The Tibetan Plateau is regarded as an amplifier and driver of environmental change in adjacent regions because of its extent and high altitude. However, reliable age control for paleoenvironmental information on the plateau is limited. OSL appears to be a valid method to constrain the age of deposits of glacial and fluvial origin, soils and periglacial structures in the Menyuan basin on the northeastern Tibetan Plateau. Dating results show glaciers advanced extensively to the foot of the Qilian mountains at ~ 21 ka, in agreement with the timing of the global Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) recorded in Northern Hemisphere ice cores. Comparison with results from the eastern Tibetan Plateau suggests that the factor controlling glacial advance in both regions was decreased temperature, not monsoon-related precipitation increase. The areas of the Menyuan basin occupied by glacio-fluvial deposits experienced continuous permafrost during the LGM, indicated by large cryoturbation features, interpreted to indicate that the mean annual temperature was ≥ 7 °C lower than at present. Glacio-fluvial systems in the Menyuan basin aggraded and terraces formed during cold periods (penultimate glaciation, LGM, and possibly the Younger Dryas) as a response to increased glacial sediment production and meltwater runoff then.