In the early 1950’s Xining underwent modernization and industrialization, including completion of a highway to mineral-rich Qaidam Basin. Like so much of Northwest China railway construction, historic and recent, has radically altered and improved connectivity both within the province and to other parts of China. In 1959 Xining was brought into the growing national rail network via Lanzhou and by1984 onwards to Golmud. However it was the completion of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway to Lhasa in 2006 along with the recent high-speed rail developments both east to Xian via Lanzhou and west to Urumqi that have considerably reduced earlier isolation. Xining in the late ’90’s was starting to assume the veneer of modernity but it was around the railway station I would often spend time. Rail travel was then very cheap, with stations becoming busy transit hubs. There I would watch maroon-robed Tibetan monks and travelers carrying backpacks over their heavy brown coats arriving to head towards nearby Ta’er Monastery. Streets were filled with outdoor stalls offering snacks, including grilled spicy lamb on sticks and food for travelers, often surrounded by a cacophony of noise from tinny speakers playing cheap cassette tapes. The air was filled with cooking smoke and aromas, fruit was sold from wooden carts. So many dialects were spoken throughout the markets.
It always amazed me how quickly I could be transported by rail or road from this city of around 2,500,00, the largest urban area within both Qinghai and Tibet, to such a lightly populated plateau. It is where part of urban China gives way to a vast, often-arid, lightly populated landscape stretching across to the country’s far western borders.