Xining (西宁), Qinghai Province
Xining, like Lanzhou, Changsha and the other provincial capitals I’ve seen, is a pretty generic Chinese city. But like the province it represents, Xining definitely reflects the greater ethnic diversity of western China. The monstrously huge mosque is surrounded by a lively Muslim quarter. The city’s largest market sells a vast array of local snacks, some quite different from anything I’ve seen elsewhere in China. Many tourists will end up in Xining only in transit to another destination. But the rich blend of cultures and the exciting day trips around the city make it possible to enjoy a longer stay.
Sites in Xining
Mosque & Muslim Quarter
Xining’s giant Dongguan Mosque stands at the heart of the city’s Muslim district. Non-Muslims can enter the mosque complex, but as you cannot enter the prayer hall, the amount you can actually see is limited. Much more interesting is to wander the streets around the mosque, which are filled with Hui Muslim vendors selling cuts of meat, yak butter, Xinjiang fruits and a vast array of funky, mostly inedible breads.
Entrance to the mosque costs 15 RMB. It is located on Dongguan Dajie, west of Gonghe Lu. Walk around the back of the mosque to reach the Muslim neighborhood.
Xining Provincial Museum
The museum has a few decent exhibits of Tibetan art and is worth a visit if you’re in Xining. Unfortunately, the captions and other information displays are not especially informative. In particular, this is the home to the worst museum exhibit I have ever seen: In a gallery dedicated to textiles, stuffed-animal sheep stand on a large patch of astroturf. Welcome to “How Tibetan Carpets are Made.” If you’re spending a significant amount of time in Qinghai or Gansu, you will see comparable and/or better works of art closer to the source, in monasteries and temples.
Entrance to the museum is free, but you still need to pick up a ticket from the window outside the main entrance. It is located in the western part of the city, on Xining Guangchang. Take bus 22 to Xining Guangchang.
Day trips from Xining
The Xining area has a variety of day trip options. Besides those listed below, consider a trip to Qinghai Lake or the Kumbum Monastery. The Lete Hostel’s travel agency also has information about several nearby nature reserves.
The temples of the Youning Si monastery are embedded into the side of a mountain, amid dense green forests. The setting alone creates a spiritual, even mystic, atmosphere. The monks here live seem to live a relatively solitary existence, spending most of their time tending to a single temple, a walk away from any of their peers. But when guests arrived, they were some of the chattiest monks we encountered on this trip. One man collects foreign currency from tourists, so if you have any wacky bills in your pack, bring them along.
To get to Youning Si, you must first take one of the frequent buses to Ping’an (7 RMB, 1 hour). At Ping’an, hail a cab and negotiate a price for the round-trip journey to the monastery. We agreed to pay 150 RMB for a ride to both Youning Si and the Dalai Lama’s Birthplace.
Dalai Lama’s Birthplace
Our visit to Youning Si was supposed to be combined with a trip to the birthplace of the current Dalai Lama. He was born in the village of Taktser, on a mountaintop near Ping’an. We quickly found a cab driver who knew the route, which follows rocky dirt roads up the mountainside. But as soon as we stepped into the complex that has been built around the birthplace, we were firmly ushered out again. The panicked caretaker informed us that foreigners were not allowed to enter. He urged us to leave as quickly as possible, before someone made a phone call. Not wanting to get anyone into trouble, we hightailed it out of the village. Once we’d driven five or 10 minutes away, we stopped long enough to snap a few photos and then kept going. For the rest of the day, my heart beat a little faster every time we saw police officers.
Shuijing Xiang Market
The Shuijing Xiang Market (水井巷商场) is huge, with sections dedicated to meat, fresh fruit, dried fruit, nuts, you name it. It also has a wide array of hot food stalls, making it a great place to stop for lunch on your way back from the provincial museum. This is a good place to sample the Xining version of rou jia bing or bai niang pi (拜酿皮), the weirdly glutinous cold noodle dish at right.
The market is located southeast of the West Gate and sprawls across several streets.
Like its sister cafe in Langmusi, Xining’s Amdo Cafe sells coffee, hot chocolate and real Western baked goods. They have an even wider selection of woolen crafts made by local families.
The cafe is located just west of Bei Dajie on Datong Jie. Coffee and a baked good will cost around 15 RMB.
Lete International Youth Hostel
Finally! An accommodation in western China I can endorse. After less-than-ideal rooming situations in Xiahe and Tongren, it was a huge relief to walk into the Lete Youth Hostel in Xining. The clean rooms and pleasant cafe are instantly comfortable, particularly after two weeks of mild roughing it. The only downside to the hostel is the almost shocking shortage of bathrooms. The bathrooms are one per floor, with the toilet and shower in the same room so that two people can’t use it at the same time. But if they added more bathrooms, it might be a perfect hostel.
The hostel is attached to the Tibetan Connections travel agency, which organizes trips to Tibet and is a good source for travel advice. Their day trip prices are a little out-of-this-world, however — if you want to go to Qinghai Lake, try shopping around.
Dorm beds are 35 RMB per night. The hostel is located on the 16th and 17th floors of of the No. 5 building in the Guoji Cun Gongyu (国际村公寓, International Village Apartments). You can book rooms at Hostelworld.
Xining is part of the rail network, so you can get here from pretty much anywhere in China. Buses connect the city with Tongren (5 hours, 32.50), Lanzhou, Xiahe, and Hezuo (a transit point for Langmusi). The bus and train stations are located near each other in the northeast of the city.
Xining is a stop on the train line to Lhasa and is a popular starting-off point for travelers to Tibet. You will need to contact a local travel agency, such as Tibetan Connections, to set up the necessary paperwork and hire a guide. While the paperwork is being processed, you will need to kill a few days in Xining. In addition to the sites above, consider spending a night in Tongren.