CHABCHA COUNTY ཆབ་ཆ་རྫོང་། (GONGHE XIAN 共和县)
Sun-Moon Pass 日月山- 3500m
This is the pass you’ll cross on the way from Xining to Qinghai Lake’s south shore or pretty much anywhere from Chabcha to Yushu. Traditionally, this marks the boundary between the settled, more Han- and Hui-influenced regions of China and the nomadic plateau (the town a few kilometers down from the pass has been given the moniker “The First Plateau Town” in an effort to introduce more tourism to this relatively desolate area). When the sun shines, the region around the pass is pretty nice, with several small shrines, climbable mountains, and grasslands stretching to the horizon. Otherwise, there’s really not much here.
Chabcha ཆབ་ཆ། 恰卜恰 (Ch: Gonghe 共和) – 2900m
This large town (which has grown into a small city!), located in a shallow valley which provides shelter from the winds which whip violently across the barren grasslands above, is the prefectural capital of Hainan. As such, it is an important regional hub for transportation and other necessities. And as the home of Qinghai Normal University’s branch campus, it also sees a fair number of young Tibetans starting out on their college degrees (it is common to spend a year here before transferring to Xining). The town’s market areas are bustling, and there are several temples and monasteries above town to the north and east; otherwise, there are no real “sights” here.
Qinghai Lake 青海湖 མཚོ་སྔོན – 3150m
I haven’t actually been here, but I feel like no travel guide to the province would be complete without a mention of its number-one attraction. Apparently, most people love the place (especially on sunny days in midsummer when the rapeseed is blooming, or (if you’re prepared for extreme cold) in the dead of winter when the lake is frozen), but I simply haven’t had the opportunity to get there yet. Keep in mind: the lake is very big, and many people have found the one-day tours a bit rushed (aside from the large amount of bus-sitting). News flash: I finally went here! I’ll update soon.
ZIGORTHANG COUNTY རྩི་གོར་ཐང་རྫོང་། (XINGHAI XIAN 兴海县)
Xinghai 兴海 / Zigortang རྩི་གོར་ཐང – 3300m
This exceedingly friendly but nondescript county town, located amidst vast grasslands to the southwest of Chabcha, is the gateway to the spectacular sacred mountain and monastery of Drakar Tredzong. Clearly visible from Tsigorthang town, this craggy limestone monolith looms over the nomadic grasslands below. You’ll have to charter a car to the monastery, though you can usually find pilgrims with whom you can share the cost of the ride (usually at least 100 元, often more). Take note: while the mountain and entire site are usually called Drakar Tredzong, the monastery (to which cars will take you) is called Serdzong. You will find cars one block south of the main intersection near a small side street filled with friendly Tibetan teahouses.
The 30-kilometer drive to the monastery takes into a deep redrock river gorge before spiraling upwards out of the canyon to reemerge onto flat grasslands. Ascending a low pass, it then drops into a hidden valley behind the Drakar Tredzong mountain itself before finally arriving at the monastery. Located in a narrow valley beneath the sacred mountain’s massive limestone pinnacles, the monastery is surrounded on all sides by high, snowcapped mountains on whose grassy slopes seemingly millions of yaks graze contentedly. The setting is spectacular and idyllic, and it’s a pity that there’s no place to stay in this valley other than the monastery guesthouse (for which you’ll need to speak some Amdo) and your own tent. The monastery itself is beautiful, and the possibilities for hiking and exploring in the region are immense.
The real attraction here, however, is the somewhat strenuous 3-5 hour long kora encircling the entire sacred mountain. Crossing two 4000-meter passes, this is not the easiest of dayhikes (make sure you’re acclimatized), but it is certainly rewarding – and any weariness you have will likely vanish in shame when you see the lines of pilgrims prostrating their way around the entire circuit.
Start the kora on the main road in front of the monastery. Follow the road upvalley past a large stupa before veering off onto a smaller track which clings to the steep cliffs along the river’s right bank. The path then starts to ascend steeply on recently installed stone stairs (at least they’re controlling the erosion) towards a high prayerflagged pass on the ridgeline. Spectacular views of the Xinghai grasslands and beyond open up at this point. Descending, you’ll enter and then contour around a beautiful grassy valley, its smooth slopes cut at their center by a dark and precipitous gorge. In the warmer months, this valley is a popular place for nomads to set up camp, graze their yaks and pick valuable caterpillar fungus. [NOTE: If you approach a nomad tent, make sure you do so with rock in hand; their fierce and frightening dogs are usually untied and will not hesitate to attack].
Continue to contour around the side of the valley below the increasingly steep and impressive cliffs of Drakar Tredzong. Interesting rock formations, including several natural archways, are visible on the mountain above. Eventually, the valley narrows to the point where the cliffs of the canyon below merge with those stretching upwards to the sacred peak, and the path is pinched onto a narrow ledge between the cliffs. Soon, though, the deep canyon veers away and the landscape opens up into the vast grasslands that stretch past Xinghai to the distant Yellow River. After continuing to contour around the base of Drakar Tredzong, you finally begin to ascend the second pass of the circuit. A short way above the base of the ascent, a side path leads through a natural archway and some spectacular miniature slot canyons into a secret clifflined amphitheater with meditation caves and hermitages – some still in use. Returning to the main path, continue your ascent to the pass, where you will see the monastery, sitting in the bottom of its peaceful valley, below – the end of the circuit.
The village below the monastery has several places to eat but no obvious place to stay; unless you have a tent, you’ll probably want to return to Tsigorthang town to find a hotel for the night. The Xinghai Binguan (rooms 60-100元), at the main crossroads, is a relatively good option; don’t be afraid if they run away with you passport at the registration desk, as they only need to copy it at a shop across the street. Several other hotels are similar but more expensive.
Transportation to Xinghai is easy, as numerous buses make the trip between Xining and Xinghai (5 hours, 49 元) from 8am (ish) to 2:30pm. Getting back to Xining, it’s not worth going to the bus station (which is in an outlying area of town); the buses will troll the main street continuously before getting enough passengers to leave (tip: if you want to leave immediately, go a few blocks to the north (uphill) and wait there for the bus). From Xinghai, the last bus to Xining leaves at 12 or 12:30pm. Other buses go to Chabcha and Tongde. You can also take a car to Chabcha or Xining from a random spot around 100m downhill from the main intersection. Additional buses (such as those to Mato, Darlag or Yushu prefecture) will drop you at the Xinghai Lukou 兴海路口 (intersection) on the main highway, from which you can hitch or get a van the 20-odd kilometers into town.