardangs become elongated features typically three or more times longer than wide, and when viewed from above, resemble the hull of a boat.