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"Riding the Horses of Tibet"



Riding the Horses of Tibet -Travel Account- by Linda Svendsen

Scruffy-maned and unshod, the horses of eastern Tibet won't win any blue ribbons. Short in stature and stout, they are well fed on the endless carpets of lush grass which characterize the high valleys of the eastern Tibetan Plateau. Their shaggy coats are a requirement of life at 11,000 feet above sea level. Horses are the soul of the nomadic cultures of both Tibet and Mongolia. For thousands of years, the nomadic herdsmen of eastern Tibet (now Qinghai and western Sichuan Province of China) have preserved their way of life by ancient alliance with the descendants of Asia's original stock, the Przewalksi's horse. Through the rise and fall of emperors and the ebb and flow of war and peace little has changed in the daily life on Tibet's highlands. The advent of communism and the dark years of the Cultural Revolution have had limited success in altering this culture that is as timeless as the seasons and as mobile as a horse or yak. Our disparate group of foreigners (four Americans, a Belgian, a German, two New Zealanders and a Brit) plans to spend the next 11 days riding a 200 mile loop through these grasslands. Ringed by snowcapped mountains and ablaze with wildflowers, the grasslands are a horseman's dream and the summer home of hundreds of nomadic Tibetan families and their herds of yaks. Our Chinese guides, for whom this trip is an extraordinary adventure that parallels ours, do not share our delight. They know of the grasslands as the final resting place of thousands of Red Army soldiers. During the Long March in 1935, Mao Tse Deng's men battled past Nationalist soldiers and Tibetan bandits only to succumb to the altitude, cold and marshy conditions of the grasslands in early spring. Our mid-July trip is timed for the best of weather and riding conditions. Only two days before, we were in Chengdu, capitol of Sichuan Province, surrounded by rice paddies, water buffalo and the stolid, gray architecture of modern China. This morning in Hongyuan, Aba Prefecture's largest town, the air is as thin and as clean as silk compared to the smoky, humid environs of Chengdu. Hitching posts outnumber bicycle racks in Hongyuan and the town's economy revolves around the dried yak milk factory. The Tibetans stare, disbelieving, at my blond hair and blue eyes. I stare, with equal boldness, at their long-sleeved chubas, turquoise earrings and the prodigious daggers in their belts. I'm a stranger in a strange land. When they hear we are going riding chi ma (horseback) they flash gold-lined grins and the universal thumbs up sign.

In the courtyard of our guest house, the Tibetan guides are matching each rider with a horse in preparation for the first day of riding. I gravitate towards a pretty little gray mare. Ga Bei, one of my Tibetan wranglers motions me away from the gray and towards a stocky, nondescript bay. I resist, but he insists and the gray mare goes to another rider. Ten minutes into the day's ride I remind myself that beauty is in the eye of the beholder but a pleasant ride is in the horse's gait. My bay eyesore has parallel strides like a Tennessee Walker and I realize what a friendly favor I've been done. As Ga Bei passes me to the head of the pack, he returns my thumbs up sign with a wink and a smile.

Our first days of riding are tentative. The Tibetans are justifiably concerned about our riding ability and its effect on their horses. The Chinese are perpetually paranoid that something awful will happen if the foreigners move faster than a walk. The first day is frustrating and slow; we are not allowed to break into a trot, much less a lope. Then, in the late afternoon, the head wrangler apparently decides that a lope is in order and from that time on, what started as a trail ride turns into some serious traveling and some serious fun.

We are riding through one of the least visited areas of Central Asia, reminiscent of Montana or Colorado, with the notable addition of black yak hair tents and hillsides covered with prayer flags. Our route takes us through deep river gorges and across the geographical divide between the two great rivers of China, the Yangtze and the Yellow. We will ford and reford tributaries to the Yellow River as it meanders through the grasslands. We are using local tack, a point of some considerable pre-trip concern. Three years before, my first horse trip in Inner Mongolia was entirely on Mongolian saddles. From that experience, I understood why Ghengis Khan's Hordes were both tough and mean. After a day's ride in those saddles, anyone would be ready to sack and pillage. We had requested Chinese cavalry saddle for the ride in Tibet and received half Tibetan saddles and half cavalry saddles. A heavy, English style saddle, cavalry saddles seemed a prudent compromise with tradition. To our delight, the Tibetan saddles turn out to be wider and less severe than Mongolian saddles and well suited to western sized rear ends. By the end of the ride they are the seat of choice. Our only real concession to western riding is to bring a quantity of flat nylon buckle straps to lengthen our stirrups. The jockey-like riding style of Tibetans and the difference in stature between East and West makes for a very cramped ride without the extra length the straps provide. At the end of the trip they will turn out to make excellent and much appreciated gifts for our Tibetan friends.

Our entourage during the ride consists of a 20 passenger bus, a vintage Chinese army truck, two drivers, one Chinese national guide, one Tibetan local guide, three Tibetan wranglers, two Chinese local guides, one Chinese guide in training and one representative of the Chinese Foreign Service. The Foreign Service officer and the local guides are cooks and bottle washers, the national guide and the Tibetan guide smoke a lot of cigarettes and the wranglers are the most pleasant and high spirited of the bunch. Each morning we break camp, pack up our personal duffel, eat breakfast and begin riding to a lunch time rendezvous with the truck and bus. Our cross country route takes us through Tibetan villages and camps. One day we pass two freshly skinned wolves on the outskirts of a camp, at another, a caravan of Buddhist monks from Lhasa detours to our lunch stop in a mutually enjoyable outburst of curiosity and good humor. The Tibetans wear the ubiquitous chuba, a very long sleeved fur-lined overcoat which is worn off one shoulder on hot days. On cold days both hands and reins can be drawn up into the voluminous sleeves.

After each day's lunch there is time for a short siesta, then we mount up to ride on to dinner and camp. No sooner is our camp set up than people appear, either on horseback or riding yaks. They are more than generous with offers to ride on their yaks, a beast resembling a very hairy cow, steered by vigorous yanks on a nose ring. A mount lacking in elegance but, according to the Tibetans, very warm to ride in winter.

Our ride in Tibet was a ride through a tiny window on Tibetan culture. There was little fanfare and pageantry, just the beauty that is found in a glimpse of people living their lives to an ancient rhythm. The horses were spirited but common, the accommodations rustic, the food ample but far from fancy, the tack was old but serviceable. Riding has always been a pleasure for me, and in Tibet it was an education as well.


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