International Writers Magazine: Tibet
Markam Festival - Tibet
you have nothing better to do on September 6th next year why not
visit the Markham festival? All you have to do is fly to Beijing.
Then, take a connection to Zhongdian in the south west near the
Tibetan border. Find someone with a Toyota Landcruiser or some
other hefty off road vehicle and drive three days west, through
canyons and gorges, across the Yangste, along the Mekong , and
into the Tibetan autonomous region.
After a series of
run down Tibetan towns and Chinese military outposts, and just before
the village of Markham, youll see a whole bunch of people and
horses in the fields to your left. Youve arrived.
For lack of a better name, or indeed the actual name , well call
this little soiree the The 6th September Markham Horse Racing
Festival. Where Tibetans from Markham and surrounding villages
gather together in green pastures to eat, drink, and watch young boys
race bareback along a homemade track and into the distance. Along with
the Chinese public security bureau who keep their watchful eye, youll
be the only visitors that day, and I dare say , the only welcome ones.
Once upon a time the locals may have arrived themselves on horseback,
but following the Chinese occupation and their new found modernisation
and liberation, youll have to fight for a parking
space in between a sea of shiny imported motorcycles. Or if you really
want to fit in, bring your own. Make your way to the red entrance gate,
courteously acknowledge the Chinese guard, and then disappear into the
crowd, the games are about to begin.
This is Kham land, and as such the festival goers are largely
Kham people. A Tibetan ethnic group renowned for their courage,
bravado, and distinctive clobber. Traditionally a warrior clan, they
wear their hair long, tied up with a red band. Rarely are they seen
without a dagger hanging in a scabbard from their waist. When the Chinese
forces invaded Tibet in 1950, they met the stiffest resistance from
the Kham, who with a little help from your friendly neighbourhood CIA
organised attacks and ambushes on the Chinese soldiers.
On this day though, youll find nothing but positive energy and
welcome hospitality. Dont let the staring make you feel uncomfortable.,
its just friendly curiosity. Markham doesnt receive many,
if any, western tourists, so expect to be as much of a spectacle as
the horse racing itself.
the jockeys set themselves up, it takes one man on each side to
keep the horses from bolting prematurely. The Umpire
Says something in Tibetan and then theyre off into the distance.
Hanging on with one hand while the other cracks the whip. The finish
line is too far away to actually see, and without the benefit of
modern technology sending images back, no one has any apparent way
of knowing who won. But no one seems to care. The Tibetans let out
a communal sigh, look at each other as if to say great race,
and then look back at the stalls (a white box painted on to the
grass with a number inside it) as the next set of hopefuls move
The real treat here
for the traveler though is not the racing, but the local people, hundreds
of them, perched on the hills trying to get the best view. Be sure to
take a solo stroll in amongst them. Wrinkly old women will wave and
smile, and families will invite you to join them and offer you inedible
munch. For those who look confused by you presence its worth learning
how to say a quick good day (Tashi delek) to
break the ice. If youre lucky someone will know enough to English
to say Hello, but its unlikely. Youre on the
Tibetan plateau. With an average altitude of 4000metres above sea level,
this is one of the most remote places on earth.
Theres not much more to be said about the 6th September Markham
horse racing festival. Id like to explain the background of the
event, the history of the tradition, that sort of thing. But actually
I only discovered it by chance, in a convoy of Toyota Land Cruisers
bound for Lhasa. Curious as to the source of the commotion on the side
of the road, and due a pee stop anyway, we decided to check it out.
It turned out to be a high point of our trip. I cant say much
more than that. In fact, without an English speaking soul in the vicinity,
and my entirely limited Chinese and Tibetan, I have no idea if its
even an annual event, or a complete one off, a birthday celebration
for a local celebrity, or just a Thursday afternoon thing.
But like I said, if you have nothing else to do on the 6th September
next year, and youre in the region, it might be worth popping
© Tariq El Kashef November 2006
"Tariq El kashef is the author and editor of www.alternativeegypt.com.
The Online Egypt Guide for the Independent Traveller"
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