In the summer of 2010 I set out on a 71 day journey. I began in Ganzhou, Jiangxi (where I was living at the time), with no plan—just an open mind, a very dysfunctional internal compass and a strong desire to explore. I landed in Vietnam (where I met my boyfriend on the first day—hooray!) and made my way back to China and up to western Sichuan. I spent quality time with local people, ate local food and thoroughly enjoyed life to the fullest. Along the two month journey I stumbled upon a Tibetan town in Sichuan called Litang in Ganzi Prefecture (Gāochéng Zhèn*, 高城镇). There I found friendly people, beautiful scenery and the tail end of a traditional horse festival that blew my mind, the Litang Horse Festival. This experience was one of my favorites and the icing on the yak butter cheesecake that ended my solo trip that summer through China and bits of Southeast Asia.
Litang Horse Festival in 2014
If you're interested in going to Litang, the Litang Horse Festival is generally held annually during the first week of August, but in 2014 should be held July 25th to 27th. Like many of the areas bordering Tibet and the TAR itself, travel in Litang is subject to the whim of the Chinese government and in previous years the festival has sometimes been shut down, so be sure to confirm the details online.
While there, we saw army trucks and soldiers throughout town and heard stories from locals about how Chinese soldiers were beginning to outnumber locals more and more. Everything that was once written in Tibetan was now also coupled with Chinese characters and tension hung in the air like dust. Regardless of the political struggle that continues in this part of the world, the people still have a spark in their eyes. I must admit I often have a hard time getting my little point and shoot digital camera to focus and I have more blurry photos in my collection than I'd like, but here are a few of the better shots I took, and some even better ones from my Dutch travel buddy, Shaula Ponsen, who captured images for the both of us when my camera battery died. (I won't ever make that amateur mistake again... one of the many lessons from the trip.)
Watching these men throw themselves off of their horses and drag their arms along the ground made me gasp and clasp my hand over my mouth until they pulled themselves back up without getting trampled. As if that wasn't enough they then shot an arrow at a tiny target in a bail of hay while continuing to ride. Depending on where their arrow landed, they got a cheer out of the crowd. A thrilling display of strength and bravery indeed!
I would not want to be on the other end of this man's arrow. The goal of this game was to shoot an arrow at a popsicle stick sized piece of wood sticking out of a bail of hay. If the shooter was successful the crowd would erupt in laughter and cheers.
I had just as much fun sitting and talking (well, trying to talk anyway) with people in the crowd as I did watching the festivities. This man is stunning and I can't look at this picture without blushing just a little.
I love the silver sky in the background, the strands of hair blowing in the wind and the contemplative look on this man's face. I'm so curious about his life. What was his childhood like? His love life? What does he do for a living? How does he spend his free time? There is only so much you can communicate through hand gestures.
The outfits worn by the people in Litang were colorful works of art. I learned just recently from another explorer, Jeff Fuchs, that the men in this area love having their photos taken, which explains all the beautiful shots of smiling men in my album. The women, as beautiful as they were, shied away from the camera.
This cowboy must have stories to tell. I sat with him for a while and through gestures he made me understand that he wanted to see my driver's license, so we exchanged and curiously studied each others ID cards over a few snacks.
This man in his velvet robe and flat cap laughed at the cowboy and I while we exchanged IDs.
My travel buddies and I picnicked with this family for a few hours, sharing soda, snacks and smiles while enjoying the beautiful scenery. I love that this little boy is openly giving his grandmother some love.
I'll end on a very happy note. I dare you to look at this photo and not light up. The look of sheer enjoyment on this kid's face makes me smile from ear to ear. And the hard looking Litang cowboy pictured against the silver sky at the beginning of this post now seems a like a soft and cuddly teddy bear.
For more on Chinese Festivals, check out our Wet Hot Chinese Summer post.
* This is the name of the town Litang in Chinese, while the Chinese name of the county is called Litang (Lǐtáng Xiàn 理塘县).