Meet the Qinghai Lake posse. Maybe you’re wondering how a couple American girls ended up at the largest lake in China (and a saltwater lake, to boot!) with a bunch of older Chinese men? Gather ’round, and I will share with you a tale of adventure on the inland seas. First, some facts:
Elevation:3,205 m (10,515 feet)
Surface Area: 4,489 km2 (1,733 sq mi)
Known for: huge bike races and bird migrations
Amber and I were initially a little wary of making the journey from Xining to Qinghai Lake, after hearing someone at the hostel’s account of her time there: cold, drizzly, with lots and lots of fog. She could barely even see the lake. But looking to the skies and hoping for the best, Amber and I set out.
As was the case with most of our bus rides in Xining, I managed to get us lost on our way to the long-distance bus station to catch a ride over to the lake. We ended up taking a taxi, and the driver told us a billion reasons why it was a horrible day to go to the lake… but if we still wanted to go, he would take us for only 700RMB (over $100). Obviously, that wasn’t happening.
Literally just a few moments after we stepped out of the taxi at the bus station, a driver approached us and offered to take us to the lake immediately for 120RMB per person. Um… YES! I was afraid that we would have to spend all morning bargaining down to a decent price, but fate smiled upon us that day.
We walked over to his van and got in… and were greeted by six older Chinese guys. They were obviously professionals of some type, and they were now stuck with two twenty-something American girls. OK. This would be interesting.
Beginning our 2-ish hour journey to Qinghai Lake, we went through the normal topics of conversation (“Where are you from? Why are you in China? How can you speak Chinese so horribly?”) Suddenly, the guy sitting in the front with the driver, who seemed to be the other guys’ leader, turned back and asked “So, do you think you understand China?”
I didn’t even know how to answer the question, let alone imply that I understood this gigantic, mysterious, sometimes infuriating, but ultimately fascinating country. I eventually said no, of course, and that I would need to spend a lifetime here to even begin to understand. He seemed satisfied and turned back to talk to the driver. As to the other men’s identities, all I got from them was that they were coworkers on their way to Tibet on vacation, and that they were originally from Jilin in the northeast.
After a couple hours, we started seeing huge fields of rapeseed used for honey production.
We made a couple pit-stops along the way for a lunch break, photo opportunities, and so the guys could take pictures with a camel (no, really).
After much toil and legs cramping in the van, we finally made it! Behold, the largest lake (salty or otherwise) in China! And with mostly clear skies and perfect temperatures, we couldn’t have asked for a better day.
Note the awesome desert in the background, and most importantly, how few people were mingling on the shore. Our driver took us to an “unofficial” beach at the lake, so admission was cheap and crowds were small. And, best part, with so few people, it was quite easy to sneak away and… skinny dip. The water was in fact salty, and all of the rocks were covered with goop (a more innocuous word for slime/industrial sludge/etc.) We bought some cool scarves that conveniently converted into beach towels and head coverings.
Best part: after our little dip in the lake, the driver noticed that my hair was wet. He asked me if we had gone swimming, and I said we had… without clothes on. No joke, he started bounding toward the water and suggested that we all go swimming together. Ummmmm maybe next time?
With exhaustion, dehydration, clouds, and serious elevation headaches coming on, we just made a quick stop at the South Mountain to get some panoramic views of the lake and listen to the sheep.
And on this mountain, the identities of our fellow Qinghai Lake tourists were revealed! I kept asking them what they did, and they kept answering me “zhongyiyuan.” I obvs didn’t have a clue what that meant, but after a quick dictionary search, I was dumbfounded. These men were in the People’s Congress. They were full-on, red-blooded Communists helping lead over 1.3 billion people. And we had just spent several hours with them at Qinghai Lake, letting them buy us lunch and taking photos with them and laughing at them trying to ride camels. Now I understood why their leader had seemingly been so unsure about us joining them in the van. But in the end, I think they decided we weren’t so bad after all. And they weren’t so bad after all. So maybe we had some important cultural exchange without me even realizing it? Who knows.
But all was not rainbows and unicorns. When we got back to the hostel in Xining, my eyes looked like this.
Too many pretty pollinating rapeseed flowers for me. Still, despite the allergies and generally yuck feeling from being above 10,000 feet, it was an amazing day. No hyperbole, this trip was getting better and better.