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552km (342 miles) S of Xining, 525km (326 miles) NW of Aba. Altitude: 3,700m (12,136 ft.)

Few capital cities are one-street towns, but Maqin, the capital of Golok Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, is just that. Efforts to "settle" nomads are rarely successful , and the town has a Wild West ambience. Nomads wander around for a few hours, and then amble out again. North of town is a picturesque Mani temple, choked with tar-choks (prayer flags), and the bustling market to the left of the bus station is worth a look. But the main reason to come here is to visit Amnye Machen, Amdo's holiest mountain. Warning: Maqin is one of the coldest towns in Qinghai -- and Qinghai is a cold place.

The Panchen Lama's Letter

The Great Leap Forward (1959-61) killed an estimated 30 million Chinese, but the horror of Qinghai was unparalleled. The leftist policies of the city's radical governor, Gao Feng, are said to have wiped out up to half the population. Starvation claimed most lives, while the PLA's policy of "fighting the rebellion on a broad front" (pingpan kuoda) saw countless monks and nuns murdered. The Panchen Lama, viewed as a puppet of Beijing, was sent to Qinghai on a fact-finding mission in 1962. Upon his return, he penned a 70,000-word tract -- The Panchen Lama's Letter -- which implied genocide: "The population of [greater] Tibet has been seriously reduced. . . . it poses a grave danger to the very existence of the Tibetan race and could even push the Tibetans to the last breath." Mao was enraged, the "puppet" was put under house arrest, and he was only rehabilitated by the Party in 1988. Ending nomadism, of which Marxism takes a dim view, is still official government policy.