Despite Chinese occupation and the turmoil of the past 60 years, the herder’s of Kham, an former kingdom in Eastern Tibet, still cling to their traditions. But for how much longer?
The bus to Litang has cow-print seat covers and Tibetan pop songs playing on a karaoke screen. Traveling all day and through most of the night, it hurtles up from the steamy plains of southwest Sichuan and into the highlands of Kham, over a road recently paved but already sagging from melting steppe. The passengers sing along with the man on the screen. He is draped in a fox-skin cloak, his burly arms stretched out to the sky as stirring scenes of yaks and horsemen, prayer flags and turquoise lakes flash past behind him. Outside the bus a storm looms, rolling across the vast ginger-hued grasslands with an ominous air.
A small, scruffy outpost town snuggled between the imposing peaks of snow-capped mountains some 4,000 meters above sea level, Litang bustles with preparations for the Yaji- or Festival of Summer Pleasures- when we finally arrive. Its population has tripled as thousands of Khampa herdsmen, wrapped in their finest furs, Stetson-style felt hats tilted stylishly over one ear, gather for the region’s most important social event: a weeklong celebration of dancing, boozing, socializing, and competing for the revered mantle of the man with the fastest horse. Litang’s Yaji is the most commercial and accessible of the many horse-racing festivals held across this eastern expanse of the Tibetan plateau every July and August. They hark back to a time when the nomadic clans of Khampa, locked in bloody feuds, would meet to settle disputes overland, leadership, and equestrian prowess. The Yaji were as much an armistice as a celebration of tribal solidarity, a chance to defuse clan disputes on the sports field, rather than the battlefield.
Culturally Tibetan Buddhists, the Khampas have roamed these grasslands for thousands of years, subsisting on yak for meat and milk and using the animals’ wool to make clothing and rope and blankets. Yak hides provide the coverings for their robust tents, and yak dung the fuel for their campfires. Kham’s horsemen were once fierce warriors, with a reputation among travelers for banditry and swashbuckling derring-do; Alexandra David-Néel, a French adventurer who passed through these parts in the 1920s, was evidently impressed by their bad-boy swagger. In her memoirs she nicknamed them “the Gentlemen Brigands.”
But the Khampas’ fearsome reputation did not stop the People’s Liberation Army from seizing their land and using it as a buffer zone against Lhasa in the early 1950s. In the soldiers’ wake, the Red Guards destroyed most of Kham’s cultural and religious artefacts, even as Beijing dissolved the territory’s borders into the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Qinghai, and the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and banned anything smacking of “barbarism” or clannishness- including the horse-racing festivals. Permitted to resume by a more relaxed central government in the early 1980s, the Yaji have been making a riotous comeback in recent summers. They are strengthening a threatened cultural identity, even if the all-too-obvious presence of riot police, bureaucratic handling, and camera-toting tourists sometimes calls their authenticity into question.
I first came to kham in early 2001. Officially, the area had only just opened to foreigners, although there were still places off-limits and you could expect daily knocks at your door by cadres from the Public Security Bureau. Kham then was an unalloyed adventure. There was no spoken English, no hot running water, none of the banana pancakes that now grace the menus of a growing number of hostelries. Nor were there any other travelers. Few people outside China had ever heard of these unruly, macho cavaliers who defied the amiable image of Tibet I had grown up with. And for the most part, the Kham knew nothing about the world beyond their traditional stomping grounds.
Slowly, that is all changing. Kham is being groomed for tourism and development, with improved roads and accommodations and the revamping of several attractions, like the Bakong Printing Lamasery in Dege and Yi-hun Latso, a holy alpine lake outside Manigango. And while the 2003 Litang festival drew fewer than 50 tourists, mostly from elsewhere in China, the following year officials claimed 700; during my most recent visit, the number must have topped a thousand.
I meet Sonam (not his real name) at the Litang festival’s fashion parade. These parades are a much-anticipated entertainment, and crowds have gathered around the grandstand outside town to watch flamboyantly costumed and accessorized horsemen try to outshine each other in sheer coolness. Contestants have donned their finest foxskin cloaks, their heads wrapped in bundles of red silk, necks heavy with masses of turquoise, amber, red coral, and ivory. It is a sun-drenched day filled with carnival buzz, and Sonam, a Buddhist monk in his early twenties, has just returned from six years living in Dharamsala, India, via an eight-month stint in a Chinese jail for trying to re-enter the country on a fake passport. The future of Kham’s herders is uncertain, he tells me. Beijing’s “Develop the West” program- a campaign aimed at modernizing the lagging economies of western China- is placing pressure on the nomads to give up their traditional lifestyles. Jigme has already been asked by Litang officials to reduce his herd and purchase a house in town. So far, this has only been in the form of a request, but Jigme feels that there’s trouble on the way. Rumours also abound about government plans for gas exploration and mining in Kham’s fragile grasslands, a move that would further restrict traditional grazing patterns.
Not that all is doom and gloom on the high steppes of Kham. Cultural and language studies, once forbidden, now receive government funding. Dozens of monasteries destroyed during the Cultural Revolution have been rebuilt, and those that survived are being restored. Worship of both Mahayana Buddhism and its spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, is now open and accepted, drawing scores of Chinese students wishing to study the philosophy at its source. Moving with the times, the exceptionally resilient Khampas, while still deeply rooted in the history, myth, and memory of their land, are slowly reinventing themselves in a new political climate- without banditry, but where the warrior still rides.
The best time to visit Kham is during the summer months, between May and September, when daytime temperatures hover around 20 degrees Celsius and the wildflowers are in bloom. Best accessed via Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, or from Zhongdian (a.k.a. Shangri-la) county in northern Yunnan, much of Kham lies at over 4,000 meters above sea level. If you travel independently, make sure to pack altitude-sickness tablets.
While the area maintains a few comfortable hotels and decent Chinese restaurants, there is very little English spoken and public transport is erratic. It is recommended to take a guide. Haiwei Trails (86-887/828-9239; www.haiweitrails.com), a British-Chinese outfit based in Zhongdian, runs small, personalized four-wheel- drive and trekking tours into Kham from around US$2,500 per person for 14 days, all-inclusive. Trips can include the annual Yaji in Litang or, for the adventurous, more remote but more authentic festivals. In 2006, the township of Yushu in Qinghai province will hold the biggest horse-racing festival on the Tibetan plateau for more than 50 years, with three counties coming together to celebrate the continuation of the Yaji.