Every summer people gather in the far western reaches of Sichuan to watch the Litang horse festivals (理塘赛马节). Steeped in tradition, the horse festivals are an event where nomadic Tibetan families gather for a bit of friendly competition and bonding. About 14.5 kilometers outside Litang are the grassy fields of Benge, which hosted the second of Litang's horse festivals this year.
When I spotted many white tents clustered together in the grasslands, I figured I'd arrived in the right place. Once there, I found the people very inviting—multiple families invited me to dine and stay with them, free of charge. I politely declined accommodation as I had my own tent (and I'll be damned if I had carried it through towns and on busses for three days for nothing), but I did gratefully accept dining invitations.
The event itself is somewhat unorganized, with the three days of horse events starting at seemingly random times, and no clear judges or winners for anything except the grand opening race. Activities range from racing to mounted archery, and include a good bit of trick riding in all categories.
After the three days of races there are another three days of traditional song and dance, with participants dress in full traditional wardrobe. Days go from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., give or take.
Before you embark on a journey to Litang(理塘), try contacting a local hotel or hostel to find out the approximate dates of the festival (allot for spare time, though, as the schedules tends not to be set in stone). Staying out in the field is not necessary, as you can hire a taxi or car to take you the short distance back and forth from Litang, but it does add to the experience. Many families are happy to accommodate open-minded guests, and it is possible to buy some food and fruit from vendors during the festival. Though the cool air and clear blue skies make for an excellent getaway from Chengdu's humid heat, it can get fairly cold at night, so take warm clothes for the evenings.
This article by Dan Sandoval was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 67.
Photos by Dan Sandoval.