Nomads' Land
Text and photos by Michael Buckley

Persistence pays off in the search for a nomad horse-racing festival in Tibet.

Tibet nomads

Litang, at the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, is a town full of dust and dogs. The dust gets in your camera--and your lungs--and the dogs rob you of sleep, striking up a chorus of barking and yapping after midnight. I've been holed up in this frontier town for ten days now, trying to shift gears.

The plan was simple: to hit the grasslands close to Litang for the annual nomad horse-racing festival, the biggest on the Tibetan plateau, slated for the first week of August. The problem: the festival has been canceled at the last minute. The probable reason for this: three years back, a Khampa nomad called Rungye Adak snatched the microphone at festival center stage and spoke frankly about issues of injustice involving Tibetan nomads, and about the Dalai Lama. For that brave short speech, he was sentenced to eight years in jail. The Chinese official way of dealing with any kind of criticism is to silence the critic.

Tibet nomads horse

The irony of all this is that the Litang nomad horse-racing festival was specifically established by Chinese authorities to attract foreign and Chinese tourists. The plan in Litang has backfired because when throngs of exuberant Khampa nomads get together, there is potential for trouble. Kham, in east Tibet, is home to the former warrior clans of the Khampas—tall, brawny, proud, headstrong, and with allegiance to no master. To show the outside world that things are normal, Chinese authorities would like to stage the Litang festival again. But I quickly learn that every year since 2007 the festival has been widely announced--only to be called off within days of the projected start date.

Living off Yaks and Horses
Other travelers who've come for the Litang festival are stuck in limbo, biding time at the same hotel. I team up for jeep rides to visit nearby rangelands and see nomad herders hard at work, milking yaks, and turning that milk into butter, curd and cheese for longer-term storage. Inside a yak-hair tent, a nomad woman is combing yak hair, the first step for the weaving ropes, bags, and indeed the material for the tent itself. The story of the Tibetan nomads is the stuff of legends—a tale of survival in one of the world's harshest environments, with extreme altitude, little tree cover and freezing winters. And it all started with the domestication of wild yaks over 3,500 years ago.

Tibet man

Despite being entirely dependent on yaks for survival, and placing great store on these remarkable animals, the real passion of nomad men is horses. Horses provide little in practical terms, but they embody freedom, providing transport in rugged mountain terrain. A fast horse is a prized status symbol. Tibetan horse breeds are distinctive: a high-spirited, stocky horse, well-adapted to high altitude. There's a long tradition of nomad summer get-togethers and competitions on the high grasslands, all centered around horses.

We discover there are minor horse-racing festivals in the vicinity of Litang, but these prove highly elusive—either claimed as finished a few days ago, or said to be several weeks in the future. After exploring a number of dead-end avenues, the hotel "radar" picks up talk of something more promising. We learn from three separate sources of a large festival a day's journey away, only approachable by jeep. We locate an English-speaking guide, who organizes two jeeps for five Westerners. We weren't counting on freight: when the first jeep pulls up, it is loaded with crates of beer—and the driver's sister sitting on cartons of goods packed in the back seat. That leaves room for just two of us. My fellow traveler is a Greek photographer. Along with his three cameras, he has brought half of his hotel room--quilt, bowls, whatever else he deems useful--plus a pillow from a Greek airline. We stop at a market on the way out of town to buy sleeping mats and food supplies.

One misstep here: the guide is in the second jeep, which is nowhere on the horizon. On arrival at the grassland venue, only a handful of nomad tents are visible. Have we come to the wrong place? Too early, too late? No idea, since we're the only foreigners present. The guide and other three Westerners have failed to show. My Tibetan is limited, and in any case, they speak Kham dialect here, which is like trying to decipher Scottish brogue.

Tibet people

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