Qinghai

Qinghai (Mandarin Chinese: 青海) is a province in Northwest China. It is located south of the Republic of Mongolia, east of Xinjiang, and north of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. It is one of China's least densely populated provinces with under six million people in an area somewhat larger than France.

Geographically Qinghai is on the Tibetan Plateau and is the source of several of China's major rivers. The Yellow River (Huang He) starts in central Qinghai and flows north and east through much of North China. The Yangtze and the Mekong both start near the southern edge of Qinghai and flow across Tibet into Yunnan where they are two of the three rivers in the Three Parallel Rivers National Park, then diverge to flow into different oceans.

Historically, what is now Qinghai was one of the three provinces of the old Tibetan Kingdom and was called Amdo. It has its own dialect, Amdo Tibetan. Tibetans are still the main ethnic and cultural group, but Mongols, Hui (Chinese Muslims) and Han (ethnic Chinese) have been present for centuries and more Han have been moving in over the last few decades.

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Qinghai, owing to its location in the heart of China, close to Mongolia and near the Silk Road, is ethnically mixed - Han, Hui, Kazakh, Mongolian, Tibetans, Tu and Salar inhabit the province. Most of Qinghai forms the traditional Tibetan province of Amdo. Yushu prefecture, in far southern Qinghai, is a part of the Kham region of Tibet. Outside the two main cities - Golmud and Xining -- population centers are tiny villages and towns, scattered along the desolate Tibetan Plateau.

Qinghai is perhaps China's most scarcely populated province. There are only 5.2 million people in an area bigger than France. Labor camps, prisons and nuclear testing sites are scattered among the ice-capped mountains. The extreme eastern part of the province is less harsh, with two major Tibetan monasteries and the charming capital of Xining. The southern regions of Qinghai sit at an average elevation of over 4000 m (13,120 ft) while the northern regions sit between 2500 m and 3500 m (8200 to 11,500 ft). Qinghai has some of the largest pasturelands in China. Many yaks and sheep are herded by Tibetan and Mongolian nomads. The prefectures of Haidong and Huangnan consist mostly of farming communities. The far northwest region of Qinghai is home to the Chaidam Basin which is one of the largest deserts in China.

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The Qinghai-Tibet railway was inaugurated in July 2006. All of the trains to Lhasa pass through Xining, making the city the gateway to Lhasa. Getting train tickets from Xining to Lhasa is easier than in the larger cities of Chengdu, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. The train from Xining to Lhasa takes a little over 24 hours.

Currently all foreigners who travel to the Tibet Autonomous Region need a Tibet Travel Permit. Permits to go to Lhasa can be easily arranged at travel agencies in big cities eg Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Chongqing and in Qinghai province in Xining or Golmud. In Golmud it is reported that travel agencies there charge a higher price for the permit.

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