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Every August, farmers and merchants, monks and minstrels, nomads and tourists converge on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau. They gather to watch the region's famed Khampa horsemen display their skills at an annual festival.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn joined the crowd and reports that the Khampa's homeland is different from other Tibetan regions in that the people are finding their own ways to deal with the advent of modernization.

(Soundbite of horses)

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

Tibetans have pitched a tent city on the plain south of Litang. At 14,000 feet above sea level, Litang is one of the highest towns on Earth and over 90 percent of the residents here are Tibetans. It's located in Western Sichuan Province, one county over from Tibet proper.

In the morning, the Khampa horsemen are exuberant as they saddle up to ride in all their festival finery. Bells jingle on their horses. The riders' long black hairs adorned with silver, turquoise and coral jewelry. They wear 10-gallon hats on their heads and big knives on their belts.

(Soundbite of police sirens)

KUHN: With the wail of police sirens and bursts of gunfire they're off, their horses galloping at full tilt. Their charge past a reviewing stand marks the official start of the festival. By afternoon the riders are hot-dogging, showing off the skills of a life spent on horseback. They hang sideways off their saddles, scooping silk scarves off the ground at a full gallop. They twirl flintlock muskets over their heads and fire at targets on the ground.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

KUHN: Sitting in a nearby tent, Litang resident Gezun Norbu talks about the source of the riders' strength.

Mr. GEZUN NORBU (Litang Resident): (Through Translator) For Khampa men, riding on horses is a glorious thing. We feel proud to be the descendants of the heroic King Gesar. To gallop on horseback across the boundless grasslands makes us feel extremely confident and happy.

KUHN: King Gesar is the legendary monarch who holds an important place in the region's literature. Kham sits on an ancient trade route between China and Tibet, at the intersection of two cultures. Sometimes it's been ruled by Chinese, sometimes by Tibetans, and the Khampas have often fought with both. Litang residents say Khampas clashed with police on August 3rd following a dispute over the results of horserace.

Kham remains remote. There are no airports or train stations on its mountainous terrain, but the pace of development has sped up in recent years.

Ms. PAMELA LOGAN (Founder of Kham Aid): The whole region is changing really rapidly. I mean, modernization is hitting even the back country.

KUHN: Pamela Logan is the founder of Kham Aid, a California-based charity that runs a range of cultural, educational and environmental projects in the region.

Ms. LOGAN: You see a lot of families now that have satellite dishes and TV in their homes, which they never had before. Even people are giving up horses in favor of motorcycles for getting around. So I think in another generation it'll be hard to find Tibetans who still know how to ride.

KUHN: In one tent, a Khampa woman named Abir(ph) says that to her people, the festival is as important as Tibetan New Year.

Ms. ABIR: (Through Translator) For men, the festival is about horse riding. For women, it's about dressing up, singing, and dancing. Usually you have to collect medicinal plants in the mountains, so the clothes I wear get worn out. When I've saved up enough money I buy new clothes for the festival.

(Soundbite of sloshing liquid)

KUHN: In an adjacent tent, a neighbor is mixing a favorite Tibetan drink, yak-buttered tea. While some Tibetans are starting to use blenders, people at the festival still mix it the old way, in a cylindrical wooden tub. In his tent, Gezun Norbu explains that a proper festival tent has to have certain things.

Mr. NORBU: (Through translator) Need a pair of tables, some wool carpets and a big picture of the living Buddha. You also have to have yak meat, yak butter, and yogurt. These are the essentials.

KUHN: The living Buddha refers to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan's exiled spiritual leader. His picture is prominently displayed in the Khampa's tents, ignoring government bans on the images. Despite occasional crackdowns on Tibetan independence activists and Buddhist monks, officials in Kham seem less obsessed with stability than their neighbors in Tibet proper. That helps Khampas to celebrate their traditions.

(Soundbite of music)

KUHN: A young minstrel in a sport coat and baseball hat roams the tent city singing a song about the Potala Palace, the Dalai's traditional home in Lhasa.

(Soundbite of singing in a foreign language)

KUHN: With each annual horse festival, the ratio of tourists to riders seems to rise. Already the Khampas are warriors more in spirit than in deed, but in their annual display of skill and abandon, charging at full tilt, they appear as fiercely proud and free as ever.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Litang, Sichuan Province.

LIANE HANSEN: You can look into the faces of some of the Khampa horsemen and read Anthony Kuhn's reflections on Kham at our Web site, npr.org.

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