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Qinghai Lake, Kumbum Monastery, and the Gangshika Snow Mountain, Qinghai Province

In Brief: Take a hike near the shores of Qinghai Lake; join the pilgrims visiting Kumbum Monastery; camp out at high altitude on Gangshika Mountain and hike up to a glacier.

Huts below the Gangshika Snow Mountain

Huts below the Gangshika Snow Mountain. See all the photos from our scouting trip to the area »

See Tibetan culture and go trekking in Qinghai Province, visiting Qinghai Lake and Kumbum Monastery, and camping out at high altitude as part of a trek up to the glacier of Gangshika Mountain.

Timed for the Dragon Boat Festival holiday.

Trip overview

Day 1—Fly to Xining, visit Kumbum Monastery.
Day 2—Hiking by Qinghai Lake.
Day 3—Hike up to the base camp at Gangshika Snow Mountain; camp overnight.
Day 4—Hike up to the Gangshika Glacier, option to hike up to the snow line (weather permitting). Overnight in Xining.
Day 5—Walkabout in Xining, fly back to Beijing.

Qinghai Province

Qinghai Province is located in China’s northwest, and shares borders with Xinjiang, Gansu, Sichuan, and Tibet. A large part of Qinghai is on the Tibetan Plateau – a vast high-altitude plateau bordered by the Himalaya, Kunlun, and Qilian Mountain Ranges.

The Qinghai region was known as Amdo during the time of the Tibetan Empire. From the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, the region was under the control of the Mongols and known as Kokonur. And after the Qing Dynasty was overthrown, much of the region was under control of a family of Hui Muslim warlords known as the Ma Clique. Today in Qinghai you can find traces of that history: Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, Muslim mosques, plus a big mixture of local languages and dialects.

The province is named for one of its most prominent features, Qinghai Lake, the largest lake in China. In Chinese, ‘Qinghai’ translates roughly as ‘green sea’. The older Mongolian name of the region, Kokonur, has a very similar translation: ‘blue lake’.

Trip highlights

The main highlights of the trip are Qinghai Lake, trekking on the Gangshika Snow Mountain, and a tour of the Kumbum Monastery.

Qinghai Lake

Qinghai Lake

Qinghai Lake.

The largest lake in China, Qinghai Lake is located in a depression in the Tibetan Plateau and fed by rainwater and the streams and rivers that run down from the nearby Kunlun and Qilian mountain ranges.

The lake is a key point on bird migration routes, and several bird sanctuaries have been set up on the western side of the lake.

The western side of the lake is very scenic: bird islands close to the shore, and a backdrop of grasslands and snow mountains beyond the vast expanse of beautiful blue water.

We’ll drive to Qinghai Lake from Xining, spending the day walking about and taking in the scenery by the lakeside.

Gangshika Snow Mountain

Looking down from Gangshika Mountain

Looking down from Gangshika Mountain.

On the other side of Qinghai Lake we’ll spot the snowy peaks of the Qilian Mountain Range. Gangshika Snow Mountain is the tallest in this part of the range, with a summit of 5,245m.

On the lower levels of the mountain (3,700m) there is a small glacier known poetically as the ‘Seven-Coloured Rainbow’.

Further up is a larger glacier (4,300m), which can be reached by a hike through grassy meadows.

Between the two glaciers is a good campsite, where we'll settle in for a night high up in the mountains.

The trails are relatively easy, making this area a great choice for your first try at high-altitude camping. If it’s clear, the views of the Qilian Mountains are spectacular, and you can imagine how many stars you’ll be able to see at night.

Over the first two days of this trip we’ll be walking around at reasonably high altitudes near Qinghai Lake (approx. 3,200m) and Kumbum Monastery (approx. 2,200m). This will help us acclimatise a little for our trek up into the mountains.

We’ll start our hike from the lower glacier and walk up to the 4,100m camp. After setting up camp we’ll have time to explore the nearby area. The next day we’ll be up early for a hike up to the foot of the main glacier, which is at approximately 4,300m. From there, we have an option to hike up to the saddle below the main peak, which is about 4,800m above sea level. We’ll then return down the mountain.

Kumbum Monastery

A hall at Kumbum Monastery

A hall at Kumbum Monastery.

Kumbum Monastery is a monastery of the Gelug ‘Yellow Hat’ sect of Tibetan Buddhism that was established in the 1580s at the site of the birthplace of Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug sect.

Before the 1580s, there had been a small temple with a stupa to mark the site of his birth. Tradition has it that a sandalwood tree had also grown up, and that the leaves and the bark of that tree had markings that looked like Buddha’s face. The temple that was built around the tree is the holiest place in the temple. The tree is no longer standing, but the temple is still there and houses parts of the tree.

Kumbum has important (and interesting!) connections to the three main monasteries of Lhasa, and it’s in this area that the third – and also the first – Dalai Lama was given that title.

Je Tsongkhapa, born on the site of Kumbum, founded Lhasa’s Ganden Monastery in 1409, and it became the main seat of the Gelug tradition. Two of Tsongkapa’s disciples founded the other two main Gelug monasteries – Drepung Monastery, and Sera Monastery – both in Lhasa.

In the 1500s, Sonam Gyatso – who would become the third (but actually first) Dalai Lama – became the head abbot of both Drepung and Sera Monasteries. This made him a very important spiritual and political figure in Tibet.

Around the same time, Altan Khan was ruler of roughly half of the Mongolian tribes. As the story goes, only a direct descendant of Kublai Khan would be eligible to rule the whole lot … and Altan Khan was not a direct descendant.

What to do? A political and spiritual solution was found. Sonam Gyansto was invited to meet Altan Khan near Qinghai Lake. After that meeting Altan Khan became eligible to rule all the Mongolian tribes, and Buddhism became the main religion of his subjects.

How? Again, as the story goes, Sonam Gyatso announced that he had recognised Altan Khan as a reincarnation of Kublai Khan, and that he himself was a reincarnation of the Tibetan monk who had converted Kublai Khan to Buddhism. Altan Khan then gave Sonam Gyatso the title ‘Dalai Lama’, and announced that the two had come again to promote Buddhism to Mongolians. Very convenient!

So why was Sonam Gyatso actually the third Dalai Lama, even though he was the first to have that title? The title was later conferred on his two previous incarnations. And, in another convenient coincidence, Altan Khan’s great-grandson was identified as Sonam Gyatso’s reincarnation and became the fourth Dalai Lama.

Now that was a productive meeting. It’s not finished yet, though – it was on the way to his meeting with Altan Khan that Sonam Gyatso toured the small temple at Kumbum and ordered it expanded into a monastery fitting of the birthplace of the founder of the Gelug sect.

We’ll do a walking tour of the Kumbum Monastery on the first day of this trip.

The glacier at Gangshika Snow Mountain

The glacier at Gangshika Snow Mountain.

Health warning – high altitude

During the trekking part of this trip we will be at high altitude, and will arrive without a whole lot of acclimatisation.

We take the issue of altitude sickness seriously. If anyone has serious problems with the altitude, one of the BJH guides will take them back to Xining straight away. If anyone has problems after that, they’ll be transferred back and met by the guide. Any extra costs incurred for transport/medical assistance are to be paid by participants. We will purchase insurance on your behalf, but you must be prepared to cover any up-front costs.

At high altitude, the weather may change suddenly for the worse. We reserve the right to alter the itinerary to ensure the safety of all participants.

Accommodation

In Xining, we will be staying in a modern hotel. While trekking, we’ll be sleeping in tents.

You’ll be sharing a room at the hotel with another hiker. If you'd like a hotel room to yourself, it can be arranged at an extra cost of 600 RMB for the trip, if a room is available—usually not a problem!

Further details about room shares and single supplement can be found in the documents we send you as part of the registration.

Flights and transport

We’ll be flying to and from Xining. Travel during the trip will be in a comfortable private vehicle.

Frequent flyers: Please let us know if you would like to use your frequent flyer miles or if you are a frequent flyer member. If you would like to organise your own flights, we can provide further details.

What to bring

  • Waterproof jacket and trousers
  • Warm thermal/fleece jacket and thermal/fleece trousers
  • Warm hat
  • Heavy gloves
  • Heavy socks
  • Hiking boots
  • Hiking pack that can hold everything you need for two days on the mountain
  • Sunglasses
  • Sneakers or hiking boots
  • Trousers, shorts
  • Day pack for outings
  • Duffle bag or suitcase for other luggage

Full itinerary

  1. Day 1
    08:00 – Meet at Beijing Capital Airport for a 10:35am flight
    13:25 – Arrive at Xining Airport, drive to the hotel
    14:30 – Check in at hotel
    15:00 – Drive out to Kumbum Monastery
    16:00 – Arrive at Kumbum Monastery for a walking tour, including a visit to the Tibetan quarter
    19:30 – Head back to the hotel
    20:30 – Dinner at the hotel

  2. Day 2
    08:00 – Breakfast at the hotel
    08:30 – Drive to Qinghai Lake
    10:30 – Rest stop on the way
    11:30 – Arrive at lakeshore, go for a walk
    13:30 – Finish the walk
    14:30 – Local lunch
    15:30 – Drive back to the hotel
    18:00 – Arrive at the hotel
    19:00 – Dinner at the hotel

  3. Day 3
    08:30 – Breakfast at the hotel
    09:00 – Drive to the Gangshika Snow Mountain park area
    10:00 – Arrive at reservoir below the mountain
    12:00 – Arrive at the park viewing platform
    13:00 – Lunch
    14:00 – Hike with mules and yaks through foothills, starting from 3,800m above sea level
    16:00 – Arrive at base camp, 4100 meters above sea level, and set up your tent
    17:00 – Take a rest and have free time to walk around
    18:00 – Dinner at the camp site
    19:30 – Rest after dinner, stargazing

  4. Day 4
    08:00 – Breakfast at camp
    09:00 – Pack up the camping gear before going out for a hike
    09:30 – Start hiking up to the glacier
    10:30 – Arrive at the glacier (4,300m above sea level)
    11:30 – Optional hike to the snowline of the glacier (4,700m, weather permitting)
    12:30 – Optional hike to the saddle of the snow mountain (5,100m, weather permitting)
    14:00 – Begin heading back down the mountain
    15:30 – Back at base camp
    16:00 – Hike back down to the park viewing platform
    18:00 – Bus back to the hotel
    20:30 – Arrive at the hotel and have dinner
    22:00 – Rest and chat

  5. Day 5
    08:30 – Breakfast at hotel
    09:00 – Check out
    09:30 – Drive to the Xining museum
    10:00 – Arrive at the museum
    11:30 – Lunch
    12:30 – Drive to the Xining Airport
    13:10 – Check in at the airport
    15:20 – Take off
    17:45 – Arrive at Beijing International Capital Airport
    All times are approximate, and depend on our speed of movement

More information

Contact us at any time for more information. Payment terms, conditions, and details will be supplied along with a waiver document and travel guidelines after your registration request has been received.

We usually need to get 8–10 people signed up to go ahead with this trip. Beijing Hikers reserves the right to decide who may participate in this trip.

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