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Tibet Outside the TAR: Tso

By Steven D. Marshall and Susette Ternent Cooke


Brief Description and Impressions

The distinctive characteristics of TAP capitals do vary, but they are variations on a theme. Everything about Tso, capital of TAP in the south of Gansu Province, manifests its prime function - to control and consolidate a colonial pattern of development in Kaniho. It is a less well-known town than other prefectural capitals like Dartsedo and Gyalthang, but it has been developing steadily and quietly in the Chinese idiom. Beginning as a small collection of revolutionary units implanted over the original settlement, it is growing into a multifaceted urban sprawl scarcely distinguishable from a truly Chinese county town. Tso is one of only two TAP capitals without its own county. The other is 'Xihai City', the reborn 2-2-1 nuclear bomb factory which has recently been made capital of Tsojang TAP , but is located within Dashi County. In both cases they did not have status as historic Tibetan centers with a logical 'right' to their own counties. Another similar, but special, exception is Dehngha in Tsonub which has been officially designated a 'city', rather than a county town, and hence on an administrative par with a county. Promoted to 'city' status, Dehngha could no longer be called a county, which meant the county could no longer be called a county, but an "area under city status '. These capitals are fine examples of the way in which the grafting of a political infrastructure over Tibetan regions results in cultural dilution and loss of control for Tibetans in areas designated Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures.

Tso or Hezuozhen as the Chinese call it, lies 270 km southwest of the provincial capital, Lanzhou, a day's journey by minibus along a paved road. Transport connections south to Ngawa, northwest to Sangchu and east to the populous county of Lintan are good. Although less convenient past Lintan. Although Tibetans use the prefecture's transport facilities, these routes are of especial interest to Hui traders. Historically, the eastern margins of Amdo and southern Gansu above Kaniho are Hui cultural strongholds, from where they have vehemently opposed Chinese control on several occasions over the last century. Until 1950 they were the main external trading presence in the adjoining Tibetan areas. Chinese economic reforms since the mid-1980's have allowed them to re-establish, if not their dominance of this field compared to the Chinese, at least a revival and expansion of their activities. They can now avail themselves of the good transport connections between the Hui pockets of Amdo, the Hui counties of southern Gansu, and Ngawa further to the south. Many Hui traders are therefore to be found today in Tso, a reflection, albeit on a far greater scale, of the historical situation of the pre-invasion Tso town. Naturally a great many Chinese have also come, first as cadres, workers and soldiers transferred there by the new Communist government in the 1950's, and later as economic opportunists.

Tso is far advanced along the road of Chinese civic development, if not at the speed of Dartsedo or Chabcha, then at a sure and steady pace that binds it ever more tightly to the Chinese mainstream. However, certain elements refute the absolute Chinese dominion of the town. On the town perimeters cluster several residential enclaves where Tibetans, Hui and some Chinese maintain distinctly traditional low-rise houses with private courtyards swept clean and decorated with flowers. The Tibetan town population, while perhaps less than half, is still substantial. And rising beside the highway at the northern approach to the town is the exceptional Tsosra Kharguthog whose magnetic quality is unmatched by any Chinese construction in Tso.

In general Tso is a pleasant town, and most of its characteristics would attract Chinese and Hui migration. It is easily accessible, with Chinese urban facilities, situated at a relatively moderate altitude and its indigenous inhabitants have been tamed and overwhelmed by the apparatus of subsumption. Ts6 is an increasingly appealing prospect for Kanlho's Chinese and Hui neighbors, hard-pressed by land shortages and overcrowding. To private migrants it offers expanding commercial opportunities; to the State, space and precious natural resources for exploitation in a China where these are in short supply. Given the practicalities, rural Tibetan autonomy in this northern pocket of Amdo is in no way a priority for the Chinese Government.


Statistical information on Tso could not be obtained. General prefeture government reports do indicate that Kanlho TAP is expanding lateral economic ties with Beijing, Fengtai, Lanzhou, Malho TAP and Ngawa T&QAP, in accord with national directives since 1992. Prefectural liaison offices had been established in Beijing, Lanzhou and Fengtai by the end of 1992. Such moves naturally increase Chinese investment, personnel and economic control interest in Kanlho.


Tso, with its rolling hills and river valley, has long been cultivated by Tibetan farmers. As explained in the "Current Demography" section above, pressure on agricultural land in Kanlho has been increasing from the north and east since the 19th Century, as Hui and Chinese farmers also moved into the area. From such intensive cultivation the land is now in fragile condition in much of the region where agriculture is the main means of livelihood. Farming methods, whether practiced by Tibetans, Hui or Chinese, seem largely traditional and non-mechanized, though use of chemical fertilizers is said to be routine. Most of the land has been carved into terraces with only the village sites left uncultivated.

The economic level of all the farmers is likely to remain low. Villages generally constitute single ethnic communities, although mixed villages of Chinese and Hui or Chinese and Tibetans also exist. The minor commercial activity that takes place along communication routes is invariably in Chinese and Hui hands. Around the town of Lintan, Hui villages predominate, but north and immediately cast of Tso there are more Tibetan farmers than first impressions suggest. Village ethnicity may be hard to distinguish due to blended populations and cultural features. Closer to the neighboring Chinese and Hui counties, Tibetans more often adopt non-Tibetan dress and display fewer signs of Tibetan habitation such as prayer flags and rooftop incense burners. Such Tibetan dress that villagers wear is of much poorer quality than seen among nomads.

Economically the farmers do not live much above subsistence level. Pressure on the land is too great, and grain brings in little income at the low prices fixed by the government. Other produce, such as fruit and potatoes, can be grown, but in insufficient quantity for farmers to earn much extra cash. Prior to Chinese and Hui agricultural infiltration over a century ago, Tibetan farmers may have enjoyed a higher economic level but this is now an old historical problem and not the result of the recent Chinese invasion and colonization. Most of the vegetables for sale in the farm produce market in Tso have been trucked in from more fertile neighboring counties outside Kaniho, and many sellers are Hui.


The greater part of Kanlho is pastoral not agricultural. Except for the farmers along the northern and eastern margins of the prefecture, most Tibetans in Kanlho engage in mixed farming and herding, or pure pastoralism including nomadic herding. The bulk of Kaniho belongs to the Amdo grassland region, where Chinese settlers find no attraction except in the newly created towns along transport routes. Herders raise yaks, cattle, sheep, goats and horses often in large numbers, and sometimes black Gansu pigs if they live in fixed dwellings. North of Tso some of these have to wear modem clothes, but the further away from Tso one travels the more traditional people's appearance becomes. Like the nomads of Zoge in northern Ngawa, the herders of Kaniho frequently trim their chubas with leopard skin a traditional practise perhaps, but a disaster for the survival of highly endangered leopards. Official sources proudly list the livestock famous in Yellow River Bend horses yaks, Tibetan sheep and Hezuo pigs" - as commodities to be exploited for the prefectural profit.

South of Tso some pastureland has been fenced, which has led to the overgrazing so typically seen with sheep and where government policy forces herders to settle m fixed abodes. This problem is also rife in Tsolho TAP, and will continue to result in increasingly serious land degradation. A substantial amount of permanent housing for former nomads has been built on the stretch from Ts6 through Luchu County to Machu County. An example is the large and dismal settlement at Gahai, where the only possible advantage for residents is the school there. Some other fixed housing was newer and in better condition than the miserable sites seen in Ngawa T&QAP.

East of Tso Tibetan herders are living a traditional lifestyle. Nomads drive large herds of yaks, horses and goats across rolling green pastures, dotted with temporary encampments of tents, huts and black sod animal pens. Herders here and southward from Tso, when not settled into permanent housing, appear prosperous and relatively unrestrained by government interference. Given such an unusual level of freedom, it is possible to understand the main incentive for the "settled nomads" policy.

The herders' produce ends up largely in the Gannan Meat Processing Plant and the Gannan Milk Products Factory in Tso, bound for Chinese markets. Since meat prices are controlled on the official market, herders do not receive the remuneration they would get if they were allowed to sell on the open market. Profits due to Tibetan herders thus drain towards China.

Natural Resources Exploitation

As in so many Tibetan areas, forestry is the principal area of natural resource exploitation in Kanlho. Official estimates place 22.8% of the prefecture under forest cover, mostly in the counties of Thewo, Drugchu and Sangchu The countryside immediately surrounding Tso is largely treeless, consisting now of crop terraces and grazing grounds, but some pines still stand on the hills beyond the south end of the town and a nursery has been established on the town's southern edge.

Containing 45.7% of Gansu Province's timber reserves, Kaniho has very valuable forest resources from the relatively forest-starved province's point of view. The storage and distribution center for logs extracted from Kanlho appears to be at Shuangcheng, an urban-industrial town about fifteen kilometers south of Linxia City and ten kilometers from the border. Extensive lumber yards containing huge stacks of small and mature logs fill Shuangcheng and also the southern outskirts of Linxia City itself. Timber quality does not match that seen in Ngawa or Kartse TAP'S. Forest areas seen from the main highways within Kanlho appeared to be stands of reforestation rather than original forests, although many consisted of fairly mature growth. Forests along the valleys of the Bailong, Tao and Daxia Rivers, where Kanlho's richest timber growth is found, are probably the source of the largest logs in the Shuangcbeng and Linxia City lumber yards. In any case, Kanlho's logs are being directed into China at a high rate, and the main profits of the logging industry go along with them. Lumber transport and processing are not significant factors on the economic scene in Tso itself, except for the Nationalities Wood Products Factory. The Bailongjiang Forest Management Office handles the largest volume of timber in the Prefecture.

The Kanlho authorities seem to be making efforts at afforestation, but the effects of over-logging in a such a dry, mountainous region appear to be devastating. In most Tibetan areas rate of extraction must far exceed rate of re-growth if what is seen on the backs of trucks is any indication. Virgin forest areas are diminishing or have completely vanished. Profits benefit Tibetans only at the lowest economic level, if they are engaged in forestry work or trucking. In the long-term, one of their most valuable natural resources is being appropriated and perhaps lost under the direction of Chinese administration.

Forests are valuable repositories not only of timber but also of wildlife and medicinal plants. Medicinal plants are highly valued ingredients in Chinese traditional medicine, and worth high prices at the retail end of the market. Suppliers of the raw materials, such as local Tibetans who collect them in the Kanlho forests, do not reap comparable profits. Fourteen species of wildlife under category one protection are claimed to live in Kanlho, including the giant panda. Preservation of endangered species depends on sensitive management of natural habitat. A bird sanctuary has been established at Gahai Lake in Luchu Province, in the same district as the large settled nomads village.

Relative to the rest of Gansu Province, Kanlho is considered to be rich in mineral deposits. Fifty-six working mine sites existed in the Prefecture in 1994. Gold extraction amounting to 415 kilos in 1994 represent a useful source of revenue in a poor area like Kanilho. Tibetans who work as miners earn wage, but the State remains the principal beneficiary of the mining industry. There are no railheads in the prefecture, but despite reasonable roadways, mining appears to be at a fairly early stage of development.

[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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