Phrynocephalus vlangalii is restricted to dry sand or Gobi desert highlands between major mountain ranges in the Qinghai (Tibetan) Plateau. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequence (partial ND2, tRNATrp and partial tRNAAla) was obtained from 293 Phrynocephalus sampled from 34 sites across the plateau. Partitioned Bayesian and maximum parsimony phylogenetic analyses revealed that P. vlangalii and two other proposed species (P. erythrus and P. putjatia) together form a monophyletic mtDNA clade which, in contrast with previous studies, does not include P. theobaldi and P. zetangensis. The main P. vlangalli clade comprises seven well-supported lineages that correspond to distinct geographical areas with little or no overlap, and share a most recent common ancestor at 5.06 ± 0.68 million years ago (mya). This is much older than intraspecific lineages in other Tibetan animal groups. Analyses of molecular variance indicated that most of the observed genetic variation occurred among populations/regions implying long-term interruption of maternal gene flow. A combined approach based on tests of population expansion, estimation of node dates, and significance tests on clade areas indicated that phylogeographical structuring has been primarily shaped by three main periods of plateau uplift during the Pliocene and Pleistocene, specifically 3.4 mya, 2.5 mya and 1.7 mya. These periods corresponded to the appearance of several mountain ranges that formed physical barriers between lineages. Populations from the Qaidam Basin are shown to have undergone major demographic and range expansions in the early Pleistocene, consistent with colonization of areas previously covered by the huge Qaidam palaeolake, which desiccated at this time. The study represents one of the most detailed phylogeographical analyses of the Qinghai Plateau to date and shows how geological events have shaped current patterns of diversity.