MACHU COUNTY རྨ་ཆུ་རྫོང་། (MAQU XIAN 玛曲县)
Yes…Machu is yet another of Gannan’s vast region of grasslands. However, this area is subtly different. The grasslands are vaster and grander; the mountains taller. And through those mountains, a shimmering ribbon winds in oxbows and braids, silvery-blue at times, green at others. The county is named for the Yellow River, which winds around its borders in a massive bend – and makes the grasslands here marshily lush.
Machu is a crossroads; between Zoige and Ngawa in Sichuan to the south, Tsu and Labrang to the northeast, Henan and Zeku in Qinghai to the northwest, and Golog prefecture in Qinghai to the west. Traditionally, much of western Machu was considered Golog territory, and strong ties (according to students) remain, with Golog and Machu people often grazing in each others’ pastures.
The county town is surprisingly large and cosmopolitan-feeling, with pretensions of being a small city of sorts, but the rest of the county is nearly empty. But surprisingly, it seems somewhat set up for tourism – signs to different “attractions” pepper each intersection, and hotels for foreigners are clearly marked. So wander around Machu and see what you find…you may be surprised!
Machu County Town རྨ་ཆུ་རྫོང་། 玛曲县城 – 3400m
A much bigger place than you likely expected, the mini-city of Machu springs up out of the remote grasslands which cover the upper Yellow River valley. There’s even a museum, fronted by a new, statue-and-fountain-bedecked “Gesar Cultural Square”. But Machu is still a predominantly Tibetan town, and is a somewhat interesting place to hang out. With the caterpillar fungus boom, the streets are now lined with high-end nomad clothing shops, interiors bedecked with neon and flashing Christmas lights (you’ll have to see them to believe them), as well as sunny second-floor teahouses and decent-quality hotels. And while the town is big, it’s easy to get out into the surrounding grasslands and mountains.
Town really gets hopping in mid-August, when Amdo’s largest horse-racing festival takes place here. There’s more than just horses during the three day festival; Machu is also famous for its singers, and a number of Tibetan pop stars have come from the region. Expect singing, dancing, wrestling, and more – and possible appearances from Tibetan celebrities. Check with hotels in Chengdu, Xining, Labrang, Taktsang Lhamo, or Lanzhou for dates and details – and book your hotel ahead of time if you don’t plan to camp.
There are numerous hotels in town, but not all of them accept foreigners. As a general rule, the fanciest and cheapest hotels, as well as hotels near the bus stations, will be places you can stay (often for different reasons). As for food, Machu is on the all-important dividing line between towns whose restaurants are predominantly Muslim (north) and predominantly Sichuan (south); as such, it has a happy marriage of both. Transportation in Machu centers on the town’s new bus station, which is so large that as of mid-2013 it wasn’t actually being used yet. Buses instead arrive and depart from the courtyard in front of the building. Destinations served include all county towns in Gannan prefecture (including Labrang (4hrs), Tsu (3+ hrs), Luchu, Tiewu, etc.), Linxia (4hrs), Lanzhou (6+ hrs), Jigdril (Jiuzhi 久治, in Golog, 3+ hrs), Henan (Qinghai, every 2 days, 4hrs), and Zoige (Ruo’ergai 若尔盖, in Sichuan, 3.5+ hrs).
Southern Machu county is a beautiful place. Something about the scale of the grasslands – the ratio of sky to mountains to plains to river – is just right here, and makes the landscape somehow magical. There are a few monasteries here, but otherwise there’s not too much to do except sit back and enjoy the grasslands.