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A Trip Worth Its Salt

With snow-capped peaks, blue skies and waters, Qinghai Lake and Chaka Salt Lake are a photographer’s dream - if you can avoid the scarf aunties

By Kathleen Naday Updated Nov.1

It was on a trip to visit some of Qinghai Province’s famous lakes that I first encountered the phenomenon of the scarf auntie. Motivated by a desire to get a perfect photo of the blue water reflecting the sky behind her, the scarf auntie can be observed dressed in bright red, sometimes yellow, and wielding multiple scarves which she throws behind her in an attempt to create a sort of Rose-on-the-prow, Titanic-like effect. Luckily the aunties did not block all the scenery, which is spectacular and an easy overnight or day trip from the provincial capital Xining. 

Most day trips include Qinghai Lake and Kumbun Monastery, although hardy souls can go on a bus trip which also includes Chaka Salt Lake - although it’s a long day, since the lake is almost 300 kilometers from Xining. It’s better to take the two days and stay overnight in the small tourist town near Chaka - that way you get plenty of time for Qinghai Lake on the way and on the way back.  

In Xining, I stayed in a backpacker’s hostel, mainly because I knew they organized transportation for trips like this. You can choose to share the vehicle to cut costs, or have your own car and driver which is around 600 yuan (US$88). Entrance fees and overnight accommodation are extra.  

Having your own car means not leaving at the crack of dawn, and it’s an easy drive along the highway for about 130 kilometers to get to Qinghai Lake. The driver will point out viewpoints to stop along the way as you climb higher out of Xining, like the Sun Moon Resort, which is at the top of a mountain pass. Approaching the lake, you find strips of purple lavender and yellow canola plants, even out of season. It turns out that enterprising locals have quit farming or herding livestock in favor of herding another type of mammal - the tourist. The fields fenced off, it is impossible to access the lake shore without paying a fee. Still, plenty of people are happy to fork out for the chance to stand in the middle of a field waving their scarves so they can get an Insta-memory of the flowers against the backdrop of the lake, which, just as its name implies, is extremely blue and very spectacular.  

Qinghai Lake, also known as Koko Nor, its Mongolian name, is China’s largest inland lake, and the largest salt lake in Asia at over 4,000 square kilometers in size. At 3,200 meters above sea level, temperatures are brisk, even in summer, and a strong wind whips across the lake. The lake often freezes for three months in winter. Surrounded by snow-capped peaks, it is a prime spot for bird watching, particularly in spring, when flocks of migratory birds visit. Unfortunately, it was not the right time to visit Bird Island at the western end of the lake when I was there, and currently the islands are closed off for environmental protection.  

There is an official Erliangjiang Scenic Area, but the driver said the entrance and parking fee were very expensive (100 yuan, or US$15). Likewise, a trip on a boat cost around 300 yuan (US$44). Instead, he recommended a cheaper spot where there was a modern Tibetan-style stupa with shiny prayer wheels and colored flags, and steps leading down to the shore. It only cost 10 yuan (US$1.5). Here it was possible to get one’s feet wet, or if you desired, sit atop a bored looking yak.  

Driving along the southern lake shore, the highway affords great views of the lake. Many people choose to cycle around portions or even the whole circuit. Since 2012, there has been a professional race in July, the Tour of Qinghai Lake. It’s part of the official Asia cycling calendar, a high-altitude race which includes more than the actual lake. The 2018 edition covered some 1,800 kilometers.  

I also saw people engaged in an altogether more traditional method of circumnavigating the lake. Tibetan pilgrims will walk around the lake - there is an island sacred to Buddhism in the center, which could only be accessed when the lake was frozen in winter. We bypassed a group of monks and nuns who were making the journey on their hands and knees. It is a form of religious devotion - prostration, in which the hands, knees and head must touch the ground. To ease the pain, they have wooden blocks attached to their hands and knees.  

We stopped for lunch in the town of Heimahe - literally a one horse town with restaurants and tourist shops along either side of the main road. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see dust devils wheeling along the street, but it was a bit out of season. Many trips stop for the night here, but we pushed on to Chaka Salt Lake where the driver said the accommodation was much better. 

On the way, we halted at the top of a mountain pass, at 3,817 meters high. The weather was clear, so I walked up away from the road to the top of a slope where there was a small Tibetan shrine. On the way down, I collected a big bag of trash - plastic bags, cutlery, food wrapping - disheartening to see that even in a pristine landscape like this, people are so careless. The next day on our return trip, the same pass was whited out by a blizzard.  

Arriving at the tourist resort town near Chaka Lake, still evidently being built, we checked into a local hotel, basic, but comfortable. There are a few restaurants along the main road, and as ever in Qinghai, many Muslim-run noodle restaurants which are my go-to for a decent meal.  

Chaka Lake is a crystalline salt lake, and mining for salt has been going on for thousands of years, and continues today, as you can see by the salt dredgers operating in the water. Accessing the lake involves entering via a ridiculously large purpose-built area, onto a causeway which stretches to the middle of the lake. For the time poor, or for those unable or unwilling to walk, a train rumbles along to the end of the causeway and back. The lake is around 105 square kilometers in size - not an especially large lake - and sits at 3,005 meters above sea level. 

Passing by the salt sculptures at the entrance to the causeway, if the sky is clear, you can see why it has the nickname the “Mirror of the Sky.” It is ground zero for the scarf auntie tribe - it all started here. Annoyingly, even though it was quite chilly, the scarf aunties (and some scarf nieces) were climbing into forbidden areas, even stepping into the lake, to get that perfect reflective shot which is caused by a layer of brine on the lake’s surface. It’s a dangerous pursuit - there are signs at the lakeside warning of unexpected holes that can open up if you step in the water. Still, the salinity is almost as high as the Dead Sea, so if that were to happen, they wouldn’t sink. 

Xining's White Tower