SPORTS AND RECREATION IN TIBET

RECREATION IN TIBET

20080229-tibet-pool julie chao.jpg
Arguably the most popular sport in Tibet
Gathering around a fire is common social activity in Tibet. Many foreigners find that being entertained by Tibetan nomads is a challenge. The smoke from a yak dung fire inside a Tibetan tent is so thick that it stings the eyes and causes one to cough. And although Westerners often find pungent-smelling yak butter tea to be a chore to get down, they often end up gulping down cup after cup because to do otherwise is impolite.

Playing sho, or parasho---a game in which a dice is rolled and markers, such as old perforated Tibetan coins, are moved clockwise along a wide arc of stones or beads---is favorite Tibetan pastime. The first person to reach the end wins.

Some Tibetans like to gamble. Never bother Tibetan men who are gambling on a game of mah-jong. In the 1980s. Sorrel Wilby, an Australian woman, interrupted a game just to introduce herself, and next thing she knew she was on the ground with a sword at her throat.

Many Tibetans play pool under the open sky on roller-mounted movable pool tables. Elderly people remain religious and still deeply revere the Dalai Lama but many teenagers are more interested in video games and cell phones and have little interest in religion.

Lhasa is noted for its slow pace and comfortable living. To enjoy a genuine Lhasa life, you had better go to the sweet tea house, where you can drink sweet tea, chat with friends, enjoy the sunshine. Drinking sweet tea is a part of Tibetan’s daily life. The tea house is a place where people gather together and socialize. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

The number of brothels, video parlors with pornography and karaoke bars has increased greatly in Tibet since the Chinese began arriving in large numbers. The New Yorker described one nightclub in Lhasa with a heavily made up Nepalese girl doing a pole dance to a Bollwood film tune.

Climbing Everest, See Exploring Under Recreation, China

Good Websites and Sources: Tibetan National Sports Association tnsa.info ; Tibet Sports blog tibetsports.blog.com ; Tibetan and Himilayan Dog Breeds dogbreeds.bulldoginformation.com

Tibetan Cultural Sites: Tibetan Cultural Region Directory kotan.org ; Tibet Online on Culture tibet.org/Culture ; dharma-haven.org ; Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture tibetanculture.org ; Tibet Trip tibettrip.com ; Mystical Arts of Tibet mysticalartsoftibet.org ; Tibetan and Himalayan Library thlib.org ; Links in this Website: LITERATURE, FILM AND THE MEDIA IN TIBET Factsanddetails.com/China ; MUSIC, DANCE AND THEATER IN TIBET Factsanddetails.com/China ; SPORTS, RECREATION AND PETS IN TIBET Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN ART Factsanddetails.com/China

Good Websites and Sources on Tibet: Central Tibetan Administration (Tibetan government in Exile) www.tibet.com ; Chinese Government Tibet website eng.tibet.cn/ Wikipedia Wikipedia Tibetan Resources phayul.com ; Open Directory dmoz.org/Regional/Asia/China/Tibet/ ; Snow Lion Publications (books on Tibet) snowlionpub.com ; Photos Tibet Photo Gallery Tibet Gallery Terra Nomada Terra Nomada ; Tibetan Cultural Sites: Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture tibetanculture.org ; Tibet Trip tibettrip.com ; Tibetan Cultural Region Directory kotan.org ; Tibetan Studies and Tibet Research: Tibetan Resources on The Web (Columbia University C.V. Starr East Asian Library ) columbia.edu ; Tibetan and Himalayan Library thlib.org Digital Himalaya ; digitalhimalaya.com ; Tibetan Studies Maps WWW Virtual Library ciolek.com/WWWVL-TibetanStudies ; Center for Research of Tibet case.edu ; Center for Advanced Tibetan Studies amnyemachen.org ; Tibetan Studies resources blog tibetan-studies-resources.blogspot.com ; News, Electronic Journals ciolek.com/WWWVLPages

Sports in Tibet

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Tibetan wrestling
Archery is Bhutan's national sport. During competitions, archers are "allowed to jeer at an opponent, jump in front of the target as he shoots, or break his concentration between shots with homemade wine and groups of "seven, nine, or eleven women dancers.'"

At festivals you can see people dancing and racing horses and playing polo. The New Year's celebration features horse racing. Many monks play soccer. Monks at Tibet’s Sera monastery formed a team to compete against other teams in local games.

Soccer, See The Cup, Literature, Film and Media in Tibet

The international soccer organization FIFA formally apologized to China after it listed Tibet as a separate country on its website.

Yak Racing in Tibet

Chloe Xin of Tibetravel.org wrote: “Yak racing is a spectator sport held at many traditional festivals in Tibet, such as the annual Shoton Festival which usually falls in August every year. Yak race can be one of the most entertaining parts of a Tibetan horse festival, in gatherings which integrate popular dances and songs with traditional physical games. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org <>]

“Each of the competitors, which commonly number 10 or 12, mounts his yak, and the yaks run towards the opposite end of the race course in a sprint. Yaks can run surprisingly fast over short distances. The winner is usually given several khata (a traditional Tibetan scarf) as well as a small amount of prize money. Yak racing is also known to be performed in parts of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and in the Pamirs. <>

“ During traditional festivals of Tibet, the people dress in their best finery and sing and dance to celebrate the banquet. At the capital of Tibet, Lhasa hugs lots of yak-racing master-hand from all around Tibet. The yaks' massive heads are adorned with red flowers, their backs caparisoned with ornamented saddles. The yak jockeys' whip hands fly as they urge their mounts still faster towards the finish line. <>

“At Yushu, another Tibetan area in Qinghai Province, yak racing has became an integral part of the Yushu Horse Festival and the nineteen-day Darma Festival in Gyangtse, and a comic highlight of the Damxung Horse Festival also known as the Dajyur. Yak racing is also a common sport in the farming and stockbreeding areas on the grand Tibetan Plateau. They hold yak racing events annually to celebrate the good harvest, and they pray for good weather during the coming year.” <>

Horse Racing Festivals in Tibetan Areas

Horse festivals are big events in Tibet and Tibetan areas of China. The Tibetan Festival in Yushu in Qinghai Province in July lasts for five days. The Khampa Summer Festival in Gyegu in Qinghai Province is one of the largest gathering of Tibetan people, attracting Tibetans from all over western China. In recent years the Chinese government has tried to promote it as a tourism event. The Horse Festival in Lithang in Sichuan Province in August is another large gathering of Tibetans. All these festivals features dancing, folk performances, open air markets and horse racing

The top three horse racing festivals in Tibetan area are: 1) The Yushu Horse Racing Festival, 2) the Ngachu Horse Racing Festival and 3) the Litang Horse Racing Festival. Tibetans camp, party and dress up in their best clothes. There is a lot of dancing and Buddhist ceremonies. Tibetan food can be bought cheaply. You can buy Tibetan herbs and handicrafts and watch the Tibetans do various sports and games.

The Yushu Horse Racing Festival held in Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Region in Qinghai in the the Amdo Tibetan Area is last week of July. It takes advantage of the warm weather, so the valley floor has lush green grass suitable for long-distance horse races and tent camping. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 <>]

Attending horse festival, horseback riding and raising horses are popular activities among many Tibetans. Because of bad road conditions, sometimes horses are the best or the only way to get around. Although these days many Tibetans are using motorcycles rather than horses. But it is hard to love a motorcycle the same way you do a horse. Some herders treat horses as closest friends and intimate family members. Horse racing festivals are a time for Tibetans to mingle and have a good and for Tibetan riders to show off their manliness and bravery. [Source: Chloedon, Tibetravel.org, September 30, 2014]

The festival riders begin to select their favorite horses many days in advance. Some even buy horses from Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. On the first day of the festival, all the locals dress up and gather together to have fun. Even the horses are decorated with colorful ribbons and flags. Audiences stand by the track, cheering and applauding for the competitors. All riders spare no effort to show their skills and sporting spirit. The horses are raced to see who owns the best horse. The winners receive a lot of honor and prestige. This festivals lasts for about one week. Besides horse racing there is singing, dancing, running, tug-of-war competitions. Tibetan people from local villages and from far away gather together to watch the games and competitions and do business.

Tibetan men and women wear their most beautiful folkdresses and most valuable jewelry. During the festival, people talk about which girl is the cutest, which boy is the most handsome, who is the best dancer and who has the best horse. Many Tibetans have found their husbands and wives at horse festivals. The races and events include single-person-single-horse races, archery on horseback, double-men-double-horse races, shooting on horseback, flower-basket catching on horseback Horse race are also held at large traditionally festivals such as the Shoton Festival, Gyantse Darma Festival, Onqkor Festival and Saga Dawa festival.

Litang Horse Racing Festival in Kham

The Litang Horse Racing Festival in Kham Tibetan Area is a traditional Tibetan festival held in the first week of August every year in Litang County, Sichuan province. It is the most celebrated holiday in the Eastern Tibetan Plateau. Khams from all over the Tibetan Plateau come to trade, celebrate and ride. Many Khams are nomads and herders. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 <>]

During the Litang Horse Racing festival horse races are held with small but fast Tibetan ponies. The horse festival is significant because it helps to establish socio-economic hierarchy in Khams who participate. A lot of honor and prestige is placed on who owns the best horse. A very large tourism business has been built up on adventure trips and tours provided by companies who cater to individuals who are interested in horses and horsemanship. These companies travel around Tibet taking groups of tourists throughout the different villages hosting horse festivals. This benefits the nomads' economy as well as the rest of China's economy. <>

The Tibetans come from far away and set up tents to wait for the big days. The festivities also include jumping competitions and dancing shows. In the racing festival riders show their skills in horseback riding, shooting, and picking up objects while riding fast on horseback. It is a time to see Tibetans decked out in their best clothes. Both men and the women wear their most beautiful folk dresses and valuable jewelry. It is also a good time for trade. Various Tibetan living wares are put on the stands for sale. <>

Nagchu Horse Racing Festival

Nagchu Horse Racing Festival is a grandest horse riding competition in northern Tibet. Tens of thousands of herdmen gather outside Nachu city on a vast grassland dotted with tents. After a grand opening ceremony, various activities are held, including horse races, yak races, tug of wars, lifting stones and performances of Tibetan operas. The event is held in August and lasts 5 to 15 days. [Source: Lobsang Tsering, Tibetravel.org,, August 14, 2014]

In August the vast and beautiful green grassland is covered by flowers. A few days before the opening ceremony traditionally dressed Tibetans living gather in Naqu County to set up their tents around the horse racing track. Hundreds of tents are packed. Within a few days a crowded temporary tent city appears on the grassland. There are exhibitions, markets, dancing and singing performance, Buddhist activities, different kinds of interesting races, tug-of-wars, long jumping, stone raising, and of course horse racing.

On the Nagchu Horse Racing Festival, Mark Jenkins wrote in National Geographic, “The weeklong event used to be held on the open plains, but ten years ago a concrete stadium was built so Chinese officials would have someplace to sit. When we arrive the next morning, Tibetans pack the stands: women with high cheekbones, high heels, and long braids heavy with silver and amber; men in felt cowboy hats and the long-sleeved coats they call chubas; sockless kids in cheap sneakers. Hawkers sell spicy boiled potatoes and cans of Budweiser. Blaring speakers announce each event in Tibetan and Chinese. It's a rodeo atmosphere, except for the Chinese policemen stationed every ten yards along the bleachers, marching in squadrons around the field, and lurking in plainclothes.” [Source: Mark Jenkins, National Geographic, May 2010]

Down on the field, horse and rider seem to defy gravity. A contestant gallops almost out of control, dangling like an acrobat off the side to pluck a white silk scarf from the ground. Clods of mud propel into the sharp blue sky. Holding the scarf aloft, the Tibetan cowboy wheels his rearing horse to the roar of the crowd.” [Ibid]

“The Nagqu Horse Festival is one of the few surviving events celebrating Tibet's equestrian heritage. Through centuries of selective breeding, Tibetans created a premium horse called the Nangchen. Standing only 13.5 hands high (about 4.5 feet’smaller than most American breeds), fine-limbed and handsome-faced, with enlarged lungs adapted to life on the 15,000-foot-high, oxygen-starved Tibetan Plateau, Nangchen steeds were bred to be inexhaustible and sure-footed on snowy passes. These were the horses coveted by the Chinese centuries ago.” [Ibid]

Other Horse Racing Festivals in Tibet

The Chawalong Horse Festival is held in mid February in Chawalong Village in Chayu County, Nyingchi Prefecture, Tibet. Chawalong has very limited resources, with no access to electricity and phone signals. There are only four roads connecting Chawalong to outside world. However, whichever road you choose, you are going to need to ride horses though some rough sections. Thus, horse is a very important part of Chawalong villagers’ life.

The Gyantse Horse Racing Festival is usually held in late June or early July in fourth lunar month of the Tibetan calendar. It is said that the Gyantse Horse Race festival started as an athletic competition in the 1400s. As the years went by, it became an important inter-village competition. Buddhist worship and other events and festivities were added in. Events include horse racing, archery contests, wrestling, Tibetan Opera, music and dancing, athletic events and ball games. Tibetan people from different areas dressed costumes unique to their areas. Along with this, there is a swap meet and an open market. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 <>]

The Xiangxiong Cultural Festival in Ngari in western Tibet near Mount Kailash usually lasts for the whole August. Xiangxiong is an ancient culture and kingdom of western Tibet that dates back more than 1300 years. The biggest events are horse events, divided into three categories: speed racing, endurance racing, and equestrian show. In 2013, a total of 87 horses participated in the games. The winner in each category receives a 10-thousand Yuan prize. But for most local people, taking part in the competition is enough of an honor. They also weave their horses’ hair into colorful braids and feed them special forage. The trade fair features jerked beef, dairy products and traditional handicrafts. There is also ethnic singing and dancing performances. Art troupes performed the "Xuan Dance", a traditional folk art that mixes dance with narrating and singing. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 <>]

Image Sources: 1) Julie Chao http://juliechao.com/pix-china.html ; 2) University of Washington; bulldog.com, Wikipedia, Amercican Tibetan Mastiff Association

Text Sources: 1) Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China , edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org *|* New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2015

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