Xining City Guide: Small city is towering giant of northwest

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With nearly 2.3 million residents, Xining is a relatively small city in Chinese terms. But its influence is immense and its contribution to the region’s economy far outweighs its size as a world of new opportunity opens up along the New Silk Road.

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It is the most spectacular view in Xining and arguably one of the best views in northern China. From the revolving restaurant on the Pearl of Plateau tower high above the city, you look out over a strikingly unusual and distinctive metropolis.

It takes the restaurant one hour and forty minutes to do a complete revolution. Start on the right table and you can tuck into your first course while gazing out over a bustling cityscape spread out in the bowl of a mountain valley with high-rise tower blocks and a maze of ultra-modern roads and infrastructure. By the time you get to dessert, you will be looking out over magnificent and almost deserted grasslands rolling towards the horizon – the beginning of the great Qinghai-Tibetan plateau that stretches out from the very edges of the city of Xining.

This breathtaking contrast – seen from the RMB50 million tower donated by the Shanghai municipal government in 2008 and designed by those responsible for the famous Oriental Pearl TV Tower in Shanghai – is the key to understanding the uniqueness of Xining.

It is a city set amid the most extraordinary geography with a wealth of natural resources on its doorstep and an economic and social chemistry unlike anywhere else in China. It is also a city with a hugely important role to play in the country’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ approach as China builds the foundation for a New Silk Road

Provincial heavyweight

Xining is the capital of Qinghai province. It accounts for just 1.06% of the province’s area but 43.2% of its population. The Xining population accounted for 46.8% of the province’s GDP in 2014. This year, the figure is expected to rise to more than 50% as the city’s dynamic growth continues apace.


GDP grew at an impressive rate of between 13.5% and 15% a year from 2011 to 2014. This year, city officials predict GDP growth of 10% – lower than in recent years but comfortably higher than the national average and 2-3% higher than the rate for the rest of the province. Consumer spending in Xining accounts for 67.2% of spending for the whole of Qinghai province.

When you look out from the Pearl of Plateau tower at the forbidding expanse beyond the city’s borders, it is clear why there is such a concentration of economic power within the metropolitan area. The city sits at 2,200 metres above sea level while most parts of Qinghai province are around 3,000 metres, making Xining a relatively comfortable and liveable city compared to the harsher highlands surrounding it.

Beating heart

Xining is the beating heart of Qinghai. It is the centre of politics, economics, technology, culture, transport, medicine and education. All the universities of Qinghai province are in Xining, as are all the major hospitals.

Made up of four districts, three counties and a national-level economic-technological development area, Xining has a total area of 7,665 square kilometres, an urban area of 380 square kilometres and a resident population of 2.29 million.

Because of its altitude and climate, it is known nationally as the ‘summer city’ or the ‘cool city’ – a powerful draw for domestic tourism – and enjoys unique advantages because of its rich natural resources, abundant hydropower potential, salt lakes, minerals, oil and natural gas.

Most significantly, Xining is a transport hub not just for the province but for the western channel of the New Silk Road. With the Qinghai to Tibet and the Lanzhou to Xinjiang high-speed railways completed, Xining’s gleaming new RMB2.6 billion railway station – which opened in December 2014 – can handle a freight volume of 73 million tonnes a year. When a further high-speed line to Chengdu and Kunming opens as the next stage of the network’s development, that volume will climb to nearly 100 million tonnes.

Xining’s international airport has a passenger throughput of 8 million and handles 24,000 tonnes of cargo a year. It operates 59 domestic flights to all major cities across China except Lanzhou, as well as flights to Bangkok, Seoul and Taipei. It is the most important airport in northwest China.

The Xining expressway connects Lanzhou in the east, Geermu (Golmud) in the west, the Sanjiangyuan region in the south and the Hexi corridor in the north. With the Beijing-Tibet expressway, two national roads and 12 other highways, Xining is a road hub for the northwest of China with 120,000km of road around it connecting the region to central, western and southern Asia.

Natural bounty

Few areas in China or the region are blessed with such a wealth of natural resources. A total of 129 minerals have been found in the province, and the mineral resources of the province are valued at RMB17 trillion – 13% of China’s total mineral resources.

The most striking feature of the province is its astonishing salt lakes, which provide China with rich reserves of sodium chloride, potassium chloride, magnesium salts, lithium chloride and strontium ore – accounting for 90% of national reserves. Potassium salt in Qinghai accounts for 79% of national reserves and magnesium salt accounts for 93.5%. Qinghai’s lithium reserves account for one third of the world’s reserves of saline lake lithium resources, while lithium chloride accounts for more than 90% of proven national reserves.

Qinghai also boasts rich reserves of copper, lead, zinc, cobalt and gold as well as the country’s leading reserves of asbestos, quartzite and limestone. Oil and natural gas resources rank 13th and eighth respectively in the country. Qinghai has one of the top four gas fields in China.

Qinghai is the source of three major rivers – the Yellow, the Yangtze and the Lancang – and has a wealth of hydropower resources as a result, particularly on the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. Estimates put the total hydropower reserves of the province at 3.3% of the national total.

Industrial muscle

The industrial muscle of Qinghai is concentrated in Xining, which has developed a network of industrial zones in recent years including Ganhe industrial park, Nanchuan industrial park, Dongchuan industrial, biological science and technology industrial park and Beichuan industrial park.

Xining has concentrated its efforts in eight pillar industries: new energy, new materials, non-ferrous metal smelting and processing, special chemicals, deep processing of plateau animals and plants, Tibetan carpets, wool spinning, equipment manufacturing, new building materials, energy conservation and environmental protection. Xining also serves as an important producing base of special steel, electrolytic aluminium, Tibetan carpets and numerical control machines for the whole of China.

aluminiumXining is also a base for the burgeoning solar power industry, with an annual output of 14,500 tonnes of polycrystalline silicon and 4,000 tonnes of monocrystalline silicon as well as polysilicon solar cells and photovoltaic (PV) components. The city aims to continue its development to become an important new energy base for China and the next step will be to create a silicon materials and PV manufacturing industry chain.

Already, it is home to a rapidly developing lithium battery production centre – producing batteries that power mobile phones and the increasingly popular electric vehicles seen in cities worldwide. Xining has an annual output of 3,750 tonnes of li-ion battery cathode materials.

The metals industry is also extremely well developed in Xining. The city has an output of 2.2 million tonnes of electrolytic aluminium, 1.3 million tonnes of special steel and 1.2 million tonnes of steel, making it a major domestic metal smelting and deep processing base.

New horizons

With its meticulously planned strategies for economic development and its heady pace of growth, Xining will continue to rise in prominence as it enters a new era of commerce under the national ‘One Belt, One Road’ policy.

That policy makes the pace of development and the sense of vision critical in reshaping the city’s infrastructure, economy and industrial base to meet the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead on the New Silk Road.

As its modernization and development continues, the view across the city for visitors to the revolving restaurant at the top of the Pearl of Plateau tower will become even more dazzling and impressive.

Published in conjunction with Xining Municipal People’s Government