The thermal properties of rocks in the upper crust of the Qaidam basin are given based on measurements of 98 thermal conductivities and 50 heat production values. Nineteen new measured heat flow data were obtained from thermal conductivity data and systematic steady-state temperature data. This paper contributes 28 calculated heat flow values for the basin for the first time. Examination of 47 heat flow values, ranging from 31.3 to 70.4 mW/m2 with an average value of 52.6 ± 9.6 mW/m2, gives the heat flow distribution character of the basin: high heat flows over 60 mW/m2 are distributed in the western and central parts of the basin. Lower heat flow values are found in the eastern part and north marginal area of the basin, with values less 40 mW/m2. The Qaidam basin heatflow data show a linear relationship between heatflow and heat production, based on thermal structure analysis. The thermal structure of the lithosphere is characterized as having a ‘hot crust’ but ‘cold mantle’. Heat production in the upper crust is a significant source of heat in the basin and contributes up to 56.8 % of the surface heat flow. The heat flow province is of great geophysical significance, and the thermal structure of the area gives clues about the regional geodynamics. Study of the Qaidam basin thermal structure shows that the crust has been highly active, particularly during its most recent geological evolution. This corresponds to Himalayan tectonic movements during latest Eocene to Quaternary times in the region of the Qinghai–Tibet Plateau. Since the Qaidam basin is in the northeastern area of the Qinghai–Tibet Plateau, the heat flow values and the thermal structure of the basin may give some insight into the thermal state of the plateau, and study of thermal regime of the Qaidam basin could in turn provide useful information about the tectonics of the Qinghai–Tibet Plateau.