One of the most offbeat provinces in all of China, Qinghai occupies a great stretch of land larger than any European country. Its Han Chinese hold the majority just barely, with Tibetan coming in a very close second. In fact, to Tibetans, this is the land of Amdo, one of old Tibet’s traditional provinces, and you’ll certainly notice it doesn’t much feel like the Middle Kingdom here, a place where stunning and rugged vistas of high altitude plateaus are sprinkled with monasteries, yak herds and Tibetan and Muslim nomads setting up camp under the star-filled skies.Make no mistake, Qinghai, still very much a frontier land of China, is rough going and not for the lighthearted, comfort-addicted, or the lazy. But those adventurers and outdoor lovers, or those looking for some solitude and some spirituality inside a breathtakingly rugged land, will find it all and more in Qinghai.
Qinghai has historically been a battleground between the Han dynasties of China and the Tibetan kingdoms, especially during the years of the Tang Dynasty (618- 907 CE). But the Chinese and Tibetans weren’t the only ones after Qinghai. The Mongolian invasion in the 13th century saw large parts of the region, mostly the traditional Tibetan area of Amdo, fall under the rule of the great Khans of the Yuan Dynasty.
During the short-lived reign of the Mongols, groups of Muslims from Samarkand in present day Uzbekistan began migrating to the area. These people, known as the Salars, grew in number, and now they even have their own autonomous region within Qinghai, known as the Xunhua Salar Autonomous County.
For the hundreds of years that followed, pieces of Qinghai fell in and out of Mongolian, Tibetan and Han control, weaving an intricate quilt of ethnicities and cultures. For a short time after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, the region even fell under control of the Chinese Muslim warlord Ma Qi. Later, in 1932, Tibet invaded Qinghai to regain control of lost lands.
However, it wasn’t until 1949 that the Chinese Communist Party consolidated control of the area after a victory over the KMT Nationalists. Qinghai was declared an official province in 1950, but for the next decade ethnic rebellions continued from the Hui’s KMT Islamic insurgency. In the 1980s, the government finally granted the Hui an autonomous prefecture, and since then uprisings have (for the most part) settled down.
Since Qinghai has fallen under the reign of various cultures, the people are a great mixture of DNA, culture and heritage. When traveling extensively throughout Qinghai, you may feel like you’re crossing the boundaries of different countries. Some areas may feel more Uighur and Islamic, while some parts are more Tibetan and Buddhist, and others could include pockets of Mongolians, Salars, Hui or Yugur (another Turkic ethnicity that is not to be confused with Uighur). Luckily, apart from their native languages, just about everyone can speak Mandarin, so you don’t have to brush up on your Yugur verb conjugations just yet.