Xining’s most famous site is likely the Dongguan Grand Mosque (Dongguan Qingzhen Dasi 东关清真大寺), which is the largest in the province and the main mosque for the city’s more than half-million Hui Muslims. The exterior structure is a 1980’s Arabian-nights-meets-Disneyland construction replete with brilliantly tacky multicolored flashing neon lights. Enter through the gate below its towering minarets, however, and you will find a peaceful courtyard within which lies the mosque building itself, a Chinese style structure originally dating from 1380. The mosque is open every day but Friday; however, Friday is by far the most interesting day to visit the surrounding area, when the majority-Muslim population takes the day off work and crowds the nearby markets and parks. Come around 12:30 or 1pm on Friday and you will see the entire area come to a screeching halt as thousands of white-capped men pull out their prayer rugs, turn towards Mecca, and get down to pray in the middle of the streets.
For many visitors, a highlight of Xining is the surprisingly well-organized Tibetan Medicine Museum 藏族医学博物馆 (60 yuan; 30 yuan for students), located inconveniently in the “medicine and biology industrial park” north of town (take bus 1, among others). The highlight of this museum is an absolutely extraordinary 600-meter-long thangka, the longest in the world, which depicts the whole of Tibetan history, the Buddhist pantheon, and famous landmarks on the plateau, among other subjects. This thangka is so long that you really need to take it in at quite a clip to avoid fatigue. Other exhibits, if less awe-inspiring, are also quite interesting.
Recently restored, the Beishan temple (Beishan Si 北山寺) is incongruously located above Xining’s wholesale furniture market. But make it past the rows of shops selling laminate-wood flooring and toilet fittings and you will arrive at this peaceful Daoist temple inhabited by about 15 monks. Climb the stairs rising steeply above the main hall to another complex of temples, some located within caves, perched precariously along redrock cliffs. Behind the peak above the temple is Beishan park, which is accessible either by hiking along the ridge above the temple or by a separate road entrance immediately to the east. A quiet, 14km loop road and several trails lead to the top of Beishan peak, where there is an observation terrace providing spectacular views of the region.
The Nanshan Temple 南山寺, located on Nanshan Lu just above downtown, is also quite a nice place to see locals worshipping. Between the two main temple complexes is a small alleyway which winds uphill between ochre walls; continue farther and you’ll find a nice pathway that takes you above the temple and along a rideline all the way to beautiful mountaintop Nanshan Park.
Though located in a monumental Stalinist building, the Qinghai Provincial Museum (Qinghai Sheng Bowuguan 青海省博物馆）is surprisingly small inside, with relatively well-laid-out exhibits showcasing the region’s prehistory and ethnic minorities. Outside the museum is Xinning Square（Xinning Guangchang 新宁广场）which is a gathering place for locals on weekends, and hosts Tibetan circle dancing every night during the warmer months (mid-April through October) starting at about 6:30pm.
Xining has a number of very pleasant parks, some lying within the city proper but others covering the mountainsides above town, providing good hiking and an easy escape from the city. People’s Park (Renmin Gongyuan 人民公园), Culture Park (Wenhua Gongyuan 文化公园), Xinning Square, and Central Square (Zhongxin Guangchang 中心广场) are the city proper’s four main green lungs. People’s Park is the biggest, a complex of lakes, flower gardens, and teahouses (as well as a small amusement park) stretching for nearly a mile along the Huang Shui, and has the largest range of activities – from summer roller-skating to winter ice-biking. Culture Park is quieter, and a good place for a picnic. A beautifully landscaped new park stretches southwards along the west side of the river from Central Square, and on warm days you will find numerous outdoor beer-gardens here, making it a pleasant place to sit back and watch the world go by. Xishan Park (西山), Beishan Park (see above) and Nanshan Park (南 山公园) all lie on the hills above town. Accessible from below the Shanghai-lookalike TV tower or from the Botanical Gardens in the western part of the city, Xishan is a good place to escape from the city. Winding roads lead uphill towards a sharp peak, where you may find local Tibetans circling the prayer-flag-bedecked summit. Beautiful Nanshan, which is more of a traditionally landscaped park with gardens, pavilions and other attractions, is reached from either Nan Dajie or the Nanshan Temple.
Xining has long been a trading center for the region, and wandering its bustling street markets puts you in the heart of the commercial action. A good place to start is Shuijing Xiang 水井巷 market at Ximen (the West Gate, 西门), where you will find a mind-boggling array of street food from kebabs to cold glutinous noodles to spicy potato chips to fresh yak yogurt (as well as produce and cheap Tibetanesque souvenirs). You can also find excellent food and snack markets at Mo Jia Jie to the east of Da Shizi (both in the indoor and outdoor portions), at QiXiang Xiang, Xiao Qiao and at numerous other places throughout the city. For clothing and shoes, head to busy Shangye Xiang, Minzhu Lu, or the Underground Market (地下城市) below Da Shizi and Ximen – and stretching between the two. The Tibetan Market (note: recently moved from the bus station area to Xiaoshangpin 小商品 across the river) also a good place to pick up clothing, as well as (as the name implies) Tibetan goods. Finally, for an adventure, check out one of Xining’s massive and slightly overwhelming wholesale markets: either the Haihu Market (Haihu Shichang, 海湖市场 – note: recently moved 10km west) in the very far west of the city for food, clothing, or kitchen supplies, or the Xiao Shangpin Shichang 小商品市场 on Huzhu Lu near the main train station.