Horse festival - Zhongdian or Shangri-la's big one

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Friday, June 29, 2007

  Horse Festival

Every year, usually during the summer, Tibet hosts a number of horse festivals. To call them horse festivals is perhaps to wrongly label these events, because for visitors they are largely cultural events. Sure, horses and riders do race and compete over several days for prizes and medals, but for many outsiders the attractions are around the race track rather than on it.
You see, this is one of the few events where Tibetans - and sometimes other ethnic minorities that make up the Tibetan borderlands - dress up in their finest. Not unlike Ascot, the Melbourne Cup or the Kentucky Derby you might think?
To get to these horse festivals usually involves some hard yards of travel over high passes, crossing raging rivers and enduring bumpy roads. My trip up to Zhongdian for the recent horse festival wasn't too bad. Just the usual cramped seats, rubbish on the floor, overtaking on blind corners, loud crappy music blasted into the bus, stop for petrol half way into the trip, stop for water to cool the brakes, knees in your kidneys from the person behind, driver not wearing a seatbelt apart from near checkpoints, and only three people chain-smoking with closed windows. Plus, for this trip, only one accident - a large truck overturned into a ditch on a flat stretch of road, and only two people vomitting - a boy after scoffing breakfast of fried bread, and his mother, who sprayed the side of the bus.
Four hours of entertainment: US$5. Yes, China is cheap.
Where else can you be in a bus hurtling through a tunnel with no lights? Where else on earth can you get a landslide and rockfall thrown in for free with your trip?
While there was little traffic on the road to Zhongdian - mainly buses racing along and trucks lumbering up hills - the road to the horse festival venue was packed. Sure, it might be a national highway and main route into Sichuan and the Tibetan Autonmous Region (TAR), and the police might have known about the possible traffic congestion, but in totalitarian China it was pure anarchy on the road. I got a message from a friend who had headed out in the morning to the openning. She'd been stuck in traffic for an hour and was still a long way from the Napa Hai grassland where the 2007 event was being held.
I got on a bus heading that way, but on the outskirts of town cars, vans, buses and trucks were backed up for a kilometre or more. In China there seems to be a road rule that if your vehicle can travel at a certain maximum speed, you should travel at that speed. Another rule seems to be that if you appear important, you can get away with anything. So as we waited behind a line of other cars and buses, other vehicles decided to overtake us on the other side of the road and jostle for position as close to where the police were blocking all traffic heading to the event. Soon traffic was four-wide across the road, making it impossible for on-coming traffic coming from the horse festival and the town of Deqing. Even a delegation of VIPs with a police escort and flashing lights couldn't make their way back into town. After half an hour or so I got out of our bus, walked 600m to the front of the queue and surveyed the situation. Traffic from our road and from a joining road was being held back by police. But daring drivers were overtaking the queued traffic and zooming past the police. After a few minutes, once another delegation of VIPs in black Pajeros passed, the police let the waiting traffic onto the section over to Napa Hai. All hell broke loose. It was like a Grand Prix start - combined with a demolition derby. I quickly jumped into the nearest van as it revved its engine. Soon we were away and speeding over the hill and down to Napa Hai, where in the distance we could see the balloons, dust and smoke.
Our van turned off the road onto the grassland and bounced its way towards the action, where crowds lined the 1km raceway.
Usually the Zhongdian horse festival is held in a stadium built for the purpose, but this year it is being renovated for larger events and also as the high-altitute training ground of the Chinese national soccer team. Napa Lake is a seasonal wetland/grassland, with its lake filling up in summer when it rains. The rest of the time it is a relatively flat area grazed upon by horses, pigs and yaks.
Usually the festival lasts for three or four days, but this year it was only a two-day affair, as a larger event is planned for September for the 50th anniversary of the area's 'liberation'.
The Zhongdian horse festival usually takes place in June, when the labourers are less busy, having either harvasted crops or planted barley. Old timers say it hardly ever rains, though last year and this year proved to be exceptions.
So what takes place? On the first day there were the usual speeches and then a large display of dancing, with many villagers contributing dancers young and old to take part in a large circle step-dance. With this colourful display over, the horse racing began. Tibetans are keen horse-riders, often using horses to round up yaks. The horses are smaller and stouter than conventional race-horses - they are built to carry loads and also cope with the lack of oxygen at 3100 - almost two miles high.
As well as races to determine the fastest horses and riders, there are also skill events, where riders canter along, their bodies leaning back. Another event has riders dropping forward and reaching down to pick up silk scarves laid down on the ground - riders are awarded points for the most scarves claimed and also the fastest circuits.
On the first day, soon after the races began, it started to rain. We could see the dark clouds loom on the horizon, and knew it would be a matter of time before they spread down the hills and onto the grassland. The warm breeze that procedes such a weather change was enough warning for many to pack up and get ready to head back to town.
There was something dramatic about the shafts of light and rain as they swept across the plain, before drops of rain appeared, umbrellas went up and the thousands of spectators headed for cars or, like me, sought shelter downwind beside trucks and tents. I joined several dozen people trying to shelter beside a Dongfeng truck, our knuckles turning white in the cold. In a short break in the rain, I walked across to a tent and then squeezed in. The Tibetan tent was packed with people from a nearby village, along with some foreigners, one who was recording some local songs for a possible radio documentary. Women, and sometimes men, took turns at singing heartfelt songs, the notes rising in the warm tent.
When it stopped raining a small crowd was gathered around the organiser to discuss carrying on the day's racing. Eventually thing started again, though by this time the crowd had reduced to less than 5% of the morning's tally. Every 10 or so minutes a race would start, heading out along the 1km stretch, the riders and horses disappearing into the green distance, before re-appearing some mintues later along the home stretch. I wasn't sure where the finish line was, as at this end the horses and riders had to round a sharp corner. Some horses didn't and sped into the crowd. Soon some at that vantage point gathered stones and sticks to persuade the horses back on course.
While at the horse stadium people can get good seats around the race, the best seats at this event were on the back of trucks and vans parked alongside the track. If locals are interested in the horses and riders, outsiders like me are more interested in the spectators. As well as crimson-robed monks from the nearby Songzhalin monastery, there are Tibetans in traditional costume. The women wrap up their hair in bright pink and purple scanes of wool with blue caps, and wear red tops with strips of flowery fabric. Local Yi wear black mortar-board hats held on with scarves. Local men wear white cowboy hats. Even the horses are dressed up for the occassion, with a rainbow of colours from their manes and tails.
As this was my third horse festival in Zhongdian, I now know and recognise many of the riders. The hunchback women who is a good rider, but when her horse goes off-course she is prone to beat, kick and whip it. The boy from the orphanage who one year won third prize, and the father of the orphanage
who rides regally, his white hair flowing behind him. The organiser with the large fur hat and string of precious stones around his neck. The horseman who always seems to have a cigarette in his mouth, regardless of whether he is resting, talking or riding.
Every year there seem to be less people in traditional costume, and more Tibetans turning up with 4-Wheel Drives. Maybe I am just getting sentimental.
And each year I notice more and more litter and trash. Just left there. By the stage a mini-tornado whirlwind saw a column of rubbish rise up like a demon dancing. A stream was lined with plastic wrappers and bottles after the first day. When the prize-giving took place on the second day, the announcer asked first everybody to pick up litter in front of the stage so it wouldn't look too bad.
While horses and riders are the centre of attention during the day, as the sun sets on the longest days of the year, attention turns to people and dancing. Each night of the year in Zhongdian, up to a thousand people dance each night in the centre of the new town. A few hundred gather in the old town square also to dance around clockwise in a series of simple steps, to the sounds of a crackly sound system.
On the third day of the festival, after the horse events had finished, dancers gathered in the afternoon in the old town for more dancing.
And that was it for 2007.
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