The provincial capital and only real city of vast, remote Qinghai province, Xining is still viewed by most travelers as a necessary stopover on the golden (rail)road to Lhasa, a place which serves as a backdrop as you wait for your Tibet permits to be arranged. For better or for worse, this Tibet tunnel-vision prevents many visitors from experiencing this truly enjoyable city. Though it’s not going to dazzle you with its A-list attractions or its spectacular architectural beauty (as elsewhere, the Chinese obsession with white-tile and concrete predominates), Xining’s relaxed atmosphere, pleasant scenery, excellent food, and fascinating ethnic diversity – not to mention its unusually friendly populace and (for China) relatively clean environment – make it a great and surprisingly relaxing place to spend a few days.
Located at the northeastern edge of the Tibetan plateau at an altitude of 2250 meters, Xining lies in the narrow valley of the Huang Shui 湟水 river. Propelled by the government’s ongoing “Develop the West” campaign, the city is quickly expanding, but the steep barren hills ringing the valley continue to limit development to the valley floor, leaving the surrounding mountains as parks and countryside – an easy escape from the city. Xining’s industrial zones have also been moved to outlying Datong, leaving the valley’s air quality relatively good for a city of nearly two million. Xining’s diverse population – a mixture of Hui and Salar Muslims, Han Chinese, Tibetans, and other ethnicities such as Tu and Mongol – reflects its origins as a trading post for people of several distinct cultures.
Founded in 121 BC as a military camp on the edge of the Chinese empire, Xining quickly became a commercial center for people of the region’s diverse cultures. By the Tang dynasty, the city had become not only an important Silk Road stopover, but (with its location on the edge of the Tibetan plateau) the main staging post for trading routes to Tibet – a role it retains today.