Highway to Heaven: Qinghai's Route S101

The Road Trip. You'd think by now I might have worked road trips out of my system, after covering most of China last year on 30,000km of its good and not-so-good roads.

But I've always loved road trips - three months in 1982 when I was twelve, driving through Europe in a broken down Volvo station wagon with my parents and two sisters, playing Donkey Kong as we drove through the Swiss Alps; six months driving from Scotland to Turkey and back in a Scottish Mountain Rescue Ambulance in 1991 with my boyfriend (now husband), surviving on potatoes and tea; many shorter trips just days or weeks long exploring parts of the magnificent Australian countryside.

The road is full of promise, uncertainty and sometimes, serendipity. Go as slowly as you want, stop at anything that piques your interest, change direction, change plans, change destinations at whim. My favourite way of travelling.

We were back in China again last week, the whole family this time, and had nine days to fill - but which road in which part of this vast country should we choose? 

We decided on Qinghai province's south-east corner, bordering the Tibetan Plateau. This part of the world is remote and sparsely populated, full of nomadic Tibetan yak and goat herders, Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and wild natural scenery - high hills, grasslands, sparkling rivers and mountains. We had experienced just a taste of it last year (and I wrote almost nothing about it, to my shame) and were dying to see more.

Our friend Jonas, who has lived in the area for several years and explored all of it (Jonas blogs about living and trekking in Qinghai at Adventures of Jonas), met us in Xining, the capital of Qinghai, and helped us map a route taking us south on the S101, a good provincial road, passing by several lovely monasteries and beautiful scenery. 

We changed tack from our original plans of visiting Yushu, in the far south, because of uncertainties about the roads and conditions we would find there - it was all but levelled in an earthquake three years ago. Instead, Jonas inspired us to see the beautiful countryside northeast of Yushu.

Just to get your bearings, here's a map of the area:

Our route started from Xining and headed south on the S101 to Golog, a distance of 500km or according to Googlemaps about 12 hours' driving. We're pretty well acquainted with Mr Google's driving estimates in China, and in a perfect world he would be exactly correct. 

This isn't a perfect world though - this is China - so if you add a further 50% to the estimated time - increasing 12 hours to 18 hours - it will be about right, taking into account the many variables Mr Google can't see - yaks blocking the road, roadworks, queues at toll stations, detours, diversions and accidents.

We had heard that the area south of Golog may be restricted for foreigners, so depending on the situation and the road we intended to continue further south or make our way westwards to the famous Langmusi Monastery in neighbouring Sichuan.

A. Start Point: Xining 西宁
The road trip began in Xining, capital of Qinghai Province, right near the Qilian wholesale butter shop on the street that divides the Tibetan Market from the Muslim Quarter. It was an auspicious place to start, near those fat golden rounds of yak butter, where the Tibetan traders pass by in one direction to do business in tents, felts, furs, turquoise and coral, and the Muslims walk in the opposite direction to buy tea, mutton, apricots, peaches and rounds of thick white bread in the street markets behind the mosque.

Xining is a fascinating small city, ethnically diverse, and filled with temples, mosques and monasteries. Sitting at 2300m altitude it's a great place to spend a couple of days acclimatizing before heading into the high country further south.

B. Guide 贵德
Guide (pronounced Gway-duh) is the first stop on the S101 as you pass from green pastures into more arid countryside with deep red canyons and spectacular eroded land forms. There are beautiful little garden restaurants lining both sides of the highway with fruit trees, butterflies and flowers enclosed in walled gardens where you can eat simple country food.

Just south of Guide township and directly off the highway is the Guide Zhakanbula Geological Park

C. Ningxiu village 宁秀
Our first stop for the night was in Ningxiu village, a predominantly Tibetan village where one long, wide road bisected the low buildings. There were a couple of small grocery stores selling dried goods and tin pots, and two dumpling restaurants, one Tibetan, the other Hui Muslim.

Walking along the main street we met, quite possibly, all the inhabitants of the village who came outdoors to meet us and take photographs. I found it extraordinary that they, handsome and black-haired, some in traditional dress of heavy wool coats lined with coloured silk, would find us interesting and exotic. Us in our rough traveling clothes and comfortable shoes.

We spent the night in a tiny five-roomed guest house with an outhouse and a coal-fired stove in each room to guard against the cold mid-summer night air. Our fellow guests, Tibetan families on their way to or from somewhere else, spent much of the evening sitting on our beds and watching us, smiling.

Smoking 'baccy and sniffing snuff. With prayer beads.
Just outside the village is a beautiful set of prayer flags on a small hill. The prayer flags are printed all over with Buddhist prayers and powerful Buddhist symbols, and when blown in the wind they spread good will and compassion to all.

D. Shizang Monastery 石藏寺

Our next day's drive took us to Shizang Monastery, a small Tibetan Buddhist Monastery we found on one of our Qinghai maps. It doesn't seem to exist in any guide books but like most monasteries you can visit freely. It lies down a spectacular winding green valley about ten kilometres east of the S101 (there is a small sign on the road in Chinese).

Shizang means 'hidden by stone' but is also a homonym for the Buddhist Canon. It didn't really have any significant meaning until we reached the end of the valley where an imposing red rock cliff rises up from a riverbed, revealing the monastery hiding behind it. A twenty metre Guanyin is carved and painted into the cliff face as you approach.

The monastery itself is rather plain from the outside, as Tibetan monasteries go, but inside is an unexpected riot of colour and pattern. We were shown around by a very kind monk who spoke a little Chinese. He told us all the other monks were away on vacation visiting their families - I hadn't known monks had vacations but they are, many of them, students, and it is end of school year vacation in China. Even monks need a break sometimes.

I was entranced by the monastery shop - not a souvenir shop, but a grocery store where monks and those who worked at the monastery could buy goods - pot noodles, mosquito repellant, washing detergent, incense, prayer flags, yak fur boots. All your regular monkly goods.

E. Lajia Monastery 拉加寺
The mighty Yellow River is still very young and not so wide as it passes through the town of Lajia (Rogya in Tibetan). The town sits astride the river at the foot of immense red-purple sandstone mountains, and clinging to the mountain's foot is a small and lovely monastery,  Lajia Monastery. It's buildings line up in a row from river's edge to mountain's foot, each one higher than the last so the overall effect is of golden-roofed steps leading up the mountainside.

Lajia has several small hotels and guesthouses where you can spend the night, and plenty of Chinese, Hui Muslim and Tibetan restaurants.

F. Maqin 玛沁 (also known as Dawu 大武)

Maqin sits at a high altitude - 3300m - where the air is cool, clean and dry. It's a fascinating place, stretched along a valley between rows of velvety green hills and far-off mountains. 

As the capital of the Guoluo (Golog) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture the town's population is more than ninety per cent Tibetan, all of them wonderfully friendly and very curious.

The town's main attraction is the Maqin Monastery, currently being expanded, and its incredible network of prayer flags covering the hillsides above the monastery like a phantasmagoric spider's web, spreading as much good will and compassion as humanly possible.

For us though, Maqin was full of serendipity. Unable to get a bed in any of the town's three main hotels ('full', 'full' and 'full' despite acres of empty rooms) we found a cosy guesthouse for next to nothing, and spent the day wandering the twisting streets leading up to the monastery - watching monks take on the local teens in a basketball game, and being invited inside many homes for bracing cups of yak butter tea, an acquired taste.

The high air brings everything into sharp intensity, including your heartbeat and your breath, making you slow down, right down, and just take it all slowly in.

Footnote: From Maqin we planned to continue south further along the S101, but we had the distinct feeling that this would get us into strife and so we headed east towards Tibetan Gansu Province instead. More on that story in an upcoming post on Langmusi Monastery.

Tips for Driving the S101

There are daily direct flights to Xining from Shanghai, Beijing, Xi'an, Chengdu and many other Chinese cities. (see Ctrip for details)

Shanghai-Xining 3.5 hours, from 1500rmb direct
Beijing-Xining 2.5 hours, from 1450rmb direct
Xian-Xining 1.5 hours, from 620rmb direct
Chengdu-Xining 1.5 hours, from 950rmb direct

Car Hire
We used a local Xining car rental company - email me at fiona.nanchanglu@gmail.com for details. They can drop the car at your hotel and pick it up afterwards. One way rental is also possible (eg Xining to Chengdu) for an extra fee.
A Chinese Driver's License is required, and a cash deposit of 6,000rmb. The car company needs a rough itinerary in advance.
Daily rental varies - we paid 380rmb ($US65) per day including insurance for a VW Passat.

The ideal vehicle (and what we will hire next time) is a 4WD. Many roads and parts of the highway are very rugged and a 4WD would have been much more comfortable and given us more flexibility.

Good detailed maps of Qinghai Province are available from the Xinhua Bookstore in Xining, on the ground floor.

In the areas we travelled through Tibetan was the primary language spoken. We were always able to find someone who spoke a little Chinese. English was rarely spoken.
In Xining Chinese is the primary language and most large hotels have some English speaking staff.

Parts of Qinghai Province are restricted to foreigners. Check with Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree Forum before you go, and get local information in Xining at one of the hostels or from local police. The area south of Golog is currently restricted.

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