Xining, capital of Qinghai Province, is a historic frontier garrison city that was China’s gateway to Tibet. In 397 A.D., during the chaotic Sixteen Kingdoms Period of Chinese history when nomadic tribes ravaged Northern China, a tribe of Xianbei Tuoba 鲜卑拓跋 nomads seized control of Xining and declared the shortlived kingdom of Nan Liang 南凉 which lasted for 18 years. Today, remnants of this long forgotten regime still stood in the city centre of Xining in the form of a huge military command mound surrounded by modern day schools, malls and apartments.
Qinghai Province and neighbouring Gansu Province were home to the Hui people回族 – a Muslim people that was formed from the intermarriage of Arab, Persian and Central Asian traders on the Silk Road, with Chinese living in this cosmopolitan frontierland. The Hui, also known as Dungan, speak Mandarin peppered with corrupted-Arab and Persian vocabulary, and are renowned for their beef lamian and fiery kebab.
Although the famous lamian stalls found across China are named after Lanzhou (Gansu’s capital), most of these stalls are run by Hui and related Salar people from Xunhua 循化county near Xining. They built magnificent mosques which resemble Chinese temples, complete with Chinese traditional rooftops and gaudy colours, but the observant ones would notice the star and crescent, and that the pagoda-looking towers are actually used as minarets where calls for prayers were broadcast to the community through loudspeakers.
From Xining, I visited the small town of Huzhu and its cultural parks and museums. Huzhu is the centre of the Tu ethnic group, who called themselves Monguor and have their own autonomous county. The Monguor are descendants of a Xiangbei nomad warriors who marched here all the way from Manchuria, set up the once-powerful Tuyuhun Empire吐谷渾 (285-670 A.D.). They later converted to a variety of Tibetan Buddhism sprinkled with shamanist ceremonies and many continue to live in yurts in the high plateau of northern Qinghai.