Imagine a vast expanse of grassland at 4,000 meters above sea level. Imagine the Khampas, a lively tribe of nomadic warriors, in their festive finery. Imagine horse races, crazy stunts, and traditional song and dance. Imagine a Tibetan version of Woodstock with horses.
That’s the surreal Litang Horse Festival.
Litang lies in the Garze district of the Sichuan province in China. At about 4,000 meters above sea level, it is one of the highest towns in the world. I had been traveling along the breathtaking Tibet Sichuan highway, making stops at towns nestled precariously in the mountains and, despite the bumpy bus rides, bad roads, intermittent landslides, and language barrier, it was one of the most rewarding legs of my trip to China.
My journey to Litang began in the rather nondescript town of Xiancheng. The road from Xiancheng to Litang was a dizzying series of surreal mountainscapes with intermittent rolling wetlands, reminiscent of the former Microsoft computer wallpaper. After climbing up a few huge mountains, the road deposited me in the dusty, but fascinating town of Litang.
Litang immediately reminded me of the fabled Wild West. Threatening looking Tibetan nomads in swirly cloaks, young men with long hair riding rickety motorbikes, windswept streets, and that bright light of high altitude towns. Past the main street, the bylanes leading up to the Ganden Thubchen Choekhorling Monastery are quieter and greener.
This place has a troubled history as one of the main areas of Tibetan armed resistance against the Chinese army. A former part of Kham, Tibet, Litang was also the birthplace of two Dalai Lamas and several other influential Tibetan religious figures.
The famous horse festival, I was told, was being held for the first time in 10 years after an impromptu anti-government demonstration had led to the festival being banned. Now it was back, and the excitement was evident despite the huge police presence.
The horse festival is the most eagerly awaited event in the surrounding area and the nomadic Khampas come from far and wide to participate. The three day festival involved horse racing, horsemanship, a little bit of yak racing, traditional song and dance, and a lot of revelry. The event helps establish socio-economic hierarchy in Khampas based on the ability of their horses, so everyone is in their colorful best. From the ravishing women to the horses decked in finery, from the handsome men to the little kids — it is a marvel to watch!
The festival is held on the picturesque Maoya Grassland along the Sichuan-Tibet National Road. Many travel from afar just for the event and stay for all three days of the festival, pitching their tents around the grassland. Some enterprising individuals even put up stalls selling butter tea, noodles, or cotton candy. I was told the festival has gotten more commercial this year, with a hot air balloon, camera crews, and a bunch of English-speaking locals handing out festival brochures. But nothing took away the charm of watching decked out Khampas in their swirling cloaks, smiles upon their sun-beaten faces.
It is a riot of colors. In between the races, I lie on the grass in the warm sunshine and watch the people around me, perfectly content. But not long after, a bunch of children mobbed me for photographs and a few curious monks came up to me, conversing in hand-signals and smiles.
As the day wound down with a soaring group dance, I realized just how special it was to watch an age-old cultural tradition in all its glory. The volatile political situation in these areas was not hidden, but this event was full of joy.
As I walked around the town later, visiting its monastery and the temple, I saw faith in action. I watched the locals chanting prayers and turning prayer wheels. I met people who talked about Lhasa and their homeland, and showed me banned images of the Tibetan religious head, the Dalai Lama. Faith is a fascinating thing. Watching it in action, in the middle of a town struggling to retain its roots, is even more special.