Rid­ing high

His­toric horse fes­ti­val spurs trade, cul­ture, an­cient sport

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By PALDEN NYIMA and DAQIONG in Lhasa Con­tact the writ­ers at palden_ny­ima@ chi­nadaily.com.cn

Damx­ung county, in the Ti­bet au­ton­o­mous re­gion’s vast north­ern grass­land, is fa­mous for the high peaks of Mount Nyanchen Thanglha, the pic­turesque Namtso Lake and its an­nual horse race fes­ti­val, which is usu­ally held in late Au­gust.

“Ac­cord­ing to Ti­betan his­tor­i­cal records, the Damx­ung Horse Race Fes­ti­val was prac­ticed as early as the time of Ti­bet’s King Songt­san Gampo in the 7th cen­tury,” said Karma Dzong­dru Sangpo, a busi­ness­man in Damx­ung.

“This place was also used as a sta­tion for cav­alry by the fifth Dalai Lama Ngak­wang Lob­sang Gy­atso in the 17th cen­tury.”

Held over a pe­riod of two weeks to a month in the past, the gala is now a week­long event. Its fo­cus has also shifted away from purely rac­ing to­ward trade and in­vest­ment, cul­tural per­for­mances and the in­te­gra­tion of tra­di­tional Ti­betan sports.

In 2008, it was listed as a part of China’s na­tional-level in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage.

Ti­betan no­mads see the gala as one of their most im­por­tant fes­ti­vals. They hold pic­nics on the grass­land and dress their best for the event.

Re­li­gious rit­u­als such as the burn­ing of ju­niper branches and hang­ing of prayer flags mark the start of the fes­tiv­i­ties.

Three races of vary­ing lengths are then held, as well as a step com­pe­ti­tion, which usu­ally in­volves ex­pe­ri­enced adults and re­quires pa­tience and stability.

The races, how­ever, are un­der­taken by chil­dren aged 8 to 12, as these re­quire ex­plo­sive force and speed.

Be­sides the races, there is also a con­test to see who can col­lect the most khadas — white scarves that rep­re­sent pu­rity and aus­pi­cious­ness to Ti­betans.

Par­tic­i­pants on horse­back pick up the khadas from the ground, with the rider who col­lects the most win­ning the game.

Horse­back archery con­tests are also held, re­quir­ing the riders to shoot at tar­gets while mov­ing at speed.

Jikme, the 13-year-old cham­pion of this year’s long-dis­tance race, was taught to ride by his fa­ther at age nine.

He has trained his horse for five years, rid­ing it for five km ev­ery morn­ing, and thinks of it as his best friend.

Jikme’s fam­ily has four horses. Train­ing horses is a skilled and tough task, ac­cord­ing to Dawa Tser­ing, a no­mad of Damx­ung.

“The work in­cludes feed­ing and show­er­ing the horse, as well as mak­ing it strong, help­ing it lose weight and pro­vid­ing it with cloth­ing to pre­vent it get­ting cold,” the 50-year-old said.

“Horse rac­ing rep­re­sents brav­ery, power, and wis­dom, and it is also a mea­sure of a man’s value on the grass­land.”

This year’s fes­ti­val re­ceived a record of 300,000 vis­i­tors from home and abroad, ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics from the Damx­ung Tourism Bureau. They helped cre­ate a tourism in­come of 2.7 mil­lion yuan ($362,000) to the county last month.

Damx­ung county re­ceived a record 790,000 vis­i­tors last year, a 20 per­cent in­crease over the pre­vi­ous year.

PHO­TOS BY PALDEN NYIMA / CHINA DAILY

Per­form­ers dance at the open­ing cer­e­mony of the horse race fes­ti­val.

The bonus for the win­ner of a horse race is 100,000 yuan.

Ti­betan no­mads watch the open­ing cer­e­mony of the fes­ti­val.

A Ti­betan tra­di­tional cos­tume show is staged at the fes­ti­val.

Four Ti­betan women sing at the open­ing cer­e­mony.

A group of Ti­betan artists stage a short play at the open­ing cer­e­mony.

A young rider re­ceives a khada af­ter win­ning the long-dis­tance race.

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