Historic horse festival spurs trade, culture, ancient sport
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.
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.