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Tibet Outside the TAR: Machu Dzong

By Steven D. Marshall and Susette Ternent Cooke


Brief Description and Impressions

Machu composes the southwestern pocket of Kanlho TAP, a vast spread of high grassland defined by a loop of the Yellow River as it skirts the southernmost thrust of the great Amnye Machen range of Golog. It is an exceptionally Tibetan area, adjoining Golog and Yushu on its western and southern edges and merging mm the Zoge grasslands, whose natural geography it shares, in the east. Pastoralism is the only natural economy possible here, as Tibetans have been practicing it for over a thousand years. Always remote from history's wider gaze, Machu should not now be overlooked when analysing the nature and effects of Chinese development, as it has always been a region of exclusive Tibetanness. Its grazing lands, totally unsuited to Chinese agricultural patterns and too remote even for traders, never attracted Chinese settlement or even colonial frontier forts. Chinese development in Machu now represents a complete departure from anything the region has previously experienced.

The Machu county scat, Zhuogenima in Chinese administrative terminology, lies 191 kilometers southwest of the prefectural capital Tso, easily reached by a sealed route (Highway 213) that traverses the hilly Amdo grasslands through southern Sangchu and Luchu Counties, then by a branch road (No. 407) turning to Machu at Gahai. The countryside is clearly a Tibetan domain. Substantial amounts of permanent housing have been built for the area's pastoralist but virtually all the Tibetans now living in them still wear traditional dress. Two large well-restored gonpas, busy with pilgrim activity, stand within sight of the road between Tso and Luchu, whose county seat, larger and more bustling than Machu's, lies along a turnoff from the highway. The Yellow River valley for which the region is named finally appears after a low pass, strickingly wide and spacious, with no farming but fine pastures grazed by herds of yak, sheep and horses. In its midst, the county town appears scarcely visible against the vast landscape, more like a spillage of debris on the plain than a settlement constructed by design. In its alien, misplaced shabbiness, Machu town echoes other purpose-built Chinese administration and control posts erected in the Tibetan grasslands

This Particular drub grasslands town, imposed on a landscape and people who had not found urban development appropriate before, has in the four decades of its existence developed slight individual features, at least for purposes of comparison. Stretched along a main east-west street for about one kilometer, everything seems typically artificial and shoddy. Similarities with Tsekhog in neighboring Malho TAP suggest themselves immediately, though there is more "high-rise" and less absorbing street activity in Machu. The usual clutch of units through which the Chinese administration operates are represented, their relative modernity indicating official attention to upgrading their profile during the 1980's and, in the case of the Communist Party who are constructing a big new premises, matching it to the flashier self-importance of the 1990's.

Undoubtedly the town's most salient characteristic are its rows of barrack-like compounds, housing Tibetans who would formerly have lived a semi-nomadic pastoral style. Some of these town-dwellers have been settled, and to some extent sinicized, for some time, and now work as employees in government departments. Others still keep animals, penning them in enclosures at the edge of town and grazing them on the surrounding pastures during the day. Other pastorahsts have been settled more recently; their new brick huts dot the hills beyond the town. Nomad settlement may have been pursued more widely and, from the authorities point of view more successfully, in Machu and Luchu than in almost any other Tibetan area. Although its physical construction is unrelentingly Chinese, Machu's population is still dominantly Tibetan. Its Tibetans, and especially its visiting pastoralists, give the town a life and character that its planners never could have.

The town contains no compounds of outstanding interest. The presence of both an Agricultural Machinery Hostel and Nationalities Trade Hostel suggests official support of local economic developments which required provision of accommodation for incoming personnel. The shoddy newer hotel at the main intersection, by contrast, shows that private efforts at business have also come to Machu. To service the town's basic transport and amenity needs, a petrol depot lies at the eastern approach and an electric power station on the northern edge of town. A cinema is the sole "cultural"' amenity provided by the administration. The Tibetans have restored their own, in the hills behind the town; a gonpa with about 100 monks. Machu has been built for functionalism only, to achieve a limited but determined purpose: the implementation of Chinese occupation, then centrally-directed development policies, in this utterly Tibetan area.

When the Chinese first came to Machu, it was a remote area scarcely known to themselves or to the outside world. Its former inaccessibility has been modified by the building of a good motorable road, linking it to the prefectural capital within six hours. A spartan but functioning town now stands on the grasslands where none existed previously.

A modest Industrial and Commercial Bank branch lodges in an older compound near the market space, overshadowed by the new Agricultural Bank at the east end of the main street, Machu's tallest building. A new Tax Office is under construction next door to the recently-built Finance Office.

Machu's control units - County PSB, PAP Squadron and PSB Detention Center are grouped at the extreme west end of the main street. The PSB offices front the street, washed in the dark red which seems to have captured the imagination of the town planners. Behind the PSB lie the familiar low barracks of the PAP. The old jail consisting of two one-storey cell blocks surrounded by a mud-brick wall, has now been abandoned for a much newer and more secure facility next door, constructed of brick with a single square guard tower and walk-around wall. The small but modernized facility should be more than sufficient for the 30,000-odd county population of pastoralists, although isolated incidents of political protest have been reported in Machu in recent years. The Court and Procuratorate match the PSB in scale and design, two new red buildings set back from the main street in the same sector as the Party School.

Economy Machu, with its highly pastoral economy and low Chinese population, is a relative bright spot in Kanlho's poverty. GDP was 102.5 million Yuan in 1994 which, thanks to the county's low population, yielded a per capita GDP of 3,248 Yuan, by far the prefecture's highest. Primary production dominated by pastoralism, accounted for about 63% (64.3 million Yuan) of the county's GDP in 1994, followed by secondary industry with 21 million Yuan and tertiary with a scant 17.2 million Yuan.5 sector production, despite low county population, is the prefecture's second highest, well below Sangchu's 119.2 million Yuan.


Limited agriculture, growing barley and potatoes, is possible in Machu along the Yellow River and other occasional riverine belts. Most of Machu is too high, cold and windswept for crops, so agricultural produce to supply townships must be transshipped from Tso.


As far as on-site observation and published sources show, pastoralism appears to be virtually the only form of economy practised in Machu apart from pockets of cultivation along rivers. If so, it provides the county with an impressive per capita GDP - 3,248 Yuan, by far the highest in Kanlho and two and a half times the prefectural average.

Machu does produce the largest number of yaks in the prefecture, and 82.5% of yaks in the whole of Gansu Province. It is also famous for its particular breed of horses and sheep. At least two state-run horse ranches exist in the county. Prefectural-level pastoral policy emphasizes the fencing of grassland, penning of livestock and settlement of pastoralists, all measures which assist greater control and market exploitation of the pastoral economy. Although this has been the basic methodology adopted since the Communists first occupied Tibetan pastoral regions in the 1950's, the process has gained momentum in Machu particularly since the 8th Five-Year Plan (1991-1995) set goals for yearly fenced acreage and construction of new dwellings. By 1992 over 50,000 mu of grassland had been fenced in Kaniho, and 450 dwellings built for pastoralists forced to settle down". Permanent settlements observed in the region, such as the large one at Gahai, in Luchu County twenty kilometers before the Machu boundary, are newer and in better condition than the miserable sites seen in Ngawa T&QAP, and appear to provide better access to facilities such as public schools. An artificial and rather dismal air still clings about them however, and local overgrazing can be a problem. Nomad settlement is certainly well advanced in both Luchu and Machu, and the authorities seem set on its even wider implementation in these counties. In the more distant reaches of Machu away from the main transport routes, some pastoralists may still be leading a more traditional nomadic lifestyle.

Pastoralist settlement may be seen right up to the edges of the county seat, where some brick dwellings for nomads have been built very recently. Large herds of yaks, cattle, sheep and horses are grazed around the town, brought back to enclosures near these dwellings at night. A few tents are also pitched not far beyond the town outskirts, indicating that some local pastoralists still engage in more widespread grazing. The inhabitants of the monotonous barrack compounds that compose most of the town must mostly be former pastoralists, now settled in this local socialist-urban environment. The Chinese occupation has thus had a dramatic social impact on many Machu Tibetans, forced from nomadic into permanent settlement. In the settlements outside the county town, they hang on to many of their habits and customs with remarkable determination on, such as retaining elaborate Amdo dress and erecting tall prayer flags near their houses and across the landscape. The long-term effects of forced settlement go much deeper than retention or loss of these outward expressions, however. Ultimately, the Chinese policy of forced settlement and fixed grazing areas disrupts the whole basic socioeconomic pattern of nomadic pastoralism, and with it the deeper cultural features and characteristics that distinguish the participating Tibetans themselves.

Natural Resources Exploitation

Apart from medicinal herbs and musk, Machu does not appear to exploit any natural resources. The high grasslands do not support forest growth, nor have published sources mentioned the existence of mineral deposits in the county.

[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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