Qinghai Lake: The Blue Sea Lake

The saline Qinghai Lake, the largest lake located entirely in China, is located between the Hainan and Haibei Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures in the country’s North-Eastern part, in the province of Qinghai.

Qinghai Lake Stats

Lake NameQinghai Lake
Surface area4266.550
Maximum depth26.0
Average depth16.8
Lake typeEndorheic, saline
Catchment area29604.70
Shore length434.23
Residence time29456.6
Average discharge28.133

Geography and Hydrology

The natural lake is located approximately 150 kilometers from the capital of the largest province in China, the city of Xining in a depression of the Tibetan Plateau. Before the ‘60s it had a total of 108 inflows, but today that number has been reduced to only 23 rivers and streams, out of which 5 are notable for contributing with over 80% of inflow. Even though the lake has a high salinity percentage, there is an abundance of fish living in its waters.

Quinghai is located at the meeting point of many migratory birds which pass from Asia to Europe and feed on the lake’s fish.

The lake is home to many islands. Mahadeva is the largest, and its name means “the heart of the lake”. The island has a couple of hermitages, and it is a popular place of pilgrimage among monks, who didn’t use any boats to access it, but rather waited for winter to come, when the lake is frozen for 3 months, and they approached the island by foot.

Shadao Island, meaning “the island of sand” is extremely famous for its sandy scenery, and has the best beaches and places for swimming enthusiasts. The island of Niagdao, also known as one of the Bird Islands, is one of the main stopping places for migratory birds. It is a popular place for bird watching, since the island welcomes more than 10,000 birds in the summer months. Since 1997, the Bird Islands are home to the Qinghai Lake Natural Protection Zone, a bird sanctuary.

The lake level and surface has been shrinking in the larger part of the 20th century. Between 1959 and 1982 the water level dropped annually about 10 centimeters. It reversed for a short period of time, between 1983 and 1989, but has been dropping ever since, according to specialists. The surface area of Qinghai has decreased nearly 12% by the year 2000 (compared to the data of 1908).

Origins of the Name

Qinghai Lake and its surroundings has been a popular pilgrimage site for decades. Besides the monks who visited Bird Island, plenty of pilgrims (mostly made up of Tibetan Buddhist followers) circumnavigate the lake. They say that this takes 18 days on horseback and 23 days of walking to complete.

The lake’s name originated from the Mongolian word “Kokonor”, which translates to “blue lake” or “teal sea”. Locals refer to the lake as “the West Sea” since the Han dynasty.


In the 17th century, the lake’s surroundings were the target for migrating Mongolic tribes, which were later named the Qinghai Mongols. In 1724 this minority revolted against the Chinese rulers, who were part of the Qing dynasty. The Emperor managed to calm the uproar, and took the autonomy of Qinghai, dictating direct rule in the area. The Qinghai Mongols managed to maintain an administrative division, even though Yongzheng Emperor sent Han and Manchu settlers to weaken them.

During the Chinese Republican Era (between 1912 and 1949), Qinghai was the center of an annually held celebration in which participants worshiped and gave offerings to the God of the Lake. The people bowed to the God, and to a portrait of Sun Yat-Sen, who was “the Father of the Nation” during this period.

After the Chinese Revolution, in the ‘50s, the Western shores of the lake served as refuge for fugitives of the Anti-Rightist movement. In the 1980’s during the Chinese Economic Reform, there were many Chinese people migrating to Qinghai for various business purposes. The sudden abundance of people caused an ecological stress in and around the lake.

Ecological Concerns and Splitting of the Lake

Since the lake has been drying up in the larger part of the 20th century, the masses which came to the lake in the ‘80s only added to this issue. Since 2001 the State Forestry Administration of China has been working on retiring the many croplands on the lake shores and doing its best to restore the grasslands. They also confiscated guns from locals, to help preserve the Przewalski’s Gazelle.

Because of the shrinking process, higher lake floors were uncovered and a lot of bodies of water were separated from the large lake. In the ‘60s, the 48.5 km2 Gahai Lake appeared in the Northern part of Qinghai. In the 1980’s, two additional lakes appeared in the North-West; Shadao lake (15.6 km2) and Haiyan lake (112.5 km2). An additional daughter lake of 96.7 km2 split off in 2004. Today there are a total of 6 smaller lakes which once all belonged to Qinghai. The lake's surface are dropped 312 km2 over the last three decades, the lake requiring special attention and arrangements in order to be saved.

Tourism and Leisure

There are plenty of ways to get to Qinghai Lake. If you choose to go with your own, or a rented car, you should know that the roads are quite good, but be prepared for traffic jams which often occur. There are buses and trains that run from Xining to the shores of the lake, with a travel time of 5-6 hours. There are plenty of hotels and campgrounds of which you can choose from.

The perfect time to visit Qinghai is during the summer months of June and July, when you can not only admire the lovely scenery, but also see the flocks of migrating birds up-close, or take part in one of the many ethnic festivals held by local Tibetans and Muslims. The wintertime is ideal for those who enjoy ice fishing.

The most popular activities include riding a yak, bird-watching, climbing the sand hills, visiting the historic remains of the Silk Road, or riding a bicycle. The lakes shores are the main stage for the renowned professional bicycle racing event, the Qinghai Tour, held every year in July.

The main attraction is the interesting cultural mix of Tibetan, Mongolian and Muslim people, which are very friendly to tourists, often showing them a glimpse of the real Tibetan life.

When organizing your trip to Qinghai Lake please remember that it is located at a relatively high altitude, so altitude sickness is a common disease here. It is not advisable to drink the local tap water, as it causes food poisoning.

Qinghai Lake Map