Throughout history, Qinghai Lake has been known variously as the "West Sea" or "Fresh Sea." In Mongolian, the lake is called Kukuruo'er, and in Tibetan, Cuowenbo, both of which means "Blue Sea." Home to the Bei and Qiang ethnic nationalities in ancient times, it was also known as "Bei Qiang Sea".
It is located in the northeastern corner of the Tibetan Plateau, about 100 kilometers west of Xining, the provincial capital of Qinghai Province. During the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-9 AD), the people called it the "Immortal Sea." It wasn’t until the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-533) and onward that it has been known under its present name of Qinghai Lake.
This exquisite lake is even more incredible due to its environment, surrounded by high mountains: to the north stands the magnificent Datong Mountain; to the east, the lofty and majestic Sun-and-Moon Mountain; to the south, the serpentine Qinghai South Mountain; and to the west, the steep and rugged Rubber Mountain. Qinghai Lake lies a breathtaking 3,200 meters above sea level, and with a perimeter of 360 kilometers, it is the largest salt-water lake in China, covering an area of some 4,600 square kilometers.
Qinghai Lake receives its water from 23 rivers that empty into it, and there are 2 additional, albeit quite small, lakes to the east: Gahai Lake, a saltwater lake covering an area of over 10 square kilometers; and Erhai Lake, a freshwater lake covering an area of some 4 square kilometers. Panning in a circle on the banks of Qinghai Lake on a typical summer's day, one sees the deep-green mountains in the distance that encircle a shiny green belt of grass with the bluish lake in the center. Between the mountains and the lake, the land is an open, flat prairie, a perfect pasture for the grazing of yaks, camels, and sheep. As well, one will certainly see flocks of white sheep—and the tents of the herdsmen who tend them—dotting the sea of grass that surrounds the lake.
From summer to early autumn, the prairie is a lush green carpet. Thereafter, the fields of oilseed rape ripen to a bright yellow, spreading a sweet scent in the air. The fields intersperse with the grass, creating a breathtakingly beautiful patchwork of yellows and greens that contrast sharply with the blues of the sky and the lake. The climate on the prairie is mild, though in winter, the mountains are covered in snow. This is a magical landscape indeed for even the most seasoned traveler.
For visitors, the most noteworthy attraction at Qinghai Lake is the famous Bird Island bird refuge. It is situated northwest of the lake and covers an area of slightly less than 1 square kilometer, yet it is the transitory home to countless numbers of migratory birds which arrive here from Southern China and Southeast Asia. Such birds include the spotted head wild goose, brown head wild goose, fish gull, red sheldrake, cormorants, and black-neck crane.
In season (May-June), there are more than 100,000 birds that inhabit this small island to nest, lay eggs, hatch, and raise their young. For the avid bird-watcher, Bird Island is certainly a paradise, but even the inexperienced bird watcher cannot help being impressed with the sheer numbers of creatures that gather here. Their constant buzz of activity and the echo of their mating calls, bickering over territory, and shrill cries of their hungry offspring connect the listener with the wonders of the natural world.
Mount Haixin, south of Qinghai Lake, is another scenic site belonging to the lake district. It is roughly 2 kilometers long and 1 kilometer wide, and only a mere 8 meters higher than the surface of the lake itself. According to ancient legend, Mount Haixin produced dragon colts. There is indeed something larger-than-life about this big sky corner of the world where the verdant land is expansive, the blue lake resembles an ocean, and the clear blue sky seems endless.
The geographic status of Qinghai Lake, which for years had contracted (although as of 2004 it has begun to expand again), has been of equal concern to China as well as to international conservationists. The Chinese government has accordingly launched a number of studies to determine the role of the lake as a natural habitat for flora and fauna, including birds and fishes.
Chinese authorities have discovered that the area is also rich in mineral resources. Besides being a sanctuary for winter birds that hatch their young here, Qinghai Lake is the largest natural fish reservoir in all of Northwest China. Every April and May, massive numbers of fish swim to the nearby rivers to spawn. The lake, and especially the area around Buha Estuary, is rich in the edible huang ("yellow") fish. The surface of the lake is sometimes yellow from the heavy presence of huang fish as they writhe, leap, and cavort about in mating behavior.
To this day, there live a large number of ethnic groups around Qinghai Lake and whose existence is dependent on the future of this rich resource. These include Han, Mongolian, and Zang (also known as Tibetan) ethnic groups. They are all united in the single aim of protecting the lake and the land which surrounds it, while at the same time harvesting the area's fruits and taking advantage of the various economic opportunities that the lake and its immediate environs offer.
These activities include tourism, for the area is becoming increasingly popular as an alternative tourist destination for the hands-on, outdoors-oriented visitor who seeks a closer communion with nature and with the local people who reside in such a milieu. The area has of course always been popular with bird watchers, and will continue to do so as long as the lake can provide the refuge that the birds require.
For the hands-on traveler, activities such as roaming the grasslands—either by horse, camel, or yak—and climbing seemingly endless sand dunes are rewarding experiences that also offer the opportunity to meet the indigenous peoples of this unique region. Part of these cultural observations include Tibetan herdsmen, seeing how they live, tasting what they eat, and more. In addition, for all visitors, from bird watchers to hands-on types to more traditional visitors, the Department of Tourism of Qinghai Province oversees the setting up of special market tents where one may sample various local food items such as milk tea, ghee (a clarified butter that originated on the Indian subcontinent), chow mein, and barley wine, to name a few, all the while taking in the immense expanse of this ruggedly beautiful, big sky country.