Now that a lot of travelers are understanding that they should spend a couple of nights in Xining/Siling to acclimate for trips into Tibet, we’re getting questions about good Xining day trips and places to stay. In this post we’ll share with you some tips from two of our favorite Tibetan guides in the region. We’ll start with the most popular ones, but don’t miss the great, less touristy options further down the post. Tibetans refer to this large city on the outer edge of the Tibetan Plateau as Siling.
The Most Popular (and Touristy) Xining Day Trips
The two most popular (and crowded) attractions near Xining are Kumbum Monastery and huge Tso Ngonpo, also commonly referred to as Qinghai Lake or Kokonor Lake (Chinese and Mongolian, respectively).
Kumbum is a large and venerable monastery that is important in the history of Tibetan Buddhism, as the birthplace of Je Tsongkhapa, but you should know that it is often crowded with Chinese tourists. Our friend, a long-time Tibetan guide in Amdo says, “Kumbum is a very important sight in the entire Tibet, but it’s very crowed by Chinese tourists in summer. There are several hundreds of Chinese tourists everyday in Kumbum monastery.” Despite this, our friend says, many western travelers enjoy visiting the monastery. If the crowds are getting you down, ask your guide if he or she can show you some less touristed areas of the monastery.
Tso Ngonpo (Blue Lake) is the largest lake on the Tibetan Plateau, and is 100 km (62 miles) from Xining. The beautiful lake is enormously popular among Chinese tourists, to the point that our Tibetan guide living in the area tells us that most foreign visitors he brings there don’t have a positive experience, due to the crowds and the traffic. If you wish to go you can do a day trip, or stay a little longer, and go all around the lake.
Day Trip to Tso Ngonpo
On a day trip to Tso Ngonpo, our guide friend say, “Usually we leave Xining at 7:30 am in the morning. It takes 2 or 3 hours to drive to Tso Ngonpo, then we take a walk at the lake shore. After lunch we drive back to Xining through another road, and on the way there is a chance to enjoy the desert of Tso Ngonpo and grasslands. We arrive back to Xining around 5:00pm.”
Overnight Tso Ngonpo Kora
One option is to go around the whole lake (make the Tso Ngonpo kora). Of this trip, the Tibetan guide says, “Usually we arrange to stay one night in order to take the whole Tso Ngonpo kora. It’s about 560 km from Xining to take whole kora to Tso Ngonpo and back to Xining and takes 2 days. We also sometimes arrange 1 or 2 days horse riding at Tso Ngonpo, although it is very expensive. You can also rent bikes.”
Some Less Touristy Options
Gonlung Jampaling Monastery
Gonlung is a rare monastery in Amdo that few tourists visit, though it’s only about 70 km from Xining. There is great hiking in the area, and the monastery has many ancient thangka paintings. Many Tibetan Buddhist masters came from this monastery, such as Thubten Chukyi Nyima, Jangyap Rulpel Dorje and Sumpa Yeshi Phagyal. Quite large, it is located in the Huzhu Tu Autonomous County, and is one of the 4 major pilgrimage sites in eastern Tibet. There are some very old hidden caves located on a very steep hillside. Enjoy a picnic and great hiking around this monastery.
Martsang Drak Monastery
Stop at Martsangdak monastery (Chi: Bai Ma Si) on your way back to Xining from Gonlung Monaster. This is one the oldest monasteries in Amdo, and is also one of the most important monasteries in the Tibetan history.
Shachung is one of the six great Yellow Sect monasteries of Tibet, which means that it is of the Gelukpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism). It was founded in 1567. This is one of the hidden gems in Amdo. Shachung (also known as Sachung or Shachong) is home to 500 monks and it is located on the top of Amnye Shachung Mountain. Shachung monastery has great views of the Yellow River from the monastery, and the the monastery kora is very nice and beautiful, but a little difficult. It takes about 2 hours to walk it.
There are not as many monks in Chuthang monastery as there are at Shachung or Gonlung. But Chuthang is very old and has beautiful old Khadampa paintings. From Xining it is around 70 km away.
Xining City Itself
Here are a few things to do if you have time in Xining:
- Green House coffee shop, owned by an American, has good coffee and cakes and nice places to hang out upstairs and down.
- Tibetan Medical & Cultural Museum, where you will find the world’s longest thangka, more than 600 meters long. Give 3-4 hours for the museum.
- Some small old Tibetan temples
- The Tibetan Market across from the bus station
- Nangxujai supermarket for trip supplies
- This is just a sampling — check your guide for more.
Pro Train Tip
If you’re catching the Tibet train out of Xining bound for Lhasa, note that the best timing to maximize the views on the train, is to take it between 17:00 and 19:00. With this departure time, you get the nicest views of the Kekexili and parts of the Tibetan Autonomous Region on the journey, with a good chance to see wildlife, the snow mountains and holy lakes.
Places to Stay in Xining
- City Nomad Guesthouse Tibetan-owned 🙂 and with good reviews, in the Tibetan district, near the Tibetan Medical Hospital.
Not Tibetan-owned, if you can’t get in City Nomad
- The Sebel Xining More pricey but excellent reviews.
- Mandala International Youth Hostel Our Tibetan guide living in Xining tells us this is newer and better than the popular Lete Hostel, but there is no private bath room, every three rooms use one bath room.
- Our 100 Best Tibet Travel Tips: The Ultimate Guide
- Tibetan and Himalayan Library’s listing of monasteries in Amdo
- Interesting post on ChinaExpat.com, with more to see and do in Xining
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Roads are getting better around Siling, it is now possible to make a 2-day tour to visit Repkong (several interesting monasteries) and Labrang (famous monastery). As the elevation is the same or even a bit higher than Siling’s, the acclimatisation effect is just a good. Repkong Shaman festival, held every year on the last 2 weeks of lunar July is worth a spacial mention, actually one should plan the trip to Lhasa so that the Shaman festival can be included.
Repkong Shaman Festival 2016: https://www.flickr.com/photos/112698197@N08/albums/72157672848292775
Repkong Shaman Festival 2013: https://www.flickr.com/photos/112698197@N08/albums/72157639142366225
Thanks for this Petri!