The Splendid Horsemen of Tibet

Two tourists are among a few Westerners to witness this cultural event in a remote and seldom-traveled land.

Tashi delek" (good luck) shouted a fur-capped Tibetan to his cousin, waiting impatiently on his horse at the starting line of a race at the annual Khampa Horse Festival.

Thousands of Tibetan Khampas, joined by other ethnic tribes resplendent in colorful costumes, had gathered for traditional horse races, parades, and dances.

The two-day festival last autumn was the largest in 30 years and drew a crowd of 30,000 to the town of Gyalthang in the Dechen Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. The prefecture was created after the invading Chinese dismantled Tibet's religious and political apparatus in the 1950s.

Gyalthang represents an intriguing variant on the Tibetan world. The remnants of ancient customs, costumes, and dialects no longer found in other Tibetan areas coexist with a variety of influences from the area's ethnic potpourri.

My daughter and I traveled by air from the United States to Kunming, China, then to Lejiang. By van we traversed mountainous roads to Gyalthang in the southeastern tip of the vast Tibetan plateau, home of the famous Khampa horsemen. In times past, notorious bandits and legendary traders traveled this little-known terrain with their mule caravans.

For three days we mingled with the Khampas, who were magnificently attired in traditional costumes and bedecked in coral, amber, gold, and turquoise jewelry and accessories. Their families camped in white and blue embroidered tents that dotted the hillsides around the racetrack and stadium.

The morning of the festival we left our nearby Tibetan inn, arriving in time to witness spectacularly costumed Tibetans clad in fox-pelt hats, leopard-skin robes, and vividly colored gowns.

Soon they assembled and proceeded into the stadium to parade and dance before the huge crowd. The only group receiving a silent reception in the parade was the Chinese militia who marched in, equipped with antiriot shields and helmets.

During the morning festivities, horsemen brought their colorfully blanketed race horses into the arena for the afternoon races and trick riding exhibition. The jockeys, clad in jaunty silk shirts and trousers, prepared their horses for the races. Behind the grandstand, vendors were busy setting up food stalls to hawk tsampa (cakes of barley flour), butter, tea, and spiced noodles.

When the parade and dancing wound down in the stadium, jockeys showed off their steeds to the crowd. Cameras in hand, my daughter and I moved from the grandstand onto the infield of the track where chanting Buddhist monks were burning joss sticks and pine twigs around an incense burner.

As the jockeys reached the starting line, they were greeted by eager crowds, standing on tiptoe amid a medley of well-wishing and laughter. Thunderous applause accompanied the winning ponies as they sprinted across the finish line.

The final events of the afternoon - and the most spectacular - were the horsemanship contests, in which riders performed gymnastics on their ponies and, at breakneck speed, leaned precariously to pluck scarves from the ground.

In the evening, the Khampas gathered at the town meeting hall for a fashion show with traditional dances and music. Here we were able to photograph the magnificent costumes. We were among the very few Western spectators and often found ourselves the focus of Tibetan photographers.

At this festival in a high valley beyond the reach of Chinese power, these Tibetans experienced a resurgence of old traditions. Long-neglected customs appear to be regaining importance.

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