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Qinghai Lake and Bird Island

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Rapeseed beginning to ripen

Down through history, Qinghai Lake has been known variously as "West Sea" or "Fresh Sea". The lake is located on the northeastern corner of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, about 100 km west of Xining, the provincial capital of Qinghai Province. In Mongolian the lake is called Kukuruo'er, and in Tibetan, Cuowenbo, both of which means "blue sea". Because Qinghai Lake was home to the Bei and Qiang nationalities in ancient times, it was also known as "Bei Qiang Sea". During the Western Han (BCE 206 - CE 9) Dynasty, people called it "the Immortal Sea". From the Northern Wei (CE 386-533) Dynasty onward, it has been known under its present name.

Qinghai Lake is surrounded by high mountains: in the north stands the magnificent Datong Mountain; in the east, the lofty and majestic Sun-and-Moon Mountain; in the south, the serpentine Qinghai South Mountain; in the west, the steep and rugged Rubber Mountain. Qinghai Lake lies 3200 meters above sea level. With a perimeter of 360 kilometers, Qinghai Lake is the largest salt-water lake in China, covering an area of some 4600 square kilometers.

There are 23 rivers that empty into Qinghai Lake, and there are two additional, albeit quite small, lakes to the east: Gahai Lake, a saltwater lake covering an area of over 10 square kilometers; and Erhai Lake, a freshwater lake covering an area of some 4 square kilometers. Panning in a circle on the banks of Qinghai Lake on a typical summer's day, one sees the deep-green mountains in the distance that encircle a shiny green belt of grass with the bluish lake in the center. Between the mountains and the lake, the land is an open, flat prairie, a perfect pasture for the grazing of yak, camel, and sheep. One will invariably see flocks of white sheep – and the tents of the herdsmen who tend them – dotting the sea of grass that surrounds the lake.

From summer to early autumn the prairie is a lush green carpet. Thereafter the fields of oilseed rape ripen to a bright yellow, spreading a sweet scent in the air. The rape fields intersperse with the grass, creating a breathtakingly beautiful patchwork of yellows and greens that contrast sharply with the blues of the sky and the lake. The climate on the prairie is mild, though in winter, the mountains are covered in snow.

The most noteworthy attraction at Qinghai Lake is the famous Bird Island bird refuge. It is situated northwest of the lake and covers an area of slightly less than one square kilometer, yet it is the transitory home to countless numbers of migratory birds which arrive here from southern China and Southeast Asia, birds such as the spotted-head wild goose, the brown-head wild goose, the fish gull, the red sheldrake, the cormorant, and the black-neck crane.

In season (May-June), there are more than 100,000 birds that inhabit this small island to nest, lay eggs, hatch and raise their young. For the avid bird-watcher, Bird Island is a paradise, but even the inexperienced bird watcher cannot help being impressed with the sheer numbers of birds that gather here, their constant buzz of activity and the din of their mating calls, their bickering over territory, and the shrill cries of their hungry offspring.

Mount Haixin, south of Qinghai Lake, is another scenic site belonging to the lake district. It is roughly two kilometers long and one kilometer wide, and only a scant eight meters higher than the surface of the lake itself. According to ancient legend, Mount Haixin produced dragon colts. There is indeed something larger-than-life about this big-sky corner of the world, where the verdant land is expansive, the blue lake resembles an ocean and the clear blue sky seems endless.

The status of Qinghai Lake, which for years had contracted (it has begun to expand again as of 2004), has been of equal concern to Chinese as well as to international conservationists. The Chinese government has accordingly launched a number of studies to determine the role of the lake as a natural habitat for flora and fauna, including birds and fishes. Chinese authorities have discovered that the area is also rich in mineral resources. Besides being a sanctuary for winter birds that hatch their young here, Qinghai Lake is the largest natural fish reservoir in all of northwest China. Every April and May, massive numbers of fish swim to the nearby rivers to spawn. The lake, and especially the area around Buha Estuary, is rich in the edible huang ("yellow") fish. The surface of the lake is sometimes yellow from the presence of huang fish as they writhe, leap and cavort about in unimistakable mating behavior.

There are a number of ethnic groups who live around Qinghai Lake and whose existence is dependent on the future of the lake. These include Han, Mongolian and Zang (aka Tibetan) ethnic groups. They are all united in the single aim of protecting the lake and the land which surrounds it while at the same time "harvesting the area's fruits", i.e., exploiting the various  economic opportunities that the lake and its immediate environs offer, including tourism, for the area is becoming increasingly popular as an alternative tourist destination for the hands-on, outdoors-oriented tourist who seeks a closer communion with nature and with the local people who reside in such a milieu. The area has of course always been popular with bird watchers, and will continue to do so as long as the lake can provide the refuge that the birds require.

For the hands-on type, activities such as roaming the grasslands, either by horse, camel, or yak, and climbing seemingly endless sand dunes are a rewarding experience that also offer the opportunity to meet the indigenous peoples of this unique region, including its Tibetan herdsmen, and to see how the latter live, taste what they eat, etc. In addition, for all visitors – from the bird watcher to the hands-on type to the more traditional visitor – the Department of Tourism of Qinghai Province oversees the setting up of special market tents where the visitor may sample the various local food items such as milk tea, ghee (a clarified butter that originated on the Indian subcontinent), chow mein, and barley wine – to name a few – all the while taking in the immense expanse of this ruggedly beautiful, big-sky country.