The Wild Khampas

Ganzi is the homeland of the Khampa
people – wild-looking, fierce warriors who still carry knives and are
ready to use them if excessively provoked. The nomads of the Kham
region have for centuries resisted rule from either Beijing or Lhasa,
and have rarely hesitated to fight for their freedoms. Consequently,
the Chinese have usually been reluctant to intervene too heavily in
local affairs.

The city of Kangding, the capital of Ganzi
prefecture, enjoys a scenically unrivalled location, sprawling along
both sides of the super-turbulent Zheduo River. Hemmed in within a
narrow gorge, the city can grow in only one direction – up!

Just walking the streets of Kangding is a buzz, with its fascinating
multicultural mix (Tibetans, ethnic Chinese, Mongolians and others)
making for pure street theatre. Every day at 7pm, seemingly the whole
population of Kangding gathers in the main square to dance. The dancers
may be a mixture of Tibetans and Chinese, but it’s the Tibetans who
call the tune.

The grasslands of Tagong

(Tibetan: Lhagang) is the gateway to the grasslands of East Tibet.
Prayer flags line the road as it heads up to the 4296m Zhe Duo Pass,
where a stupa looks out in all directions, as if guarding against an
unknown threat. Then, at the bustling market town of Xinduqiao
(Tibetan: Dzongzhab), the road to Tagong branches north from the
Kangding-Lhasa road.

Tagong is not just the ‘wild east’ of
Tibet. Its blow-in characters from off the grasslands look like extras
in a John Wayne movie – except that the guys, in addition to swords and
knives, sport Alice Cooper-style hairdos, blood-red hair braids and
fearsome scars. Both men and women, especially those from Dege in the
far north-west, wear big wooden earrings, while the ladies dress in
attractive gold-filigree headpieces.

In Tagong, a festival needs
no excuses – from horse racing to traditional dancing. Atop a hill
overlooking Tagong, a day of traditional games is underway and
tug-of-war features prominently on the agenda. Most of the contests are
between the ladies of the village, the guys preferring instead to get
well and truly plastered.

The road to Litang

in the far west of Ganzi prefecture, has a population still more than
80% Tibetan. At more than 4100m above sea level, Litang is also the
world’s highest major city. The air is so rarefied that your chest
feels as though it’s collapsing in on itself. Breathing requires an
extra effort. Fortunately, I’d stocked up on a plentiful supply of
Tibetan Plateau ginseng in Kangding. A single vial of this stuff packs
such a revitalising punch that even the near-dead soon find themselves
charging up hills like a mountain goat.

From Xinduqiao, our bus
traverses the Yalong River Valley, one of the most scenic places on the
planet. Where the Yajiang River flows into the Yalong, the river
becomes a raging torrent, skipping over the rocks like a highland
dancer on ecstasy. Then the road climbs ever higher and higher. Nomads’
tents line the roadside at a 4718m pass – that’s nearly 15,500 feet
above sea level.

Litang town has now grown to a population of
about 50,000 permanent residents. This number is swollen by hordes of
people just blown in from across the plains – buying and selling horses
in the main street, bartering for cloth and jewellery, or just
strutting their stuff in local costume and cowboy hats.

Chöde Monastery is currently in the final stages of a BIG facelift,
with the gleaming glass frontage of the new Serkhang Nyingba building
sparkling in the bright sunlight.

In the city’s markets, a
silver-handled dagger with a scabbard engraved with fierce Naga designs
– enough to ward off any potential assailant – costs about 150 yuan
(£10) for a medium-size model or 100 yuan (£7) for a smaller version.
Other great buys include copper kettles, jewellery and colourful
fabrics. In a liturgical supplies shop, next to the bells and the
bundles of incense, is a box of Dalai Lama badges on open display.

I was looking forward to attending the Litang Horse Festival. All that
remained was a minor problem – money. I was unable to find an ATM
anywhere in town, and had no cash or travellers cheques left. No one
would take so much as a sniff of a credit card. Penniless, I was forced
to beat a retreat to Kangding only to find no ATMs that would accept
foreign cards there either.

As it turned out, I may not have
missed too much. For the first time in living memory, the Litang Horse
Festival of 2006 was called off, less than three days into its usual
seven-day programme. The cause was an attack on the local police
station by Khampa nomads, who were aggrieved over a race result
decision. Fortunately, the matter was resolved in kind- hearted Tibetan
fashion, with the horse owner making an abject apology and a
substantial payment to the real winner.

So, barring unforeseen circumstances, the 2007 Litang Horse Festival will proceed as usual. I’ll see you there.