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Tibet Outside the TAR: Drugchu Dzong

By Steven D. Marshall and Susette Ternent Cooke


Brief Description and Impressions

Drugchu occupying the southeastern finger of Kanlho TAP, is the most easterly of any county town in a Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. At 104.5 degrees E longitude, it lies just east of Lanzhou, capital of Gansu Province, at 103.5 degrees E, and even slightly east of Chengdu. Chinese political administrative boundaries recognize Drugchu as rightly contained within a Tibetan sphere, as of 1949 when they created these boundaries. Historically, Tibetan settlement extended even farther east than Drugchu, reaching beyond Minxian to the north and touching Wenxian to the south until the end of Mongol times, but under Ming border defense and colonization policy Chinese influence and settlement crept westwards, at its absolute limit to the north of the Tao River. Even here Hui, more than Chinese, formed the principal farming population into the early 20th Century'. Drugchu does, then, represent the approximate eastern limits of the geographical context of Tibetan civilization.

Yet little in Drugchu seems Tibetan, at least on the approach to the county town via the turnoff from Highway 212 which comes down to the edge of Drugchu County through the Chinese prefectures to the east. Like other county towns in areas where Chinese influence has pressed harder and longer against a Tibetan population, as in Zungchu, Maowun or Pingan, evidence of the Tibetan presence emerges slowly. This remote corner of the Sino-Tibetan convergence, isolated from the south by the great Minshan Range and from the east by the deep corrugations of the upper Min River watershed, is an area of historical cultural and ethnic complexity. What is immediately striking in the vicinity of Drugchu county town is the strength of local Chinese folk culture, rather than Tibetan. The other most salient feature of the area is its poverty. A sector of the world not much visited by outsiders, it is a part of the poverty that characterizes Gansu. National government indifference does not help to alleviate the harshness of life here, but this is a terrain unkind to humans whoever is in charge politically. Chinese and Tibetans here suffer equally from the natural seventy of the landscape in which they live.

Not all of Drugchu County is so harsh a natural environment. Much of the county, which covers an area of only 2,983 square kilometers, is at an elevation of 2,500-3,500 meters, but rises towards the Namphel boundary. South of the Bailong River on which the county town is situated, the land gradually grows more benign, as forested mountains range towards Namphel and grasslands merge towards the west into Thewo. Tibetan population and economy must dominate in these regions, but in the Bailong valley and the county town vicinity, Chinese influence predominates, and the area appears to belong far more to the Chinese world of eastern Gansu than to the Tibetan domain of Kanlho. Vestiges of the Chinese presence from Ming times mark the landscape. Ruined beacon towers crumble on strategic ridges from Drugchu to Xincheng in Chone County, the southernmost skeletons of the Ming frontier guard system that stretched from Manchuria to Gansu to protect the Chinese interior. Drugchu town itself was a part of this defence line. Remnants of the old town wall still stand in the upper northeast part of the town, evidence of the oldness of the contest for control here, and the firmness of the Chinese presence for several centuries. A fine Ming Buddhist temple stands in the hills far above the town, as well as several smaller religious sites. Chinese form the majority population in the town today, but that alone does not confirm the long-term Chinese dominance in the town. A more telling factor is the deep-rootedness of Chinese cultural forms and practises among the district residents.

Drugchu today is accessible by road from three directions, although only one of these routes is considered reliable. Secondary roads connect Drugchu to the Tibetan region of Thewo to the west and via the Lazikou revolutionary site from the north, but the route through Thewo is said to be frequently impassable due to rock falls and landslides, effectively amputating Drugchu from mainstream Tibetan cultural influences. The main point of entry runs from Highway 212, which traverses the areas of Dingxi and Longnan Prefectures east of Drugchu. From Lianghekou a branch road turns west from the highway at the junction of the Min and Bailong rivers. The road enters the Bailong River gorge into a dramatically barren, rugged landscape, so dry and rocky that almost all farming is eliminated. There is no sign of anything much to exploit.

Viewed from above, the county town of Drugchu might be a growth on the surface of the landscape, clustered along the edge of the Bailong River and climbing up into side valleys below the dry sculpted hills. Above these rise even higher bony mountain ridges, where a few patches of conifers suggest a once damper and more forested landscape. The town consists of a Chinese-modern center with a few outlying islands of high-rise construction, connected by low-rise residential neighborhoods merging into the surrounding villages, with cultivation to the town edges. The oldest section of Drugchu lies in the northeast quadrant, where a length.

No PLA facility was observed m Dnugchu, although some PLA officers were seen in the streets. Police presence generally was not heavy in the town. Drugchu is neither a frontier region nor a scene of disruptive ethnic tensions. The fairly large detention facilities and any watchfulness of the part of the police relate more to ordinary crime in a poor, moderately-crowded county.

Economy Drugchu County's economic credentials are rather sad, confirming impressions gained on site. GDP in 1994 was 117.2 million Yuan but substantial population reduces per capita GDP to a low 942 Yuan. Only Lintan was lower, with 744 Yuan. Per capital rural net income for Kaniho was only 576 Yuan in 1992. Drugchu County's rural income must be even lower. The primary sector, dominated by agriculture, led with a 48.7 million Yuan share of the GDP in 1994. Secondary industries followed with 36.1 million Yuan, with tertiary production just behind at 32.4 Million yuan. Both official statistics and ground reality suggest there is nothing to cheer about in the local economy.


Drugchu's heavily rural population engages principally in agriculture, supplemented by grazing where non-arable land adjoins cultivation. Without doubt farmers in Drugcbu, whatever their ethnicity, are poor. In the northern stretch of the county along the Bailong River gorge, a harsh landscape forces farmers to scratch a terribly hard living out of dry, steep terraces carved as far as possible up the mountainsides, where wheat, corn, barley, potatoes and beans may be grown during a reasonably long growing season. In the lower valley near the county town, wider fields exist, and greenhouse gardening is increasingly utilized.


True pastoralism could only be practised in the western sector of the county, where high pastures stretch into the neighboring county of Thewo as part of the more familiar Amdo grassland environment. Considering TAP's emphasis on nomad settlement and fencing of pasture it is likely that Tibetans here have been subjected to these measures, and logging and mining may also have impacted their land. Economic level is not likely to be high, although perhaps not as low as for farmers.

In mixed agricultural-grazing areas, Chinese and Tibetan farmers keep chickens, pigs, cows, horses, sheep and occasionally ducks to supplement crop-growing. Some districts look too poor and rocky even for grazing sheep. Drugchu earns less than half its GDP from primary industry (48.7 million Yuan, or 41.5%).

Natural Resources Exploitation

Drugchu's forests are not visible in the county town region, despite hints of a formerly heavier forest cover even in that district in the occasional patches of trees still standing isolated on high mountain ridges. The presence of an extensive Forestry Office compound in the town confirms the importance of the lumber industry here. This may be the biggest official unit compound in the town, consisting of several large modem buildings, transport space and residential accommodation, and recently awarded an imposing new gate. Clearly the county intends to invest what finances it has into this industry, one of its only potential sources of revenue. Drugchu's forests are south, towards the Namphel boundary, and are exploited not only for lumber but also for valuable medicinal plants. Some timber is used for building in the town but nowhere, near the amount seen in other forest-rich areas like Zungchu or certain towns in Kham.

Drugchu has coal iron, gold and manganese deposits, which Chinese sources say are currently named On-site observation did not identify mining or mineral processing facilities.

[Reproduced by permission from TIBET: Outside the TAR, by Steven D. Marshall and Susette Ternent Cooke. 1997, S. Marshall and S. Cooke.]

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