The International Writers Magazine: Tibet

The Markam Festival - Tibet
Tariq Elkashef

If 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, you’ll see a whole bunch of people and horses in the fields to your left. You’ve arrived.
For lack of a better name, or indeed the actual name , we’ll 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, you’ll 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‘, you’ll 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, you’ll find nothing but positive energy and welcome hospitality. Don’t let the staring make you feel uncomfortable., it’s just friendly curiosity. Markham doesn’t receive many, if any, western tourists, so expect to be as much of a spectacle as the horse racing itself.

As 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 they’re 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 into position.

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 it’s worth learning how to say a quick “good day” (“Tashi delek”) to break the ice. If you’re lucky someone will know enough to English to say “Hello”, but it’s unlikely. You’re on the Tibetan plateau. With an average altitude of 4000metres above sea level, this is one of the most remote places on earth.
There’s not much more to be said about the 6th September Markham horse racing festival. I’d 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 can’t 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 it’s 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 you’re in the region, it might be worth popping down…
© Tariq El Kashef November 2006

"Tariq El kashef is the author and editor of The Online Egypt Guide for the Independent Traveller"
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