Famed horse fest spotlights Tibetan culture, with politics in the wings

The opening ceremony of the annual Tibetan horse festival here officially begins by lighting a bundle of mulberry branches at the north end of the stadium, which sits in a treeless valley ringed by rolling hills. As the fire begins to smolder, 20 People’s Liberation Army soldiers march onto the field in tight formation. They lead a procession of thousands of ethnically Tibetan men, women, and children wearing brightly colored costumes, and 200 Buddhist monks and nuns dressed in maroon-and-saffron robes.

The highlights of the ceremony, though, are the daring stunts performed by the 150 or so riders – all with their horses galloping at full speed. Some carry a rifle in one arm and shoot small paper targets set on the ground. Others hang off the side of their horses to snatch white ribbons off the field. A small few do headstands on their saddles. Fireworks explode over the stadium halfway through the three-hour ceremony. 

It’s an impressive sight for those lucky enough to get tickets – which aren’t for sale, but handed out by government officials. Yet for many local Tibetans, the horse festival is a husk of its former self, tainted by years of heavy-handed propaganda and brash commercialization. 

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“I haven’t been here for three or four years,” says Dawa Jiangcai, a local caterpillar-fungus salesman (used in traditional medicine, the prized fungus fetches a high price). As he watches the ceremony from outside the stadium’s north gate, five soldiers march past on the gravel path beside him – all of them are ethnically Han, like more than 90 percent of Chinese citizens. “Local people don’t come here anymore,” he says. 

The horse festival has long been one of the most celebrated events in Yushu, or Gyêgu in Tibetan, a county-level city on the Tibetan Plateau in the western province of Qinghai. It draws thousands of spectators every year. At the stadium, we meet a businessman from Nepal and a Han couple from Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, as well as dozens of Tibetans from across the plateau.

Tourists like these provide a substantial boost to Yushu’s relatively weak economy, a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed by local business owners. Hundreds of vendors set up stalls outside the stadium to sell food and Tibetan handicrafts. But many say they’re conflicted about the tradeoff between their growing profits and the festival’s dwindling authenticity.

“Even though…

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