Going is good to exciting at dama festival horse race
After years of looking at picture books and postcards and listening to the tales of those who had been there, I had become a big fan of Tibet's breathtaking landscapes and unique culture.
So it was great anticipation that I set off for the snowy lands last month for my first visit. But I was also nervous travelling to a very tight schedule. We began in Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region.
We wanted to make it to Gyantse, the small ancient city in Xigaze Prefecture in southwest Tibet. The historic seat hosts the famous Dama Festival, a five-day jamboree of theatre, horse and yak racing, archery, dancing and singing. Farmers, herdsmen and locals flock to the city's streets to join in the party which has a history of at least 500 years.
We spent 12 hours bumping along a winding road from Lhasa but the endurance was worth it because we spent the last two days of the colourful, exciting event socking up the carnival atmosphere.
The Dama Festival is held each year usually on July 20-25. We arrived at midnight and made for our hotel to ensure an early rise the next morning.
The Dama Festival
We were told by the tour guide that the next day we would see the final stages of the horse racing, followed by a massive costume parade, an awards-giving ceremony and the closing ceremony.
After a hasty breakfast, we went to the flat area near the Dzong, or the old fort, which is the main venue for the festival. We arrived there at about 8 o'clock, hoping to find an advantageous position with a good view for the racing.
We were somewhat surprised however, to find that thousands of race-goers had already occupied the hills near the race ground and that hundreds of tents were erected in the woods and on the grassy area around the race track. But no wonder this event was proving to be the most popular of the long carnival.
The Dama Festival literally mean "archery on horseback" in Tibetan. For many years, the festival was held over five to seven days taking place from the 10th to the 28th day of the fourth month as dictated by the Tibetan calendar, locals told us.
But in 1996, it was changed to the Gregorian calendar and was held in July. The reason was July was considered the slack period for farming. The festival was originated in the area and was part of a noble and religious ritual in ancient times.
According to local records, Gyantse Prince Dharma Raodain Gungsangpo officially launched the festival in 1408.
Over the centuries, the festival gradually evolved into an important folk cultural event combining sports games. It became a popular period for distant friends and families to come together to picnic, dance, watch the many events, catch up on gossip and trade.
During our visit, the major activities included religious events such as the unfolding and basking of the tangka scroll of Buddha, the sorcerers dances and popular Tibetan sports such as horse racing, yak racing, a boulder lifting contest, wrestling, archery and tug of war competition.
The horse track lies to the south of the Dzong and is encircled with a clay wall.
Right outside there is a modern sports ground used mainly as a temporary open market.
It was a sunny day in Gyantse. The wind blew gently. The scent of blossoming rape flowers was in the air.
"It is a perfect day for us to have fun," said a young farmer called Puze, 20, from Jieze Town, which lies many miles away from the city.
Bringing with them food, drinks, tents, and goods for sale, local Tibetans - mainly farmers - came from near and far on foot, by bus, by tractor, or by horse to attend the festival, which is one of three similar traditional events held across the region.
The others are the Shoton Yogurt Festival and the Tibetan New Year.
We learned that others like us drove for hours from Lhasa to Gyantse a few days ago for the remote party. The horse race was to begin at 10 o'clock sharp. So I went alone for a look at the open market.
Shopping here is an interesting experience. Even if you did not want to buy anything, an aimless stroll among the roughly formed rows of vendor stalls was rewarding.
I found that the market was a mix of trade and amusement, both elements offering a strong local flavour.
Some vendors were selling traditional clothes, hats, farming equipments and small articles for daily use. Some were selling mysterious Tibetan medicines that you rarely see in places outside of Tibet. Still some were touting in loud voices their hand-made jewellery and ornaments. With sweets in hands, small kids chased one another among the booths and potential buyers, crying out cheerfully.
Bright-eyed Tibetan girls dressed in bright, colourful clothes and gorgeous head ornaments walked gracefully in groups. A light, charming smile immediately appeared the moment their eyes met with those from visitors from afar. Some senior Tibetan farmers passed through the rows of the vendor stalls, slowly and somewhat absent-mindedly, maybe hoping to spot something he or she wants to buy and take home. But such faraway thoughts never prevented their prayer wheel from rolling.
Some old Tibetan farmers did not bother to walk around but sat on the spot where they could see the horse race clearly, drinking homemade barley wine.
At about 9:50 am, people began to gather around the track. The open market became quiet and at last all selling and buying activities came to a halt. Some members of our travel group climbed up to the top of the hills overlooking the ground. Some went to join a small portion of audiences which was standing behind the iron banisters in the central part of the ground.
I chose to join the crowd standing along the race track right within the walls of the race ground. Twelve young riders and their assistants came into the ground on their steeds.
The youngest challenger was 15 years old while the oldest was 20, I was informed. Older riders are considered not suitable for the intense riding and also their bulk would be too much burden for the horses which were expected to sprint from the off. The young riders wore tight clothing made for easier movement.
Some riders were sporting, to me at least, strange flame-like hairstyles, and the manes of their mounts were fashioned in similar style and adorned with colourful silk ribbons.
Even the tail of the horses were tied in ribbons and resembled a colourful whip. All the riders were in high spirits and appeared extremely confident of themselves.
I had learned earlier that 54 young riders from 18 towns in Gyantse County had competed in the early stages of the race meeting. Days before the festival, tryout heats between up to five riders decided which lucky one would represent the towns.
Once in the history of the festival, said locals, 100 riders competed in the final race to be champion. When not racing, the nags are used for farming activities.
One or two months or several weeks before the festival begins, the horses are intensively trained for the big race meeting, said Ciwangzhaxi, a police officer on duty at the race ground along with some 200 colleagues, a local government's measure to ensure the safe and smooth operation of the contest. Ambulance teams were also at hand in case of an emergency. About 30,000 spectators witnessed the climax of this year's festival.
Fierce race contest
The start of the race was only seconds from the off. As the chief referee's signal gun fired a loud "crack," 12 horses flashed forward from the starting line which was formed by cobbles. This was to act as the finishing line, too.
A great dust cloud formed as the hooves of the horses thundered along with great strides on the dry earth.
And the rapid, thumping hoofbeats made the audiences excited and nervous. The young riders blew a whistle in sharp blast while wielding the whip in their hands, urging their horses to go faster and faster to get ahead of others. The crowd let out loud cries in a local dialect every time a rider surpassed others to take the lead.
The race track is about 1,000 metres so the final, at 3,000 metres, was to be three laps.
"For these young kids, this race is definitely a test of courageous heroism, tenacity and wisdom," said Luojie, a Tibetan middle school teacher who used to be a contestant in the great horse race. On the track, a fierce battle for supremacy was taking place.
Sometimes, two or three horses came to close to each other and several women in the crowd - perhaps sisters or girlfriends of the riders - let out high pitched shrills as their nerves got the better of them.
During one heat a young rider was hurt in a collision with another horse, the contest was stopped and the rider was taken away for medical treatment.
For each stage of the race, a yellow paint mark was stamped on the buttocks of the leading race horses. The more yellow marks a horse bears, the higher award the rider would receive.
After three rounds of races, the winners and losers were determined by a group of nine judges.
The contest ended at around 13:00 pm.
But the judges had had difficulty following the final heat. In an unusual move, judges called upon photo journalists to show them images taken with digital cameras to find out and decide who came where and who won.
Before the award ceremony the costume parade began.
At least 20 song and dance groups from the towns, monasteries, nunneries, schools and local government departments marched around another larger sports ground which lies to the north of the race track.
The parade was a pageant of beautiful clothes, hairstyles and a showcase of singing and dancing skills.
But the most welcomed members of this parade were those who delivered on-horseback performances with traditional masks and who sang folk tunes and the lamas from nearby Buddhist monasteries who performed Buddhist rituals and showed some Buddhist relics to the audiences sitting around the sports ground.
The parade and performances lasted for about an hour. Finally, the performers settled in the sports ground in rows.
Then came the award-giving for the horse racing champions and the closing ceremony of the whole festival. Six contestants were to receive awards.
The top winner would receive 800 yuan (US$97) in cash from the organizer of the race.
I was told the rider would immediately hand his cash over to the school where he studies to pay for tuition fees. The winnings could cover the cost for several school years.
A rider called Badain Tashi, 16, from Kharmey Town won first prize this year. Runner-up Tsetop was from the same town.Badianzhaxi began riding only four years ago. He trained for the race during weekends, while during the week he studied at Kharmey Township Middle School.
"I did the best I could and believed I would win the race even before it started. But my parents are happier. They must be proud of me. And they do not have to pay my tuition fees for quite some time," he said.
A local official declared the end of the festival.
But it seemed people were reluctant to leave the happy atmosphere of the event and many hung around soaking up the last good-time vibes that had carried on the breeze during the last five days.
Ngawang, our Tibetan driver, whispered to me: "Do not believe the official's words. The party has not even begun yet!"
That evening, the crowd regrouped in the sports ground for a vast party of eating, drinking, singing and dancing. Sleep came very late - in fact way into the small hours - for most.
What a pity that we had to leave for the hotel that was located in another part of the city and did not have a chance to share with the local people what was obviously going to be a joyful evening.
Sitting in the bumping, winding minivan as we rushed back to Lhasa, I made my
mind up firmly: I will be back some day to see the Dama Festival from the
beginning to the end.