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Horse Race in North Tibet

Text by Yu Qian  Photos by Jin Yong

Horses dashing to the finish
Horses dashing to the finish

This annual horse race takes place in every township of the north Tibetan grassland, one by one, starting from August 1st. The principal activities are usually a horse race and a blessing by touching the foreheads of people by a Rinpoche. With a sparse population in such an extensive land, the herders often have activities on their own meadows due to the distance between two meadows being usually over ten or even 30 or 40 kilometers. It is not a surprise the neighbors don't know each other. The yearly horse race is actually a good opportunity to not only get along with each other amongst friends and relatives, but also to show off their properties. Thus, the herdsmen like to dress in their best and gather together from all over the places.

 Horse Race in Drowa Township

Having participated in enormous horse race conventions in Northern Tibet, we can still enjoy the one taking place in Drowa Township in Nyima County.

It was said that the Thupden Rinpoche from Pabongka of Lhasa also attended horse races. He is a revered figure and a good friend of ours. Born in Dronyin Township of Nyima County, he started his service as a monk in Dechen Jimeling Monastery in this township when he was a child, then moved to Sera Monastery when he was 20 years old. He won the title "Rinpoche" from his extensive studies in Buddhism. Last month he came to Northern Tibet and asked us, through his disciple, to visit him if we came to Nyima County.

Usually, a Rinpoche doesn't appear at race meetings, unless he is particularly invited. Nevertheless, with an invitation, the Rinpoche has a good chance to add to the income of his monastery. A blessing by touching the forehead of the public often brings the good fortune of at least thousands if not tens of thousands of extra income.

Horses with colorful decoration
Horses with colorful decoration

Setting up amongst various kinds of tents, the Drowa horse race was held on extensive grassland. The ever silent place now becomes a big city with enormous tents. Three big trucks carrying a diversity of merchandise are selling them from the roadside while kids surround vendors of fried foods. The young boys however are most attracted by billiards.

The tent for Thupden Rinpoche, which was the most gorgeous and splendid one, was set up to one side surrounded by many old people who were reciting sutras. Those old people were rather different from the farmers because they had no symbolic scripture cylinders.

Thupden Rinpoche was so pleased when he met us, and he held my hand and said: "What a surprise to see you! When did you arrive? " We detailed the story about the journey and then placed 100 Yuan on his table for burning incense. He refused and said: "We are friends and you should not do that." On our insistence, he relented. Though I could speak some Tibetan, I felt hard to communicate with him due to his strong Changtang dialect. Fortunately, the Rinpoche had a new disciple, without tonsure, who could speak Chinese because of his study in junior middle school. He accompanied the Rinpoche during this visit as interpreter.

In Tibet, to present Hada to a Rinpoche when meeting him is a usual and very fundamental ritual. I had to get out of the tent and asked a bystander to help me to buy some for us because we had no chance to buy any on the journey. In such a gathering, the Hada is usually two Yuan for one and no other price available. We bought eight Hadas for our eight persons. The seller knew we were the friends of the Rinpoche and only charged me ten Yuan in total.

When I came back, I saw my colleagues walking out of the tent with the white Hadas around their necks. The interpreter said to me: "The Rinpoche is looking for you and asked you to see him."

I followed the interpreter into the tent. Having not waited for me to present my Hada, the Rinpoche lifted up a Hada and waved to me. He held my face in his hands and touched my head to his head and then gave a handful of candy to me. With this gesture, the Rinpoche informed me that we were equal and he treated me as his friend. He hung the Hada around my neck and then tied it with a knot to put on my clothes saying, "Go and have a fun. It is a celebration day." I nodded my head and retreated slowly from the tent.

 Blessing Touch by Thupden Rinpoche

About one o'clock in the afternoon, the Rinpoche began the ceremony of blessing by touching foreheads.

The tent of the Rinpoche opened two doors, one for an entrance and the other for an exit. The herdsmen were standing in a long queue and holding Hadas with five or ten Yuan cash tied inside them. One by one, they bowed to him, took off their hats, and entered the tent. A woman was holding her just-born infant in her arms. I greeted and talked with her. She said she was just 20 years old and this was her first baby. She would like to ask the Rinpoche to bestow a name for him. I asked her if she took a prayer walk. She said no because there was no place to conduct such walk in the grassland.

Thupden Rinpoche is bestowing on herders by touching their foreheads.
Thupden Rinpoche is bestowing on herders by touching their foreheads.

Thupden Rinpoche is giving blessing to riders and their horses
Thupden Rinpoche is giving blessing to riders and their horses before the competition.


Thupden Rinpoche is photographing during competition.
Thupden Rinpoche is photographing during competition.

Tibet Autonomous Region is a place where all people are religious believers. However, in comparison with other places, the Buddhism in Changtang plateau is less influential because of the extensive land area with a sparse population and a harsh climate as well. Herders always keep moving with the flocks day by day and it is impossible to place a shrine in tents.

In the remote villages of Northern Tibet, the civilians still call western medicine "The Party's Medicine". This refers to a story about the People's Liberation Army when entering the grassland to offer medicine and treat sick herdsmen. The cured herders delivered the phrase one by one and eventually it entered the language. At such a place, wherever you visited, you could always feel that Chairman Mao Zedong is still living in the hearts of herders. Since the settling down of the herdsmen, every household has the picture of Chairman Mao in their houses together with other pictures of Bodhisattvas because they refer to Chairman Mao as the Buddha of Wisdom. Accompanying the policy by which "all people in the nation to support Tibet", Nyima County has been appointed for China National Offshore Oil Corp. to give point-to-point support. Under this disinterested support, every herdsmen household got one solar panel with storage battery, a cargo-carrying vehicle for every township and so on. The herders always give thumbs up whenever they mention the cadres who come here through the national support program.

The tent was filled with people even through it was such a big area. The worst was that in such a crowded space, some were struggling to be able to bow down to pay homage. The blessing touch was necessarily rather fast. The Rinpoche took a Buddhist instrument to touch the heads of civilians. The disciple passed over Hadas from the believers, placed the cash on a cushion and then hanged the Hadas around the necks of the believers.

On receiving the Hadas, the believers turned left toward another two disciples; one was holding a kettle of milk and the other cooked nuts made of bean powder. Believers received a spoonful of milk from the first disciple and drank it, and then put the remaining milk on their forehead. Then, having received a cooked nut from the other disciple, they left. If believers do not prostrate themselves for a bow, the whole ceremony only lasts less than three minutes.

 Zhaxi and His Horse

We lived in one of the dormitories of the Primary School in Drowa Township at night because during the convention the school was also in holiday.

Rider Zhaxi and his horse.
Rider Zhaxi and his horse.

The horse race meeting was originally to begin at 11 o'clock but was delayed until 12 o'clock, and eventually started at one o'clock in the afternoon. We were invited to drink tea in the tent of the town administrators. The tent was spacious; a group of tea tables and cushions had been set up. The tea was really freshly made. Apples and candies were placed on the tables and made the tent resemble a small meeting room.

I caught the moment with my camera when people were chanting without paying any attention to me as I left the tent. The ultraviolet radiation in Northern Tibet at noon was especially strong, which made me feel needles were piercing my face. People were taking a rest in their tents. Sporadically, a couple of people walked out to buy food from vendors. I invited Kungdrak to accompany me and walked toward the back of the gathering because a horse attracted me.

Looking at the decoration of the horse, I thought it was a competitor because ropes hobbled its four feet and its mouth was also sealed so that it could hardly run away or even eat grass. My friend Gungdrak was from Nyima County and grew up at the grassland. He said: "For all those horses destined for competition feed is partially reduced one week before and halted completely two days before the competition; water intake is also reduced to the minimum. By doing so, the horses lose some fat before the race and fly like a bird. By following the decision that the owner would suffer if others rode their horses, horses could only be ridden by the competitors themselves. On the afternoon of the last day of preparation, the horses must be washed with cold water constantly until the horses tremble, and then wool blankets cover the horses' bodies. At dusk, the owners would like to take their horses for a walk but not a run. By doing this, it says that the horses will give an excellent performance during the race. Nevertheless, it is hard to know if this is rational."

The horse in front of mine looked gorgeous. Its mane was divided into three parts, looking like the headdress of a young girl. There was a long blanket rather than a saddle on it; the tail hair was woven with different colour lined into three braids.

Seeing my approach, the owner came out of his tent. He was dressed with a white hat and his head was also decorated with a horse-like braid. When he stood together with the horse, they looked not so much to take part into a competition but rather a performance of horsemanship.

The owner introduced himself as Zhaxi, and he was living in the valley close to the grassland. He patted the neck of the horse and said:"Yagodu, Yagodu" ('good' in Tibetan). When he got to know that I understood Tibetan, Zhaxi became very excited and asked me to take a photo of his horse. He ordered the horse to turn around and adopt different poses while he constantly talked big; he said his horse was just three years old but had already raced last year. Eventually, it won the third in the competition. He even believed that it would win the Championship this year. A man standing beside him sneered in disbelief because he believed the last Champion horse was better than this one. Thereupon, the two of them started to argue and became flushed. An Aja(call of a Tibetan woman) walked out of the neighboring tent carrying a cooked lamb; she said it was just slaughtered and would like to offer them a taste. Then the two arguing men stopped and turned their attention to the lamb.

I picked up a piece of lamb and turned around to walk back. Just at this moment, the competition began.

 Jokes from the Horse Race Meeting

The racecourse ran from east to west; while the south and north was blocked by yak rope for safety. The township government appointed stewards to be in charge of order. All observers had to watch from outside of the ropes. We, however, were an exception and could move freely.

Accompanying the disciples, the Thupden Rinpoche arrived. He poured water mixed with safflowers for the horses and people who would join the competition to bless them for success. Zhaxi and his horse came, too. Thanks to an attack by cold water, the horse sounded a long whinny and reared up on its hind legs; suddenly, it seemed to hit the Rinpoche. Zhaxi desperately held the horse'0.s head and a disciple pulled the Rinpoche back. A disaster was avoided. The Rinpoche was sitting down on a blanket. He took his camera to shoot the masses while his face shined with a heartfelt smile.

Horses covered with blankets.
Horses covered with blankets.

Since the beginning of the competition, everybody was sitting down in silence, waiting for the whistle.

The fifteen horses were lined up in parallel at the starting line for the thousand metres race, looking down the course in high spirits.

However, when the whistle blew, endless jokes emerged. For instance, just at the instant the whistle blew, four horses even turned around and ran the wrong way, disappearing from sight. For two seconds there was no response to this sudden and unexpected event, then the crowd burst into laughter and some even stood up with whistles or shouted the names of the riders.

As the laughter continued, a blanket dropped down from a horse and got stuck. The owner had to dismount and recover it, then ride on. But just five minutes later, half the blanket fell down again. Seeing the others to run ahead, the owner was frantic and whipped the horse without stopping. However, no matter how strong the whipping, the horse was just strolling along. Zhaxi's horse gave him a big surprise. It strutted forward and backwards, looking like a dancer in a nice dress. Zhaxi could not do anything.

Moveable commodity booths during the horse race convention.
Moveable commodity booths during the horse race convention.

The funniest of all was a brown horse that turned at a right angle to run completely off the racecourse. The owner worked hard to get it back by slapping it and soon got it back again. He had to step down from the horse and tightened the rope that made the horse go in the right direction, and then remounted. Fortunately, it became tame but moved very slowly, just like a stroll. Maybe it was the best one because it could walk to the finish, but the other four that ran in the opposite direction had yet to show up.

This horse race could really be regarded as a tough race, but in fact the sound of laughter came in waves one after another. Eventually, people were actually holding their sides from laughter at the end of the competition.

It was already dusk when the competition was over. The smoke rose from the tent of every householder. The grassland became so quiet. Nevertheless, girls and boys welcomed their most happy moments just when the moon climbed above the top of the mountains. That was the moment of the traditional folk dance "Gordro". In the growing darkness, the number of dancing people became fewer and fewer, but the number of couples in the shadows of the grassland steadily increased.

It might indeed be said that the horse race on the grassland is a harsh competition, but we could certainly also say that it is actually an entertainment and relaxation for the herdsmen.

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