The hills outside Xining were dressed in a velvety moss-green, a stark contrast to the landscape in Gansu. We headed for Qinghai Lake, the largest saline lake (also the largest lake) in China, which was to be the highlight of our drive on day four. At 3200 m, the sun was deceivingly mild in the cool summer breeze, clouds like fairy floss glided across the cobalt sky, hanging so low that they appeared to be within arm’s reach. On the shores of the lake were many Tibetan maikhans adorned with multi-colored Tibetan prayer flags. Since the lake became a popular tourist spot, local Tibetans and Mongols have partitioned the land around the lake into private sectors to charge tourists who want to get to the lakefront. We were approached by several locals offering horse and yak rides. To attract tourists, they dressed up their yaks in flamboyant headgear and covered the saddles with bright-colored blankets.
Large areas of the land between Xining and Qinghai Lake are used for dryland farming. We saw the transition to pastoralism at Riyue Shan 日月山 (part of the Qilian Mountains, southeast of Qinghai Lake) where the foothills of the mountains became decked with goats, sheep, cows, and yaks. We often shared the road with herds of animals being shepherded from one pasture to another. Just as the sun was beginning to set, we stopped by an ovoo (a ceremonial rock pile with hadas where people make offerings to the sky and the mountains) at the summit of the mountain pass of Mount Xiangpi at 3817m.
Our day ended at Dulan 都蘭, a small town midway between Xining and Ge’ermu 格爾木 (our next pitstop). The streets were already dark when we arrived at 9:40pm except for a dimly lit restaurant that served Sichuan cuisine. Besides Hui and Uyghur cuisines, Sichuan dishes are well sought after in the western provinces of China including Gansu, Qinghai, and Xinjiang, due to their spicy flavors.