Litang Horse Festival: A Tibetan Celebration

Litang Horse Festival: A Tibetan Celebration

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Litang Horse Festival was laid out upon the vast open grasslands next to the road into town, a place for everyone to enjoy… Litang is one of those very special places to travel in western China..

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There were tents scattered over a few hundred meter radius, horses beautifully adorned in coloured ribbons and bells, their owners standing aside, proud in traditional Tibetan cowboy gear (a kind of wrap with long sleeves, long hair and gangsta glasses to match their macho stares!). Monks (Llamas) roam the festival, forever spinning their hand held prayer wheels or taking use of the large tent in the centre which housed a rather large communal prayer wheel.

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The grassland has become swamped in areas and we follow the lead of the Tibetans hopping our way around the puddles, helping one another and commiserating when a shoe is lost to the cold. Grinning, the bikers bravely cross the deep pools and generally keep all three riders dry. Families pass their children over the bog and assist the elderly, each person dressed to impress.  The women and girls were stunning. Some paraded proudly dressed in two-piece long skirt sets, braided hair, jewellery and those all important high heels. It seems there are very few tourists here, nearly everyone is garnished in traditional Tibetan attire and looking like they have walked straight from a book I once read concerning extravagant travelling nomads.

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Litang Hose Festival, Tibetan 'Khampas'
Tibetan ‘Khampas’

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There is a central point amidst the grassland, a channel depicted by prayer flags beyond which the crumbling ruin of a concrete bandstand shields out the wind. After ½ an hour people watching upon the ‘ruin al la grandstand’, Becks and I moved on and into the crowd of noise and colour. It wasn’t long until we have an encounter with the Chinese police. A van pulls alongside us, from within several officers and a camera crew confront us. ‘Why are you here?’, ‘Can we film you?’ and ‘Don’t cause trouble’ seem to be the important concern for interaction. We had not until now thought about an ulterior ‘Free Tibet’ motive for visiting the festival, and we began to wish that we’d tucked banners into our shoes.

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Litang Hose Festival, Places to travel in western China
‘The Grandstand’

 

.The surrounding tents support tens of hundreds of nomadic Khampa families – the Tibetans who have been herding over many generations. Within 5 minutes of strolling and trying to peer in and see how these unique folk live, we are graciously invited into one of the tents. The nights bedding has been neatly folded to the rear of the tent, enough for nearly ten people. The focal point is a table overflowing with soft drinks, juices, fruit and snacks ranging from sunflower seeds to potato chips. On one side of the table sits a grandmother caressing the hair of her granddaughter, opposite them are several young males playing dominoes. We are immediately poured a form of tea that has a chicken broth flavour (cross with musk :S) and after each sip our cups are hastily refilled as is Tibetan custom. Therefore to finish our drink we must leave it full until we are ready to leave to avoid offending our hosts. It was here inside this marvellous tent where we first noticed Tibetan women’s lovely jewellery. Bigger is better in this case and More is most definitely more! Matching yellow gold rings adorn their pointer and middle fingers topped with an orange stone. Their big yellow gold earrings tug down their earlobes whilst their necks and wrists are ringed with prayer beads looped round and round again.

 

Litang horse festival, Places to travel in western China

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Still inside the tent the children with rosy red cheeks from the everlasting windburn, sit on mums lap shying away from eye contact with us strange foreigners. Their teeth perfectly aligned, glisten white against their hazelnut skin. Deep brown, almond eyes remain focused on us newcomers. Everyone is intrigued. The spotlight is on us, yet somehow we feel the spotlight is on them. We stare back taking in in their smells, their shyness. I look at their dirty fingernails, their gold teeth, their deep lines forking from their magnificent eyes, nose and mouth illuminating them. These travelling women are truly beautiful.

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Excusing ourselves from staying for dinner, we leave with our parting gift – a of a can of red bull – and meander in search of a toilet. Only on our third attempt at asking the whereabouts of a WC do we believe that there is not one. NONE! Not an inkling of a sewage system in any sort of vicinity to support several thousand people for over a week!! PERFECT! We head for the roadside, chaotic with new arrivals, and descend down its steep bank to pee. Gory details aside, our bowels were not too crash hot and we kind of dance/hobble over to a shrub for a little more privacy… It is official, we have pooped on the side of a busy highway in broad daylight, now will someone get me a goddam medal. Litang Horse Festival we thank you for this cultural experience.

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Litang horse festival, Places to travel in western China
Captivated by the race.

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Clomping back to the festival grounds we take a seat on our pac-a-macs and just take in the surroundings and get some energy and motivation back. From not showering for multiple days and a few nights of bad sleep we were feeling down and just tired of the China curveballs which keep flying once one has been unleashed. After an hour or so we see the crowds begin to converge and sweep towards the fenced area. The show was about to begin!

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Ladies, Llamas (Monks) and suited gentlemen and all the unique categories in between were squished together forming thick borders around the grassy track. The crowd started to cheer, clap and yahoo. A deep rumble permeating from the arena. Down the grassy lane, a beautifully garnished horse with Tibetan cowboy rider on back galloped at break-neck speeds. Over and over the horses would race, spraying clumps of dirt and grass at the crowd. Laughter emanating from sideline as kids and adults alike got splashes of water from the track on their face (I got my fare share). Keeping order, a cluster of head Llamas parade up and down the pulsating crowd whipping, yes whipping with a multicoloured cat-o-nine tails. Any member of the audience who crossed the invisible boundary of play had to retreat, most clambered upon a parked vehicle, drowning their bonnets in order to get a better view.

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Litang Hose Festival
“Over and over the horses would race, spraying clumps of dirt…”

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Keeping with Tibetan cowboy rules, the jockeys are riding a smaller statured horse. This enables them to swing their body down, off the saddle and hang at the hooves of their beast. Reaching as far down as they can their goal is to pick up a sash attached to a coke bottle off of the ground. The historical significance of this event is to help to establish socio-economic hierarchy of Khampas who participate in the festival. A lot of honour and prestige is placed on who owns the best horse influencing Khampas from all over southern China and Tibet to congregate and trade, celebrate and ride. This day was a cannonball into the Tibetan culture.

 

What an end of the world travel experience! Litang we applaud you.

 

Return to Places to Travel in western China

 

 

 

Written by

Prue Sinclair is a twenty-eight year old Aussie who for the past seven years has been exploring the furthermost reaches of the World. Living anywhere but her homeland, she now resides somewhere in the UK where she writes about the adventures of her Ultimate British Road Trip. Her message is simple: You can get anywhere on any budget, you just need to think outside the box. You can trust she's finding her way to somewhere lesser-known and writing a 'How To' guide.

5 Comments
  • […] Litang sits at 4100m, a mystical place that Tibetans call home. One of the only places in the World to continue the traditional Tibetan burial and also hosts the annual Tibetan Horse Festival. […]

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  • […] For another end of the world adventure in Litang check out the Tibetan Horse Festival. […]

  • lars molin says:

    Hi,

    Thank you for sharing your awesome experience. Being a world traveler myself, I was intrigued by your experience, and I would love to head out there next year. Can you tell me, when it was and the name of the city, please ?

    Awesome blog !

    Have a great weekend 🙂

    Lars

    • Hey Lars,

      Thanks for kind words. The horse festival is in Litang, Sichuan Province, China. Its a pretty hard place to get to but it is most certainly worth it. Not only does it hose the horse festival (we went on the 20/7), it is one of the only places to get to witness a sky burial (check that article out on the site – gruesomely fascinating) and its the second highest town in the world (4180m) …. BREATHTAKING!

      Anyways, thanks for getting in touch. Hope that helps a little. If want help in how to get there (it’s closed to tourists most of the time) then drop us a line. We would be happy to help!

      Prue and Becks,
      Straight On Detour Girls.

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