At the very back of my substantial guidebook to China, hidden between the index and an exhaustive chapter on Tibet (including advice on buying Gore-Tex trousers at the Lhasa Department Store), is an almost negligible section dedicated to Qinghai Province. It’s just nine pages out of a total of 1,000 – blink and you’ll miss them.
The province itself is not so easy to miss. It’s enormous. It’s also a mostly empty chunk of inhabitable rocky plateau – hence the skimpy coverage in my guidebook.
Still, as one of China’s biggest provinces with one of its smallest populations, Qinghai can prove a perfect escape for travellers sick of elbowing their way into noodle stalls or bumping into bicycles.
It’s a simple matter of finding the best bits. One of these is the town of Tongren (“Repkong” in Tibetan).
Tongren is a couple of dusty streets dotted by white-tiled shops, dumpling vendors and tethered donkeys. Typical western China. Yet there are some jewels here. At the top end of the town is Longwu Monastery, one of the biggest in this part of the country.Visit early in the morning and join the monks and pilgrims on their morning circumambulation of the monastery (a ritual known as the kora). The only sounds you’ll hear are the spinning of a rickety prayer wheel or two, and faint chanting from a temple building.
One noteworthy thing about Longwu and all the monasteries in the Tongren vicinity is the artwork. Local monks are famous for the quality of their thangkas, intricate paintings on loosely woven cotton or linen, stretched over wooden frames and prepared with mineral and organic pigments.
The best place to view a collection of these paintings is at Wutun Monastery, just 6km down the valley from Tongren (jump in a taxi from town, or take a couple of hours for a leisurely stroll). A typical thangka is awash with striking colours – stunning blues and reds, and dazzling gold highlights. Visual representations of The Wheel of Life are common, including stories of the lives of saints and masters, as well as some frightening depictions of demons.
More than fifty famous thangka artists reside in the Upper and Lower Wutun Monasteries. Their work can be purchased for around S$40 for a postcard-sized thangka, up to several thousand for more intricate and time-consuming pieces.
After browsing the thangka collection, take a 20-minute stroll across the valley to the Gomar Gompa (facing page), an impressive multi-tiered place of worship, with decorations testament to the high level of artistry in the area.
A mention should be made of local monk Kunga and his tireless work in this part of Qinghai. Anyone looking for an enriching travel experience can ask at Longwu Monastery for Kunga. He speaks excellent English and, together with the local government, assists with the construction and renovation of schools in Tongren County.
With Kunga, I visited one such school in the middle of a remote and stunning grassland plain. Smiling children, their cheeks chapped by winter winds, ran out to greet me with ceremonial kata scarves made from silk. I visited cramped dormitories, spoke to some of the teachers, gave an impromptu English lesson in a classroom, and was treated to a series of songs by the young students.
If you’re lucky enough to line up a similar visit, bring some pencils, exercise books, clothes or food to give away. Better still, assist with a donation for local orphans or for new school buildings: the amount of money that a round of drinks costs in Singapore goes a long, long way here.
It could be argued that those looking for a Tibetan experience should begin at Lhasa. Yet there are easily accessible pockets of Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai Provinces where you’ll experience the same sights (stunning monasteries and monks in coloured robes), tastes (tsampa and yak tea) and sounds (gentle Buddhist chants, the clanging bells of mountain animal herds) as you will in Tibet itself.
Tongren and its surrounds are a worthwhile starting point.
Fly to any major Chinese city from Singapore, then take a connecting flight to Xining, the capital of Qinghai. From Xining, it’s a pleasant three- to four-hour bus ride to Tongren alongside the Yellow River (more chalky-blue than yellow at this point in its progression).
Where to Stay
In Tongren, try the Huangnan Hotel (clean twin rooms for around $25). There are some incredible hermitages and smaller monasteries in the immediate vicinity. Kunga at Longwu Monastery may be able to help organise an overnight stay. Again, take food or other gifts if you go. Drivers (private cars rather than taxis) in Tongren can usually be secured for $60 for a half-day.
From Tongren, head east to Xiahe (local buses tend to leave early, at 6am or 7am). The four-hour trip takes you along a spectacular high plateau, hemmed by snowy mountains. Spend a couple of days in Xiahe, then turn north towards Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province, stopping on the way at Lixing, with its vibrant Muslim community, and at Bingling Si, where you’ll find a 90-foot Buddha carved into the cliff-face, presiding over a labyrinth of caves.