The opening ceremony of the annual Tibetan horse festival here officially begins by lighting a bundle of mulberry branches at the north end of the stadium, which sits in a treeless valley ringed by rolling hills. As the fire begins to smolder, 20 People’s Liberation Army soldiers march onto the field in tight formation. They lead a procession of thousands of ethnically Tibetan men, women, and children wearing brightly colored costumes, and 200 Buddhist monks and nuns dressed in maroon-and-saffron robes.
The highlights of the ceremony, though, are the daring stunts performed by the 150 or so riders – all with their horses galloping at full speed. Some carry a rifle in one arm and shoot small paper targets set on the ground. Others hang off the side of their horses to snatch white ribbons off the field. A small few do headstands on their saddles. Fireworks explode over the stadium halfway through the three-hour ceremony.
It’s an impressive sight for those lucky enough to get tickets – which aren’t for sale, but handed out by government officials. Yet for many local Tibetans, the horse festival is a husk of its former self, tainted by years of heavy-handed propaganda and brash commercialization.
“I haven’t been here for three or four years,” says Dawa Jiangcai, a local caterpillar-fungus salesman (used in traditional medicine, the prized fungus fetches a high price). As he watches the ceremony from outside the stadium's north gate, five soldiers march past on the gravel path beside him – all of them are ethnically Han, like more than 90 percent of Chinese citizens. “Local people don’t come here anymore,” he says.
The horse festival has long been one of the most celebrated events in Yushu, or Gyêgu in Tibetan, a county-level city on the Tibetan Plateau in the western province of Qinghai. It draws thousands of spectators every year. At the stadium, we meet a businessman from Nepal and a Han couple from Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, as well as dozens of Tibetans from across the plateau.
Tourists like these provide a substantial boost to Yushu’s relatively weak economy, a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed by local business owners. Hundreds of vendors set up stalls outside the stadium to sell food and Tibetan handicrafts. But many say they’re conflicted about the tradeoff between their growing profits and the festival’s dwindling authenticity.
“Even though we now have improved living standards and the government pays more attention to these cultural activities, I feel it’s more formalized,” says a local Tibetan who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions from the government. “Local people cannot feel free and open like before.”
The heavy presence of Chinese police and military forces doesn’t help. People's Liberation Army soldiers have been assigned to horse festivals like the one in Yushu since violent riots and protests in the Tibetan region in 2008. In the city’s central square, two fire extinguishers sit on the ground in front of a police van. They serve as a grim reminder of the more 140 Tibetans who have set themselves on fire in the subsequent years to protest Chinese rule.
Critics say that in the face of this simmering unrest, government officials have turned the Yushu horse festival into a propaganda tool – a way to show the world that traditional Tibetan culture is alive and well and the people here are happy, despite reports to the contrary.
In recent years, China has restricted the teaching of the Tibetan language as part of ongoing campaigns to encourage ethnic minority groups’ assimilation into Chinese culture. At the same time, Chinese government workers have been dismantling buildings and evicting residents at Larung Gar, one of the world’s largest centers of Tibetan Buddhist learning, in what Tibetan rights activists say is just the latest example of state-sponsored repression.
“Chinese authorities think they can use events like the horse festival to serve their political interests,” says Bhuchung Tsering, vice president of the International Campaign for Tibet, a Washington-based advocacy group that supports self-determination for Tibetans. “What has happened is that they have increasingly gained control over them.”
In 1994, the government launched a festival to celebrate the Kham culture of eastern Tibet, an ethnically distinct region known for its fierce warriors. The idea for the festival was proposed by Gama Tuga, a renowned local historian, who had spent seven months traveling around the region.
Mr. Gama died earlier this year, but his son, Gama Gangsen, says his father’s dream was to bring the Kham people closer together. Four counties take turns hosting the festival every two to four years.
The horse festival, which is a separate event from the Kham culture festival, started in the early 1980s. It’s been held annually in Yushu for the last four years.
In 2010, a massive earthquake hit Yushu, killing nearly 2,700 people and leading the government to cancel the festival for four years. As the city rebuilt itself, the government paid for a new stadium on its western outskirts. It has maintained tight control over the festival ever since. Like the newly built city around it, local residents say, the horse festival became overly commercialized and all too modern.
“For several years before my father passed away, he seldom went to horse festival,” the younger Gama says. “If my father doesn’t want to see what he doesn’t like, he will not go there.”
For locals like Gama, the heart of the festival is on the Batang Grasslands, an expansive plain about a half-hour drive south of the city. This is where many of the horse races take place in the days after the opening ceremony. Local people say they are more authentic than the events held inside the stadium.
On the eve of the festival, Dorge, a 20-year-old rider, is brimming with excitement as he stands next to his horse and thinks about the days ahead.
“When I’m riding a horse everything is perfect. It’s like flying,” he says. “I hope we can have this festival forever.”