The Insider’s Guide To Attending The Tagong Horse Festival
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The ground vibrates beneath me as a wave of thundering hooves streaks across the valley. Decked out in colorful fabric, both horses and riders leave behind a blur of color as they run up and down the field racing against the clock.
Excited spectators crowd the sidelines hooting and hollering as the riders display impressive acrobatics on horseback. Galloping down the field the men literally perform backbends off one side of the horse in an atempt to grab as many scarves as they can off the ground before hurling themselves upright again just in time to stop their horse from running into the crowd.
The sidelines are packed five deep with locals and tourists alike all gathered to watch the magic unfold. Each family in Tagong sets up a tent along the field and cooks up an incredible feast of momos (tibetan dumplings), yak meat, yak cheese, fruit, and drinks of every kind from butter tea to beer.
The atmosphere at a Tibetan Horse Festival is like that of a football game anywhere else in the world. Replace the tents with trucks and the horses with a ball and you’d have yourself a good old fashioned American pregame tailgate.
This is the Tibetan nomad version of the Superbowl or World Cup, and it’s called the Horse Festival.
There are multiple horse festivals in Tibet in different towns, but what I love about the Tagong Horse Festival is that it’s run by locals for locals. This is not a show put on for the tourists, but a long standing tradition of celebrating their nomad culture, which, of course, revolves around horses.
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When Is the Tagong Horse Festival?
The Tagong Horse Festival is held every year on the 15th day of the 5th month of the Tibetan lunar calendar. If you’re anything like me, that probably means diddly squat to you, but if you know anything about the Chinese lunar calendar the two are pretty similar in terms of dates. The new year starts sometime around the end of January – mid-February in correspondence with the new moon, so the 5th month falls sometime in what we would call June or July.
Tagong Horse Festival 2018 Dates
This year, the horse festival is scheduled to start on June 28. It’s a two-day affair, but all the main events occur on the first day.
Directions To The Tagong Horse Festival
The festival takes place on the hill right in front of Tagong town. If you’re in the main square where the monastery is looking at the road, turn left down the road walking out of town. Cross the street where you see a big parking lot and walk up the hill. The blessing and games are held on the flat plateau right at the top of the hill, and the long race goes from the flat plateau to the top of the tallest hill straight in front of you.
From the hill where the Horse Festival is held, you’ll be looking straight at the decorated hill next to town. Trust me, when you get to Tagong all of these markers will make sense. Everyone in Tagong will have horse festival fever so it’ll be damn near impossible to miss the festivities. Just follow the people and the noise and you’ll find the main event.
Schedule of Events
The first thing you need to know is that the festival operates, like all things in Tibet, on Tibetan time. Which basically means that time moves at a snail’s pace and everyone and everything will inevitably be late. The sooner you accept this, the more you will enjoy your time in Tibet. I truly believe there’s no better way to learn patience than to travel in the Tibetan regions of China.
The day starts with a blessing of the horses. It’s generally scheduled to happen at 9 am but never starts before 10, so there’s no need to rush yourself out of bed in the morning. Have a leisurely breakfast and enjoy a cup of milk tea before making your way up the hill to watch the blessing.
How will you know when the blessing has started?
As the Horse Festival is a local celebration, nothing is announced in English. So unless you can understand Tibetan, you’ll have to go by looks, and by following the crowd of people.
You’ll know the blessing has started when you see all the horses hanging out in a group with two monks beside them playing long trumpet-like instruments.
After the blessing is completed the festivities begin, starting with the long race. At just a few kilometers, the long race isn’t actually all that long, but it is hard. The horses and riders run from the blessing area up to the top of the tallest hill around.
Where Is The Best Spot To Watch The Long Race?
Most Exciting Spot
Near the start. The most exciting spot to watch the long race from is actually near the start of the race. This might seem a little counter intuitive compared to how most horse races go, but hear me out.
This isn’t like most horse races. In most horse races, the horses are running on a flat surface. At the Tagong Horse Race, they’re racing up a steep hill, at altitude. Because of this, the ending of the race is actually quite anti-climatic.
I did climb to the top of the hill and sit at the finish, thinking it would be the best spot, only to laugh as the horses came walking and trotting towards the finish line. The riders desperately urged their horses to go faster with little to no avail. It really was pretty comical.
The Best View
The Finish Line. The finish line is located at the top of the tallest hill, so, while it does take a bit of effort to walk to the top, the view is nothing short of stunning. You can see the entire town, plus you get a really cool view of the horses racing in a line up the hill. Also, you get to see who wins!
No matter where you’re seated when watching the race, you might be surprised to see how young most of the riders are. It’s common for the horses running in the long race to be ridden by children. They’re also all ridden bareback (without a saddle), two things you would never see in what most of think of as a traditional horse race.
The reason for this is that the horses in Tagong are really small, almost pony sized. By taking off the saddles and using children as riders they can lighten the load on the horses and (hopefully) make them run faster.
After the long race is over there’s a small break to give the horses and riders time to walk back down the hill, cool off, and prepare for the next stage of the celebration, the games.
You can use this time to walk around and visit all the different tents set up along the sidelines of the playing field. Feel free to walk by and take a look, but don’t go inside unless someone invites you in.
These tents are set up by the local families in Tagong as a place for family and friends to gather, eat, and get out of the sun so only go in if you are welcomed. Sometimes businesses in town will have their own tent, so it’s possible that maybe your hostel will have a tent you can use for the day.
The horse festival is basically just one big picnic with entertainment, so to truly join in the festivities you should bring your own food or snacks if you can. Most of the restaurants in town will be closed during the day while the festival is going on anyway so packing food is probably your best option just in case you can’t find a place to eat.
Once the break is over, the field is set, and the saddles are on, it’s time for the festival’s most exciting event, games. This is where the riders perform a dazzling show of athleticism that makes you gasp in awe at how in the world they didn’t end up on the ground, although a few do end up eating grass.
The games start with people littering the field with different objects. One round will be scarves, another will be cards, that the riders then have to pick up while racing their horses down the field. The object is to pick up as many objects from the ground as possible as fast as possible. Once the horses reach the end of the field the riders stop and give their lot to the scorekeeper who keeps a running tally for each rider.
The matches go on like this for the rest of the afternoon with riders leaning precariously off one side of the horse and bending backwards until their fingertips brush the ground. The riders grab at any object they can get their hands on putting full trust in their horses to keep running straight towards the end of the field.
It’s truly remarkable to watch, and the energy and excitement from the locals is palpable as they cheer on their friends and family members on the field. Prizes and money are awarded to the top finishers in both the long race and the games portions of the festivals.
The festivities on day 1 conclude around dinner time, and day 2 is another full day of games on horseback. I only went to day 1 of the horse festival as after a full day watching the races I’d had my fill and was ready to move on and experience some of Tagong’s other amazing sites.
What To Bring To Watch The Tagong Horse Festival
The main things you need to bring with you are food, water, and a hat if you have one. The town pretty much closes down during the horse festival so you’ll be hard-pressed to find someplace for lunch if you don’t have food with you.
Tagong sits at an altitude of 3600 meters above sea level, which means that the air is super dry and the sun is super strong. This means it’s really easy to get both dehydrated and burnt from the sun, even when it’s cold out. To combat dehydration and sunburn, make sure you bring plenty of water and wear a hat to protect you from the sun.
What To Wear To The Tagong Horse Festival
If you can, you’ll want to dress up a bit to watch the horse festival. A long dress for girls or a button up shirt for guys would be appropriate.
The horse festival is the biggest event of the year in town. All the locals dress to impress to celebrate the horse festival. They’ll be decked out in their most elaborate, colorful clothing, and wear all their best jewelry for the event.
As a tourist wearing hiking pants or jeans, you’ll definitely stand out. Don’t stress though if you don’t have any nice clothes with you, as foreign tourists we won’t get scolded for not dressing appropriately or anything. It’s just always good to respect the occasion if you can.
How To Get To Tagong
To get to Tagong, you’ll have to first fly to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. From there you have two options.
1. Take a bus from Chengdu to Kangding, then take a minivan from Kangding to Tagong.
The bus ride to Kangding takes anywhere from 8 to 11 hours depending on traffic going up the mountain. Buses leave from Chengdu South Bus Station every morning with the last bus leaving Chengdu at 2:00 pm.
The van ride from Kangding to Tagong takes 2 hours and leaves every morning whenever the van fills up. Minivans to Tagong can be found across the street from the Kangding Bus Station.
If you take a late morning or early afternoon bus, you’ll have to stay in Kangding overnight as there will be no one to take you to Tagong that late at night. There are a bunch of hotels and hostels in Kangding so if you do have to stay overnight you won’t have a problem finding a place to stay.
2. Fly into the Kangding Airport, then take a taxi from the airport to Tagong.
Flights from Chengdu to Kangding take 1 hour and 15 minutes. The ride from the airport to Tagong is 1.5 hours.
The Best Places To Stay In Tagong
1. Khampa Nomad Ecolodge
Set in the countryside 7 kilometers outside of town, Khampa Nomad Ecolodge is by far the best place to stay in Tagong. The lodge is set in the valley right beside a creek and facing the incredible Mt. Zhakra who’s snow-capped rocky peaks loom above the grassy hills like a king looking over his kingdom.
The ecolodge is 100% self-sufficient and operates completely off the grid by using solar and wind power as well as a biogas producing septic system. Rooms are built in a beautiful rustic style, are super comfortable, and have absolutely incredible views of the surrounding countryside.
A huge, homemade western style breakfast is included with your stay, as well as options to buy lunch and dinner at the lodge. The food here is incredible and was without a doubt the best Tibetan food I had during the total of 3 trips I’ve taken out to the Tibetan regions of China. All the food is freshly cooked with vegetables from the garden when possible.
Khampa Nomad Ecolodge is run by Angela, an American woman, and her Tibetan family. Angela and her family know everything there is to know about Tagong and the surrounding area and can arrange incredible treks and excursions for all their guests. She’s also just a wealth of information about traveling around Tibet, and Tibetan culture, so be sure pick her brain while you’re there if you have any questions.
Click here to find out more about Khampa Nomad Ecolodge or book a room.
2. Khampa Cafe & Guesthouse
Khampa Cafe is a cafe and guesthouse located in the main square in the town of Tagong. The guesthouse offers double and triple rooms with a shared bathroom. There is also an attached cafe on the lower floor where you can purchase food and drinks.
Khampa Cafe is by far the most reputable hostel in Tagong Town. It was started by Angela, of Khampa Nomad Ecolodge, but is now run by another English speaking couple. It’s a great place to stay to get good service at reasonable prices.
Click here to find out more about Khampa Cafe.
Located next to Khampa Cafe on the right-hand side, Himalayak is another good choice of hostel in Tagong. The owner speaks good English, has bikes for rent, and can help you set up treks and activities in town. There’s also a cafe on the ground floor where you can order food and drinks.
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