The fortune hunters of Qinghai

The fortune hunters of Qinghai

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China’s lofty Qinghai Province — taking up a large slice of the Tibetan plateau — has been known for its stunning scenery. Sandwiched between Tibet and Xinjiang, it is also a host for China’s diverse ethnic minorities. The Muslim Hui and the Salar people, Tibetans, Tus and Mongols all rub shoulders in this sparsely populated mountainous province.

The remote Province, China’s fourth largest, now attracts streams of visitors — not tourists, but new-age fortune hunters. The underlying cause for their visits is China’s rapidly advancing electric car revolution. Electric car batteries need lithium, which is plentiful in Qinghai. In fact, China holds the second-largest reserves of the mineral, with Chile standing on the top of the tree.

The lithium rush usually begins with Golmud. This is the third largest city in the Tibetan plateau after Xining and Lhasa. The city is within a striking distance of 20 salt lakes, all rich in minerals. For lithium seekers, the newly opened Golmud airport is the natural gateway to the salt lakes. But rail transit is also an option. The well-known Qinghai-Tibet railway — a 1,956-km steel corridor from Xining to Lhasa — passes through Golmud, perched at a dizzy height of nearly 3,000 m. The Qinghai-Tibet railway has many firsts to its credit. The line passes through the Tanggula Pass, which stands at a height of 5,072 m — the highest point of any railway in the world. The train also passes through the Fenghuoshan tunnel, perched at a jaw-dropping altitude of 4,905 m.

Among the water bodies in the area, the Chaerhan Salt Lake is a star attraction. The vast lake, 160 km long from east to west, with a 20-40 km north-south stretch has copious mineral reserves. The water body and its surrounding areas are said to contain nearly 83% of China’s lithium reserves. Sensing the demand for electric cars, Build Your Dream (BYD), China’s premier electric vehicle company, based in Shenzhen, was quick to lock in some of the lake’s extensive lithium reserves. Last year, it secured a concession to recover lithium and paired with a state-owned enterprise to set up a factory. Others who are riding on the electric car bandwagon are also focussing on lithium as the core item in their supply chain. Unsurprisingly, shares of lithium carbonate have doubled on Shanghai’s metal market, within a short span of two years.

Scouring the globe

As of now, the hunger for lithium in China remains insatiable, and Chinese companies are scouring the globe for accessing the mineral. The scramble for lithium was evident when a Chinese buyer — Shandong Mingrui Group — paid $78 million in cash to purchase lithium assets from an Australia-listed company in southern Mali. The Financial Times reported earlier this year that the Chinese buyer paid 2,000 times the price for the deal.

Last year, Tianqi Lithium paid $209.6 million for a 2.1% stake in Chile’s SQM, one of the world’s largest lithium producers. Tianqi Lithium’s website says it has a shareholding interest in Zhabuye Salt Lake Lithium Project, which is located in Shigatse, Tibet — a railhead of an extended Qinghai-Tibet line.


Separately, a Beijing-based company has locked in a lithium supply of 5,000 tonnes a year from Mexico, starting from 2019. The frenzied global hunt for lithium is in anticipation of a boom in the sale of environmentally friendly electric cars. As of now, electric vehicles account for only 2% of total new car sales. But demand is expected to surge to nearly five million vehicles over the next eight years.


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