As Tibetan riders waved rifles and dug cowboy-booted feet into their horses’ flanks, hanging sideways from their mounts, tourists and locals cheered and snapped pictures on digital cameras and smartphones.
Set between emerald hills on the Himalayan plateau, some 3,700 metres above sea level, Yushu’s annual equine festival is billed as a showcase of Chinese government support for Tibetan culture.
Women were draped in their finest jewellery, wearing beads of turquoise, yellow amber and red coral over flower-patterned traditional dresses known as chuba. Monks in crimson robes flitted through the crowds.
But beyond the imagery, the festival also displayed the impact of both modernisation and Beijing’s rule on the region, which Chinese forces occupied in 1951.
Beneath grassy hills spiderwebbed with white prayer flags, Sonam Dolma set up a tent stall selling bottled mineral water, Coca-Cola and Red Bull.
Now 51, she recalled helping tame wild horses as a teenager on the plateau where her nomad family raised yaks, and was unimpressed by this year’s athletics.
“When I was young there would be a horse festival each year,” she said. “The skill was very high. The horses were big and strong.”
Now, she added, the animals were smaller and slower. “A lot of the best horses have been sold because people turn to technology.”
Many Tibetans have traded nomadism for life in the cities as part of an urbanisation drive pushed by Beijing, sometimes by force, and many who remain on the land prefer motorbikes for road transport.
“I’m just not that good at riding anymore,” 31-year-old nomad Jargaringqin said, chewing on yak jerky as dried dung burned in his stove.
Yushu — known as Jyekundo in Tibetan and now in the northwestern Chinese province of Qinghai — is home to the Khampa, a traditionally martial people whose dialect is impenetrable to most Tibetans.
In the late 1950s the Khampa — sometimes aided by CIA training and weapons — staged the fiercest Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule, killing 800 Communist soldiers in one raid.
Their forces were crushed after the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959.
Herders had their guns confiscated, but the weapons made a comeback in tourist displays at the five-day event, which saw male riders competing in speed races and trotting competitions.
The festival was suspended for several years following a major earthquake which ravaged Yushu in 2008, killing some 2,700 people.
As part of reconstruction, authorities built a horse-racing stadium with concrete stands and plastic seating to host the festival’s opening ceremony.
Local Communist officials control the event, determining who races, sponsoring travel costs for riders and archers from rural counties, and handing out cash prizes to winners.
“I am deciding who competes,” explained a woman from China’s Han ethnic majority, who works for Yushu’s official sports bureau. “It’s my third year, we organise a lot of activities.”
There are still sporadic outbursts against Chinese rule in Yushu, with five locals setting themselves on fire since 2012, according to rights groups, among more than 140 such protests by Tibetans, most of them fatal.
Dozens of paramilitary policemen guarded the festival, while a group of orange-suited firefighters patrolled with foam extinguishers.
“In recent years the government has been controlling Tibetans more tightly. For example, we are limited in gathering together for activities,” said one young Tibetan sipping beer on the festival sidelines, asking not to be named.
“This is a government event,” he added. “They are organising it so it’s considered safe.”
Local authorities tout the festival as a source of tourist revenue for the area, which has few other sources of growth. Many Han Chinese see Kham as a mysterious and romantic region.
“It’s pretty and the horse riding skills are great,” said Han Chinese tour guide Zhao Xu.
“Khampa men are known for their good looks and flowing hair,” he added.
But attendance at the event last week was sparse, raising questions over how well modernisation fits with tradition.
Qinghai’s urbanisation rate has increased from 40% to nearly 50% in the past decade, but one Tibetan member of a local Communist party committee said that the process was happening “too fast”.
“Its fine to move people to cities, but where are the jobs?” asked the man, whose first name was Dorje. “Herding life was certainly better.”
But spectator Meiduo Lasang — stallholder Sonam’s daughter — dreams of becoming a photographer or fashion designer.
A university student in the provincial capital, she sheepishly accepted a herder’s invitation to clamber on top of his steed, laughing and posing for smartphone photos before quickly jumping off.
“We don’t own horses these days,” she said. “Everyone used to, when transport was more backwards. Now we have vehicles there is no need for horses.”
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