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Khampa Horsemen Ride the Winds of Change

Typical attire for a Khampa horseman includes a western-style shirt under a Tibetan robe.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR /
Typical attire for a Khampa horseman includes a western-style shirt under a Tibetan robe.
Silver, turquoise and coral jewelry adorn the hair of one participant in the festival.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR /
Silver, turquoise and coral jewelry adorn the hair of one participant in the festival.
Khampa women also dress up for the horse festival, braiding their hair into 108 strands and wearing large quantities of heavy jewelry.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR /
Khampa women also dress up for the horse festival, braiding their hair into 108 strands and wearing large quantities of heavy jewelry.

Every August, farmers and merchants, monks and minstrels, nomads and tourists converge on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau to watch the region's famed Khampa horsemen.

The festival is held at the site of a tent city on the plain south of Litang. At 14,000 feet above sea level, it's one of the highest towns on Earth. It's located in China's western Sichuan province, one county over from Tibet proper, and 90 percent of the people who live in Litang are Tibetan.

The Khampa horsemen are clad in all their finery. Bells jingle on their horses. Riders' long black hair is adorned with silver, turquoise and coral jewelry. They wear big hats on their heads and big knives on their belts.

The festival opens with a charge past the reviewing stand and continues with a display of skills learned during a life spent on horseback. The ridres hang sideways off saddles, scooping silk scarves off the ground at a full gallop. They twirl flintlock muskets over their heads and fire at targets on the ground.

"To Khampa men, riding horses is a glorious thing," says Gezun Norbu of Litang. "We feel proud to be the descendants of the heroic King Gesar. To gallop on horseback across the boundless grasslands makes us feel extremely confident and happy."

Litang is believed to have been home to the legendary Gesar, the subject of Tibet's great epic poem.

The region sits on an ancient trade route between China and Tibet, at the intersection of two cultures. Sometimes it has been ruled by Chinese, sometimes by Tibetans. Khampans have fought with both. But the Dalai Lama, the Tibetans' exiled spiritual leader, is an unofficial presence at the festival. His picture is prominently displayed in the Khampas' tents despite Chinese government bans on the images.

Technology is bringing change to the region, even without an airport or train station to be found in the mountainous terrain. Satellite-dish TV has arrived. Some have abandoned horses for motorcycles. And the nomadic Khampa lifestyle is giving way to a more settled existence through government resettlement in fixed communities.

But life is still hard and the annual horse festival provides a welcome break from the Khampas' labors... and a chance to celebrate their traditions.

With each year's horse festival, the ratio of tourists to riders seems to rise. Today, the Khampas are warriors more in spirit than in deed. But in their annual display of skill and abandon, charging at full tilt, they appear as fiercely proud and free as ever.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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United States & World Weekend Edition Sunday
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.