I read a lot about Qinghai Lake online. It was described as a majestic place. Tibetans and others find this lake to be holy. The pictures were beautiful. I thought this would be a great place to go and find somewhere to camp for a night or two. I could finally get some solitude in nature.
I arrived in Xining from Lanzhou(I came from Dunhuang previously), which is only a 1 hour train, and stayed one night at a local hostel called City Nomad Guest House. The boss actually spoke English and there were foreigners there. I woke up early the next morning to find this bus station that I could buy a ticket for a 3-4 hour ride to the lake. It’s a place called Ba Yi Lu Station. I bought a ticket to Qinghai Lake for 37 yuan ($5.70).
The ride there had some really nice scenery, mixed in with some more of that scary Chinese bus driving.
When we got to the lake, it was beautiful, but I was also a little crushed. All I could see was a bunch of tourist areas and people selling entrance to their land to go see the lake. There were also tons of Chinese tourists.
I was hoping that our bus would drive past all this, and we would get dropped off in the serene landscape I had imagined in my head, where I could walk away to find a nice place to camp. I was wrong. When we pulled in to the stop, I was really disappointed, and also began getting a little anxiety. I brought all of my stuff. I planned to camp. I have no idea where i’m going to go from here. There was also only one return bus at 3 pm and it was already 12 pm. I decided not to buy the return ticket and just figure something out.
I walked down toward the lake, with the mass of tourists. I went down a road toward an area that looked like there was less tourists, although there was a gate with some policemen standing around. I started to walk through the gate when I heard “hello”, in the tone I always hear when people want to get my attention in China. They harshly said to go away, in Chinese. I couldn’t really understand the rest. I asked why? They said something else in Chinese I couldn’t understand and they were smirking. Feeling defeated, I walked back toward the area with all the people and decided to go toward the main road.
I saw this group of 3 younger Chinese people, two girls and a guy. They had big bags like me and a sign that looked like they were hitch hiking. I asked the guy how to say “hitchhiking in Chinese”. 搭便车 or 搭脚儿 (da bian che or da jiao’r). I then asked if it was easy, he said it can take a while, and it’s best to have girls with you.
I kept walking down the road along the lake. I was feeling a bit discouraged. As far as the eye could see was just more of those little side stops with tents for tourists, and the lake on the right with fences all around. I kept walking and thinking. It was very sunny and my bags were heavy because I had all of my things with me. I was the only one walking on the road now with many cars and bicycles passing by. I decided I should just try to stick my thumb out and see what happens. Maybe I could get a ride to somewhere with less people and less fences so I could camp.
After only 3 or 4 minutes of sticking my thumb out, a guy with a BMW motorcycle pulled over. He asked where I was going, in Chinese. I told him anywhere is okay. I just want to camp somewhere. He said he’s going to a city which I couldn’t really understand, I told him i’ll go there too.
He strapped my large backpack onto his bike, and made room for me. I sat behind him, with just my t-shirt and shorts on. He was wearing a helmet, jacket with padding, and pants with special padding as well. I noticed he had a Go-pro camera on top of his helmet too.
The scenery I saw on that bike was amazing. The first 45 minutes, it was warm and the wind felt nice, but after that I started to feel pretty cold, with my t shirt and shorts. We stopped for a second so I could put my light jacket on. It was much better. The ride in total was about 160 km or 100 miles. It took about 3 hours.
There were many times I saw beautiful places to camp, where there weren’t much people, except what looked like nomads with their white tents and the wild roaming animals. I thought about telling him to stop and just let me off here, but I thought maybe the place we would go would be okay too, and closer to a city in case anything happened.
I found out the destination was called Chaka 茶卡, the characters mean tea and stop or card. After we arrived in the town, he went off toward the nearby saltwater lake and I went off to walk in some direction.
It looked like another pretty touristy area, and I wasn’t sure about where I should go. As I was walking, there was a person with a sign every 5 minutes advertising a hotel to stay at. I asked one of them, an older, dark scruffy looking guy, if he knew anywhere I could set up camp. He told me to head off to the grassland area near the lake.
I ended up walking for a while in that direction to another area with tents, similar to the ones in Inner Mongolia. I was standing outside one of the areas, tired from all the walking. A minivan stopped by and told me to get in and he would give me a ride into the area and I could camp there. I thought this was my lucky break and I had met another kind soul.
He took me in and we walked to the edge of the area, closest to the saltwater lake. He told me 50 yuan to camp here. I told him I thought he meant for free, and that I had everything I needed, I just wanted to set up a camp. He told me nothing is free in China and that no hotel or hostel accepts foreigners in this city anyway. I guess I was expecting too much. I declined the offer and didn’t get a ride back out, haha.
I walked all the way back to the area with shops and restaurants. On the way, I ran into that same older guy who I asked about camping in the first place. I told him about the guy wanting to charge me for it. He said that I should just walk off into the grass area later that night and do it secretly, and I would be fine. I laughed, said thanks, and began walking again.
I saw a youth hostel ahead. I sat down on the side walk and let my heavy bags to the side. I contemplated what I should do, discouraged and tired. I really just wanted to be in nature, camping on my own. It seemed like it just wasn’t in the cards. I also heard how it’s sometimes hard for foreigners to travel in the Qinghai area, because China has a lot of military bases near Tibet.
I decided to try my luck at the hostel, instead of waiting till dark to try and camp again. When I first walked in, there were a lot of young Chinese. The place had a really cool vibe. The guy at the desk asked me if I was Chinese, I said no. He made a sort of frustrated look, but then asked me for my passport. The price was 75 yuan ($11.00) and he only had one bed left. That was pretty high for a hostel, but I accepted.
After I put my stuff down, I went to the main room to sit and use my laptop. These two Chinese girls who seemed to work there were sitting on the couch across me. They were calling a dog, who decided to come over to me and jump on on the couch I was sitting on. He then laid down and put his head on my lap. This was an icebreaker for the girls and I to start talking.
I then went up the the bar/front desk and we talked with the boss. He offered me a cigarette, which is common from Chinese guys. We talked about travel and I told him about my failed camping and how no hotels accepts foreigners around here. He told me that his hostel actually isn’t allowed to accept foreigners either, but he made an exception for me, because I could speak some Chinese and didn’t look completely foreign.
After some time chatting with him and one of the girls that worked there, I noticed them give each other an odd look and then secretly gesture toward the back where these older guys were sitting and drinking. The girl, Zarya, then showed me a text she wrote on her phone that said the town police chief was here and it wasn’t good to talk to me at the moment. I took the hint and went to my room.
In my room was a Chinese guy and girl. I found out they were from Dalian, where I had spent all my time studying the past 5 months.
In the morning, I was talking to the boss again of my plans to return to Xining. The couple from Dalian also wanted to go in that direction. I discussed hitchhiking back. A random guy heard me and said he could give me a ride there because they were also going there. I started thanking him a lot and saying how awesome that was. He then turned toward to boss, and said something in Chinese. The boss than said “He wants 100 yuan.” I felt a little stupid, thinking it was a kind offer, instead of just a money making opportunity. I told him no thanks.
After going to lunch with the couple, we both decided to go to the bus station that offered tickets to different areas. There was a bus to Xining for 60 yuan($9.00) at 2 pm. I thought about the adventure I could have hitchhiking back, but I also thought about the extra time it would take. I already had a train ticket from Xining to Lanzhou tomorrow, and it wouldn’t be guaranteed I could make it back in time.
I bought the bus ticket.
After reflecting on this experience, I realized that I probably made some mistakes and that my own inhibitions kept me from having the experience I was looking for. Overall, even though it didn’t turn out how I had pictured in my head, it was still an adventure. The motorcycle ride itself was worth it. I’m always looking to improve and become more of a person I desire myself to be than before. I see myself as someone who can take risks, and able get into interesting situations, but at the same time, I know I still have many doubts of my own abilities and insecurities about myself. I strive to be more confident and “free”. There were also times where I was getting frustrated instead of just taking in the moment and finding ways to enjoy it. I know that there were opportunities I didn’t take because of fear. Maybe it was rational fear or maybe it was irrational. Either way, I realize that there is room for improvement.
Have any good or bad experiences in Qinghai? Tips for me to get a better camping experience? Let me know in the comments!