Summer is usually Tibet’s season of celebration – having survived the bone-numbing cold of the high mountain winters, everyone from monks and nuns to far-ranging nomads and yak herders gather for the festivities, celebrating both religious and cultural holidays.
From the famed horse festival of Nakchu to the religious celebrations at Shechen Monastery, all roads lead to some sort of revelry. And most summers, visitors are welcome to join in. But since the early June closing of the Tibet Autonomous Region to foreigners, things just got a lot more somber. There has been no official word from the Chinese as to the reason for the closure, but most Tibet watchers agree that the recent spate of self-immolations by Tibetan protesting Chinese policies there were what prompted China to close the door.
I worry about what might happen to Tibet without any witnesses to the ever increasing Chinese control there, but I am also hugely grateful that I was able to complete work on my latest book, Shangri-la: Along the Tea Roads to Lhasa (White Star, Fall, 2012), before the door closed on the region again. This is a place like no other on earth, and anyone who has the good fortune to travel there will never forget it. The celebrations will go on – as they have for centuries – but the sense of Tibet’s isolation and in many cases, desperation, grows exponentially whenever the world is blocked from this place, as it has been so many times since 1980 when Tibet was opened for tourism. So in honor of the indomitable spirit of the Tibetans, I am sharing some photographs that show them in more celebratory times.
Though many of the festivals have roots in Buddhist teachings, by far the most boisterous are the many that celebrate the famed Tibetan horse. Back in the Ming Dynasty heyday of the Tea Horse Road, the Chamagudao, Tibetan horses were prized by the Chinese for their endurance and speed and as many as 25,000 horses a year were traded for thousands of pounds of tea. But today, horses and donkeys are rarely used, save for in the poorest of villages. For the farmer, tractors have replaced horse-drawn plows; for the nomads, herding work once done by horses on the grasslands is now handled by motorcycles. And horse caravans, which were once the only means of long-distance transportation of tea and other commodities, have been replaced by trucks. The few horses we did see were idle, grazing peacefully in pastures.
But during the short summer month of August, horses once again serve a purpose – racing at the summer festivals. Once held annually all across Kham and Tibet, the festivals are now strictly limited in size, scale and frequency by the government, and they are often cancelled, especially if there is a rise in the number of Tibetan protests or demonstrations.
The Nakchu festival is the biggest celebration of the horse in Tibet, drawing as many as 10,000 people. Nomad cowboys on horseback arrive from every direction, charging in at a full gallop to the edge of the festival grounds. They dismount with a swaggering flourish, knowing all eyes are on them. Everyone is decked out in their best traditional costumes: women in the long robes called chuba, draped in layers of gold and turquoise jewelry; men in Stetson hats, knee-high boots and long-sleeved tunics. Assorted contests and shows of prowess are presented, from archery to tug of war. But the races are the highlight of the day. The racecourse here is said to be the highest in the world, and the small, sturdy horses that take part are uniquely suited to the altitude. But for added energy in the races, I’m told that they get an extra boost, in the form of soaked tea leaves.