The horse festival is the biggest event of the year in Tagong. It's a multi-day spectacle of equestrian skill. The festival attracts people from all over the region and almost every family from Tagong sets up a tent on the ridge in town where the races are held. It’s celebration of community, culture, and summer. We were lucky enough to be in Tagong this year when it happened (July 2nd).
The horse plays a big role in Tibetan culture, and horses can be seen everywhere: on the grasslands, in stables in town, and even roaming the streets freely. Horse festivals happen all around different locations in Tibet throughout the summer (although many have been shut down or disallowed by the government recently) and include races, skill challenges, dancing and a coming together of the all parts of Tibetan society. It's like an American state fair in terms of the ambiance --except with less corndogs-- and on par with the Kentucky derby in terms of fashion --with equal amounts of crazy hats. Onlookers dressed in their best and riders of all ages gather on the mountaintop around mid-morning as monks from the community at-large come in to bless the horses before they ride. Not all the riders own the horses they’re on, many of them are borrowed for the day from a cousin or a friend –grandfathers riding their grandsons horse and the other way around. It’s a festival less about competition and more about community.
There is a prize, though. This year it was 20,000 RMB (won by a nine year old in a neon windbreaker), a large sum, but low considering what is has been in the past. “When I was eight I won this race,” Sonam, a friend from Kangding and a Tagong native told us at the race (he got sixth place that day). “At that time the race was a big one, all the racers from Kham –as far as Yushu—were all here.” “[That year] when I won I got half a million rmb and an AK-47,” he adds as he makes a hand gesture of shooting a rifle off into the air. “Later though, the government came and took all the guns here. Now we just win money.”
The Tagong race consists of two parts: a 7km race of speed from the front of a ridge to a stupa at the top of a (ridiculously high) summit in the morning, and a skills test in the afternoon. The latter is an unbelievable display of sportsmanship. Riders going full gallop lean off the saddle –some toward the front, and others throwing their whole body backwards— to try to pick up white hada (buddhist scarves) laid out on the ground in a channel-like "area" divided by the crowd on each side. It’s as harrowing as it is exciting. Some riders inevitably fall, and others get bucked, but each time onlookers on each side rush out to help them up and hold back the horse. The reaction of the crowd at these points is different than you'd expect: instead of gasps, each time someone makes a mistake the crowd erupts in laughter. It's this kind of ambiance that makes the festival not only exciting but also so enjoyable to be at, like watching a group of (extremely talented) old friends show off in the front yard.
Below I’ve transcribed what I wrote in my journal on the ridge that day:
“Today we watched the horse races on the mountainside. It was such a good time; It felt so much like summer. It was such an amalgamation of sounds –whoops, songs, calls, bells, chants & hooves—and sights –jewelry in gold, orange, red, turquoise and white; horses in black, grey and brown tied with ribbons and bows orange, green, yellow and white; motorcycles, mostly red; tents, all white. People from all over in all different garb in beautiful black, deep green, turquoise, white, and yellow patterns.
The first race was a feat of speed, men of all ages (each family has a horse in the race) gunning up the mountain bareback. We watched from the hills next to town like watching the F1 from city apartments. Everyone seems to give their whole day to the race and events. The horses and riders came back beat, some even pulled by motorcycles.
In the afternoon the sky opened up and it really felt like a summer fair. Like lizards we all sat and soaked up the sun on the ridge.
Tibetans are so nice and effortlessly cool, especially the way they dress: soaked in jewelry and patterns of all different colors –but never over bearing. I have a lot of respect for that.”
At this point, I’d like to add an aside. Tibetans are some of the best dressed people I have ever encountered. If I was to start a fashion line right now, it would be based solely on modern Tibetan fashion. Men and women alike adorn themselves daily with the most intricate and interesting jewelry I’ve seen worn casually. Rings, headdress, brooches and necklaces made with combinations of turquoise, coral, amber and ivory; earrings so heavy they need a string around the lobe to keep them up. There's gold literally everywhere (including gold teeth on both men and women)
“The whole festival was so lively, and the people outright beautiful. Everyone was whooping and hollering with the racers, yelling to them to grab the scarves of the ground in the skill session; onlookers and riders alike making clicking “tsch” sounds to get the horses to go faster. Almost even better was the way people laughed when someone messed up. It was so casual and friendly; so encouraging. This feels like such a great community.
The afternoon race course was amazing. But what was even better was how welcoming everyone was and how good it felt being a part of something beautiful like this. “