Qinghai Lake, Kumbum Monastery, and the Gangshika Snow Mountain | Hiking in grassy meadows near Qinghai Lake, with the Qilian Mountains seen in the distance
Hiking in grassy meadows near Qinghai Lake, with the Qilian Mountains seen in the distance.

Qinghai Lake, Kumbum Monastery, and the Gangshika Snow Mountain (4 days)

Take a hike near the shores of Qinghai Lake; join the pilgrims visiting Kumbum Monastery; hike up to a high altitude glacier on Gangshika Mountain.

Level 3
Some hiking at high altitude. (Can I do it?)

This trip is not currently scheduled

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Trip overview
Day One main activities Meet up in Xining, walking tour of Kumbum Monastery and a short hike at Laji Mountain.
Day Two main activities Hiking by Qinghai Lake.
Day Three main activities Hike up to the glacier on Gangshika Snow Mountain.
Day Four main activities Walkabout in Xining, trip finishes

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’.


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’.

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

The trails are relatively easy, although the altitude will make it feel tough. If it’s clear, the views of the Qilian Mountains are spectacular.

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 base camp of the mountain. and from there we'll head up to the foot of the main glacier, which is at approximately 4,300m.

Kumbum Monastery

The golden roof of the main temple in Kumbum Monastery
The golden roof of the main temple in Kumbum Monastery. (Click for larger image)

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.

The Dalai Lama and Altan Khan make an agreement

Kumbum Monastery 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 … by Altan Khan.

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.

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. For the first two days of the trip we’ll be at elevations of around 2,200m above sea level. We’re looking to get up to about 4,600m on the mountain.

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.

Getting to Xining and back home again

You’ll meet your guides at the Xining Airport between 10-11am on the first day of the trip.

The itinerary will finish in Xining on the last day of the trip, and we plan to drop you off at the airport around 2pm.

Please do not purchase your flights until we are able to confirm the departure of the trip.

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Photos and trip reports: Qinghai Lake, Kumbum Monastery, and the Gangshika Snow Mountain (4 days)

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