Xining Travel Guide

Written by Sally Guo Updated Oct. 13, 2021

Xining, the capital city of Qinghai Province, lies on the banks of the Huang Shui River, one of the headwaters of the Huang (Yellow) River. The city and its surroundings are situated in a high, hilly valley, bordered by mountains - the Qilian Mountains - in the northeastern quadrant of Qinghai Province. The valley floor in question lies at an average altitude of 2200 meters above sea level on the eastern edge of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, while the city of Xining lies about 100 kilometers due east of Lake Qinghai. The Huangshui River, as it is most commonly written, originates in the Qilian Mountains (the river is in no way connected to lake Qinghai) and runs east-southeastward through the Huangshui River Valley, emptying into the Yellow River some 25 kilometers, as the crow flies, west of the city of Lanzhou, Gansu Province. Another, more straightforward way to describe the topography of the region is to say that it resembles another Shangri-La.


Since the times of the Xia (BCE 2000-1500) and Shang (BCE 1700-1027) Dynasties there have existed ancient ethnic peoples in the area of present-day Xining, some of whom belonged to the ancient - but still existing - Qiang ethnic group (one of China's 56 officially recognized ethnic groups), while others belonged to the now-defunct Di ethnic group, whose members have long since become assimilated into other ethnic Chinese cultures (genetic evidence suggests that the Baima ethnic group of southeastern Gansu Province and northwestern Sichuan Province incorporate DNA material from the Di ethnic family, while other ethnic groups of present-day Sichuan Province also bear traces of genetic material from the Di). Moreover, the Han Chinese are believed to be descendants of the ancient Di ethnic group.

The Lajia archaeological site, located on the Huangshui River some 30 kilometers east-southeast of present-day Xining in the Huangshui River Valley near the present-day city of Haidong, has the distinction of being the birthplace of noodles, albeit, noodles made of millet instead of wheat. Among a plethora of other artifacts, an earthenware pot containing a meal of noodles was discovered at Lajia in the year 2000 by Professor Houyuan Lu of the Institute of Geology and Geophysics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, and Professor Kam-biu Liu of Louisiana State University in the U.S. The archeological team believes that the site was abandoned in great haste, as witnessed by the helter-skelter placement of the skeletal remains of the humans. Specifically, the team believes that there had been a major earthquake in the area, followed by massive flooding of the river valley, and the flooding took the residents of the settlement by surprise, with little or no chance of escape to higher ground, in much the same way that a tsunami might produce the same effect along with coastal communities today.


About 2000 years ago, or during the Han (BCE 206 - CE 220) Dynasty, present-day Xining became an important stop-over along the Silk Road. Besides the division into a northern and a southern Silk Road route between the cities of Dunhuang (Gansu Province) in the east and Kashgar (the present-day city of Kaxgar/ Kashi in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) in the west (there was actually a third, more northerly route beginning farther east in the city of Anxi (present-day Guazhou, Gansu Province) to the city of Kokand in present-day Uzbekistan), there were countless alternative local routes for practically all of the Silk Road, excluding perhaps the two main Silk Road routes between Dunhuang and Kashgar, as these followed the northern and southern perimeters of the Taklamakan Desert, which is bordered by mountains both to the north (the Tianshan Mountains) and the south (the Kunlun Mountains), a harsh natural environment that permitted little or no local variation in routes.

However, in the area around northeastern Qinghai Province - southwestern Gansu Province, there were two such local routes, one of which skirted northward around the Qilian Mountains, beginning in the city of Lanzhou, the capital of present-day Gansu Province, then passed through the city of Wuwei and on to the city of Zhangye, both cities located as well in Gansu Province, and a southern route through the Qilian Mountains, from Lanzhou to Xining, along the Huangshui River Valley, then northeastward to Zhangye, where it linked up with the northern route. This local southern route is to this day the only route through the Qilian Mountains. The northerly route via Wuwei crossed two different sections of the Great Wall, the ruins of which still stand (to the north of these sections of the Great Wall lies the Gobi Desert, home to the barbarians and the raison d'être for the construction of the Great Wall).

Emperor Wudi of the Western Han (BCE 206 - CE 009) Dynasty (he reigned from BCE 140-87) established a fortress in the area of Xining, from which bridgehead the surrounding territory was slowly brought under Imperial Chinese control. Imperial Chinese control over the area continued to expand, though not in any recognizably linear fashion, for the next several centuries. More area was added to the realm during the Sui (CE 581-617) Dynasty. Nomadic Tibetan tribes had long since made forays into the area, and during the 3rd century CE a Tibetan chieftain set up a kingdom in Qinghai in his name, the Tuyuhun Kingdom (CE 284-636), which lasted for several centuries outside the sphere of Imperial China.

During the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty, the famous Tibetan ruler who is credited with having brought Buddhism to the Tibetan people, Songtsän Gampo, set up the Tubo Kingdom (ca. CE 640-842) in Tibet, a kingdom that reached into much of the area of present-day Qinghai Province (as indicated, Imperial Chinese rule of Qinghai was not exactly an uninterrupted, linear affair). After a good deal of hostilities between the Tang Dynasty and the Tubo Kingdom, Princess Wencheng, the niece of Emperor Taizong (whose reign was from CE 627-649,) was given in marriage to Songtsän Gampo, and though Imperial China had for a time lost much of Qinghai Province, peace reigned between Imperial China and Tibet.

The peace began to crumble after Songtsän Gampo's death, but an uneasy peace remained in place until the Tubo Kingdom fell in CE 842, and in the centuries following this, Imperial China would again wield influence over Qinghai, and Han Chinese culture would spread throughout the area, although many ethnic enclaves were allowed to flourish, as elsewhere in Imperial China. It was during the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty that the name Xining first appeared when the village cum city had become a prefecture-level city. But Xining and much of Qinghai would later be overrun by Mongol hordes, though it would again revert to Imperial Chinese rule when the grandson of Ghengis Khan, Kublai Khan, became the first Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty emperor, Emperor Shizu (whose reign was from CE 1260-1294).

More rebellion would follow during the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty, but by the time of the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty, relative peace had finally been established, with Tibetan tribes living alongside Mongolian tribes, peppered with a smattering of smaller ethnic groups here and there, including ethnic Hui Muslims. In the post-Imperial period, the Northern Warlords (they were mostly Hui Muslims) ruled much of the area, with the city of Xining as an important military base. This arrangement was eventually accepted by the rather weak Kuomintang government, with which some of the warlords enjoyed loose cooperation. After the Chinese Communist Party prevailed over the Kuomintang, the government of the People's Republic of China made short shrift of the warlords of Qinghai Province.

Xining in Modern Times

Xining has a number of nearby attractions as well as a few that are located slightly farther afield, but still within visiting distance of Xining. In the nearby village of Huangzhong, which itself is located on the mountain ridge that rims the Huangshui River Valley to the south - and about a 30-minute drive up a steep incline - lies one of the two most important Tibetan Buddhist (Lamaist) monasteries outside Tibet: Ta'er (Kumbum, in Tibetan) Monastery, the site of the Gelug (Yellow Hat) sect of Tibetan Buddhism.

The present-day city of Haidong, some 30 kilometers east of Xining, as indicated, is the site of the Lajia archaeological finds (the site of the world's first noodles), while at present-day Ledu, some 30 kilometers farther east of Haidong lies Qutan Temple, dedicated to Gautama, or Sakyamuni, Buddha.

About 100 kilometers west of Xining lies Lake Qinghai with many attractions besides the remarkable lake itself, including Bird Island on the western shore of the lake. Roughly midway between Xining and Lake Qinghai, on highway G109, lies Riyue Mountain, aka Sun & Moon Mountain, which is worth a visit, and about 600 kilometers northwest of Xining lies the ancient city of Dunhuang, with its world-famous - and UNESCO protected - grottoes. Roundabout Lake Qinghai, China's largest inland salt lake, is a thick carpet of stunningly beautiful rolling grasslands, a feature that down through the centuries attracted both Tibetan and Mongolian herdsmen and their flocks of sheep, goats, and horses.

Xining enjoys cool summers, making it a popular place for active tourists. The city has its fair share of restaurants serving various ethnic (Han Chinese, Tibetan, Mongolian, etc.) dishes - including the justly famous Sichuan Cuisine - as well as foreign food (everything from pizzas to Kentucky Fried Chicken). With its beautiful surroundings, its ideal weather, and its rich history, Xining is an exciting off-the-beaten-path place to visit, and in spite of its modern touch, the city is not overly touristy.

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