The faces of Qinghai

From paint makers and yak herders, to students and restaurateurs, we find out from the people themselves what life in this fascinating province is like.

By James Draven
Published 4 Feb 2018, 08:00 GMT, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 16:25 BST
Zhou Hao, nomad.

Zhou Hao, nomad.

Photograph by Matt Brandon

Meet Zhou Hao, the nomad

As a nomad, I've been herding yak and sheep on the foothills of Riyue Mountain my whole life. It gets pretty cold up here.

These white yaks I'm looking after are very rare. You never see them in big groups like this, but I'm looking after them all for several different owners.

Why do I have a catapult? It's just for fun.

Meet Mister Ma, the tourist aide

Kumbum in Huangzhong County is my hometown, and I've been working here, running horse rides and taking pictures with visitors outside the beautiful Kumbum Monastery for more than 20 years.

There used to be a big market at the front of the monastery and visitors were mostly Tibetan nomads and herders. Now many travellers come to see the temples, dress up in traditional Tibetan clothes and have their picture taken in the square.

Meet Chemei Yanzom, the student

My home is in Nangchen in Qinghai, over 560 miles away, but my family has made a special pilgrimage here to Guide County to see the world's largest prayer wheel.

I'm 14 years old and I currently live in Xining where I'm studying Mandarin. My grandfather was a very famous traditional Tibetan medicine doctor in Nangchen, and when I grow up I'd like to be a doctor of Western medicine in my hometown.

When I'm in Xining, I enjoy hanging out with friends and listening to Rihanna, but I'd tell visitors to Qinghai to visit Nangchen, which is beautiful and steeped in Tibetan culture, of which I'm very proud.

Meet Dekyi Tsomo, the restaurateur

My tsampa is delicious — they're solid dumplings made from roasted flour, and a speciality of my restaurant. If you're suffering with altitude sickness, try a bowl of tsampa soup, and chew a clove of raw garlic.

I'm 28 years old, and I moved to Qinghai five years ago to open my own restaurant here in Kumbum town. It's changing quickly: two years ago, I had to expand the building so I could get more tables in, because of the big increase in tourism to this area.

I'm originally Tibetan, and now I can afford to hire a tutor to teach me to read and write in my native language. During the little time off I have, I like to visit the temples to pray.

Meet Wang Ga Zhou Mei, the farmer

Visitors should take advantage of the mix of cultures on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, and try our mutton in thenthuk, a traditional Tibetan square-cut noodle soup.

I'm 66 years old, and a sheep herder and farmer, from Dazhuang township. I've always raised sheep — some to sell; some for their meat.

The best time to come is between April and August because there are lots of flowers — the countryside is very green and beautiful.

Meet Zihalya, the paint maker

I harvest rocks from a river near here and burn them on a bonfire, which makes them white and crumbly. Then I mix the fragments and powder with water to make whitewash. I sell this whitewash to local families who paint their houses with it. I'm my own boss.

I'm originally from Gansu Province but I moved here to Manping in Qinghai to do my work. It used to be a quiet, industrial town, but now many tourists come this way on the way to explore Minhe Hui and Tu Autonomous County.

Meet Zhen Zheng, the tea shop owner

I'm originally from Sichuan where I ran a tea shop for around 20 years. Three years ago I met my husband in Xining when I was here on holiday. We chatted online and visited each other until I moved here a year ago. We got married in May.

On my days off, I enjoy Qinghai's famous barbecues: lamb slow-cooked in a clay pot over a fire pit dug in the ground.

Published in the Qinghai guide, free with with the March 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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