Its name means "peace in the west," so it's no surprise that Xining started out as a military garrison in the 16th century, guarding the empire's western borders. It was also an important center for trade between China and Tibet. A small city by Chinese standards, with a population slightly more than 2.3 million, Xining is no longer cut off from the rest of China, but the city still feels remote. A far-flung metropolis wedged between dramatic sandstone cliffs, Xining is populated largely by Tibetan and Hui peoples.

For travelers, Xining is a convenient base for visits to the important Kumbum Monastery, which sits just outside the city, and the stunning avian sanctuary of Bird Island, 350 km (217 miles) away on the shores of China's largest saltwater lake. Tibet-bound trains stop in Xining, so this could be a good place to acclimatize to the high altitude.

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