The Litang Horse Racing Festival is a traditional festival that was held August 1 every year in high-elevation Litang County in eastern Sichuan Province. The town of Litang has an old monastery called Litang Monastery, and the competition was once a function of the monastery. This festival takes advantage of the warm weather, so though the elevation is very high, the glassy area is suitable long-distance horse races and tent camping. It isn't clear if the festival will be held in 2011. The Tibetan horse races and athletic competitions are becoming popular as a tourist attractions, but the Litang Festival has historically been less organized and less commercialized than others such as the Yushu Festival. It has been a fun festival to watch, and tent camping is possible, but the more traditional races are slightly dangerous.
Litang County is in the high mountains of the Tibetan Plateau. The elevation of the valley where the competitions take place is a very high 4,000 meters or 13,200 feet, but most of the surrounding area is even higher mountains. Since the area is relatively undeveloped and the population is very low -- there are only about 70,000 people in the county -- it is a great place to find great scenery and exotic traditions. This is a very high elevation, and travelers who exert themselves for a few hours or try to stay for the night may get very tired or have difficulty breathing. The elevation is so high that vegetables have to be trucked in so that food is expensive and boiling water is more difficult.
During this time in the summer, the valley might be a great place to go for a walk. The tents they put up are reminiscent of a Native American powwow. Perhaps the most thrilling thing to watch is the horse back stunts that the young men do. They hang upside down or pick things up, and sometimes a horse falls. The main race is over a several kilometer-long course that tires the horses greatly. Some of the stunts involve shooting guns from horseback.
While there, you can watch the Tibetans camping and dress up in their costumes. There are Buddhist ceremonies. Tibetan food can be bought cheaply. You can buy Tibetan herbs and handicrafts and watch the Tibetans do various sports and games. You may also want to visit the town of Litang that is known as one of the highest towns in the world. The 430 years old Litang Monastery is on the north side of the town.
The prominent Litang Monastery is located north of town. It was built in 1580 in honor of the 3rd Dalai Lama (Sonam Gyatso 1543-1588). The Litang Horse Racing Festival was a part of the functions of the monastery. Destroyed in 1956 by the red guards, most buildings of the Litang Monastery have only recently been rebuilt. The festival was canceled in 2008 and 2009. In 2010, a small festival was organized, but it wasn’t widely announced.
These are real Tibetans, and they traditionally carry long knives, and these festivals are known for bloody fights. So stay away from rowdy drunk Tibetan men. There was a recent demonstration. Also, during the races and various competitions, there are a lot of injuries. Scared horses may charge into the crowds watching the event or run into the camp, and large dogs that people let run around may also bite. It is suggested that if you tent camp over night, bring everything you need including water and food. Though food can be bought cheaply, it is good to keep prepared. Also put a staff and some rocks in your tent to use on aggressive dogs. However, if you don’t like to tent camp, there are run-down hotels in town.
The festival is a little difficult to get to. From Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, you can travel west through Kangding where you need to stay the night. Then continue on a bus to Litang. Kangding now has a domestic airport, so you can also fly into Chengdu’s international airport and then into Kangding’s domestic airport.