The driver ushers us into a tent, where we are hosted by entrancing nomad women—most likely his relatives. We heat up noodles and set up sleeping quarters in a tent nearby. The next morning, when the skies open up with a downpour, we race back for the same tent--only to have it pulled down around our ears, leaving us standing in the rain. Why, we cannot fathom. The driver has vanished. We go over to the tent with the nomad women we met previously. They are chowing down on dried yak-meat, which they offer us. In one corner is a yak carcass, freshly slaughtered.
Where are all the tents? Could be another dud on the elusive horse-racing circuit. Later that day, we discover the answer to that mystery--and the mystery of why our tent was collapsed. The tents have all migrated to the next valley over. The jeep with the guide finally arrives; they had a breakdown. We jump into the jeep and motor over the hills to the base of a sacred peak, where an extraordinary consecration ceremony is under way. Scores of monks are chanting, with several monks blasting away on longhorns. Smoke from burning juniper and incense billows into the air. Maniacal horsemen with unkempt hair and sheepskin jackets are racing around a set of prayer-flags, whooping and hooting and hollering for all they're worth. They're throwing paper squares into the air, embossed with the mythical windhorse.
Then the prayer ceremony abruptly draws to a close, and in a matter of minutes, the tents are collapsed and put on horses or on jeep roofs—to be moved back to the main horse-racing venue. Through the guide, we acquire a tent that will be our home for the next few days. The place is a sea of white tents, magically lit up at night by the flicker of lamps.
The Horse Festival is On
Morning: I peer out of the tent, searching for sunshine after a freezing night. Now it looks like a full-blown horse-racing festival. Horses and riders are streaming in from all directions. Tents stretching to the horizon. Lots of action out there. Crowds split into two sides that form the actual barriers of the racetrack. At the far end of the track is a large contingent of monks in maroon robes, and opposite them, a cluster of nomad women with puffy orange headgear. The women are out to impress—dressed in their finest robes, with a fantastic array of jewelry, and hair woven in 108 braids. Tough-looking Khampa men with Stetsons and bowler hats form most of the onlookers. Armed Chinese police on patrol keep a close eye on proceedings.
Finally, the riders take up starter positions with their trusty horses, whose manes and tails are decorated with streams of ribbons. Some horses appear to be spooked by the prospect of running the gauntlet between the lines of people. The festival launch develops into a kind of rodeo. Warm-ups for races feature individual stunt riders, who show off their equestrian skills—like leaning off the horse to pick up white scarves laid out on the ground.
A horse throws his rider and barrels into the crowd. The rider captures his horse, mounts again with others restraining the horse—and is thrown off again. The horse bolts, with onlookers giving chase. In the mayhem, I am hit in the shoulder by another horse and thrown to the ground. The spectators laugh. They find this funny.
Dusting myself off, I get back to photographing races. A rider is stomped by a horse, and carried off the field. There are some qualifying races, limited to groups of three riders, as otherwise it could be too dangerous for the crowd. Monks with whips beat back the crowds as they press forward for a better view of the riders.
The chaotic events go on for several days, a mix of stunt-riding, racing, dancing, eating, drinking and socializing. This is what I came to see: a breath-taking spectacle, full of action and excitement—a gathering of nomad clans. But I get the awful gut feeling that I am witnessing a vanishing way of life. Coming back from the horse festival, about 20 kilometers short of Litang, we pass some new construction: a housing settlement for nomads. The Chinese overseers of Tibet cannot control nomads: the ultimate solution is to force them to sell their yaks and move them all into housing ghettoes. Forcibly resettled here, nomad families will be dependent on state subsidies, with no prospect of job retraining. These proud self-reliant people--used to wild open spaces by day and a canopy of stars by night--will be neither nomads nor farmers. They will become nobodies.
Michael Buckley is author of several books on Tibet (listed at www.himmies.com), and filmmaker for a short documentary titled Meltdown in Tibet, which is about rivers, dams and water issues on the Tibetan plateau. He is currently working on a short documentary about the disappearing nomads of Tibet.
Tibet, a Third Eye, and Our Journeys Through Time by Michael Buckley
Kirkegaard in Mongolia by Edward Readicker–Henderson
Sidesaddle Girls at a Mexican Rodeo by Tim Leffel
Where Queens Come for a Fight by Donald Strachan
Other Asia travel stories from the archives
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