Tourist enterpreneur dilemma: The case of Yartung festival in Manang

in section News & Events

Have you seen the Eric Valli’s Caravan? This beautiful film featuring stunning Himalayan landscape has rather simple though powerful story. It is rivalry between young and old village headmen. While the old insist on departing for annual trade expedition on auspicious date determined by the astrologer, the young want to leave as soon as possible for practical reasons. When some half a year ago I first thought to organize tour to Manang for the Yartung horse racing festival, I didn’t know, that I’ll actually impose the same dilemma on the society of Manang.

Manang

Manang used to be remote mountain village but recently turned into booming tourist hub.

I was trying to find the festival date elsewhere. According to the literature, mainly Pradeep Pokhrel’s insightful “Manang – People and Places”, I was able to say, that festival should be happening on the third day of the fifth month of Tibetan calendar. Tibetan calendar is strictly lunar so after finding the Tibetan new year in 2013, counting five lunar cycles and then three days I got 11 July as the correct festival date. Having this I fixed the itinerary, made budgeting and was ready to start promoting the tour.

And then, during brief stay in Kathmandu in August 2012, I visited my Manangi friend Tripple P. Gurung, president of Manang Youth Society, and told him about the plan. “The date is unsure,” I was told by Tripple. “The traditionally it’s lamas who fix the dates. And they do it only after the crop, so in fact we will have no idea about the exact date till the late June.”

Yartung

The festival is opportunity for the young men to demonstrate the speed of their horses and their own skills.

This was hard pill to take for me. The Yartung was supposed to be the highlight of my tour, the experience which will make a difference from the standard trekking tours, the reason which will persuade my clients to come to Nepal for trekking during off-season time and withstand the risk of rain and some clouds. Getting the exact date just few weeks before the tour is useless for trek organizer, we can't deal with such short timeframes.

Fortunately the people of Manang understands what the business opportunity is. Already in July 2011 they organized the Grand Yartung, the horse racing festival which was held solely on purpose to attract tourists. Allegedly it was not success though, because not so much tourist arrived. In 2012 event was not repeated. But it was actually this 2011 Grand Yartung and stunning photographs of Tashi R. Ghale which originally emblazed my idea to go to Manang for Yartung.

Tripple, who was coorganizing this 2011 Yartung volunteered to talk with the businessmen and other stakeholders in Manang and try to persuade them to repeat the event in 2013. It took time till November when I got my dates fixed. Festival start was determined for 12 July, just the one day difference of my original assessment. I was told that the date is actually good even from the astrological perspective.

Well to be frank I had my moral doubts about the whole thing. Isn’t it damaging for the culture fabric to alter the astrologer’s divination for the practical decision of the few village business owners? I can’t say for sure, though I tend to think it’s not necessarily bad thing. The Yartung used to be the celebration of the horse and other livestock comeback from high pastures after the harvest (the animals are kept out of the village to protect the fields). While the less and less people of Manang make their living from agriculture and husbandry, the less important the festival is. To transform it from the agricultural festivity to tourist event can actually contribute to keep it alive. For the protagonist themselves, little is changed. The festival is opportunity for the young men to show their riding skills and if spectators include international public, it’s even better.

What is reduced is the role of the lamas in the process. In this sense I have to say, that I think that if the Buddhist clergy want to keep their prestige, they have to do something more than astrological hocus pocus, and I'm pretty confident they're actually doing that.

Yartung in Manang

Nearly every villager participate in festival in some way.

My feeling is, that tourism is not the danger for the local cultures of Himalayas. Sure the tourism is propeller of economic change with immediate effect on the everyday life. But it doesn’t automatically means the damage for the local culture. Actually quite opposite – protecting and maintaining local customs is effective way of promoting tourism. While the culture is turned into commodity it doesn’t necessarily implicate the lost of authenticity as the  custom's inner dynamics can be quite unchanged as in former times.

More then tourism my concern is the road which is scheduled to reach Manang in few coming years. Will Yartung festival survive the road? That’s the real question as the young men will definitely change the horse for motorcycle as happened in Kali Gandaki valley and is happening in Upper Mustang right now. And if there are no skilled horsemen and horses to ride on, the Yartung would be over soon.

So better to come to Manang for Yartung now!

See the program below and included pamphlet I produced to promote Yartung among the trekking agencies. Hope we can enjoy the festival without corrupting the local culture.


Yartung 2013 program

Traditionally Yartung festival is celebrating a return of horses and other livestock form the high mountain pastures. It’s also opportunity for the men to demonstrate the strength of their horses and their own ability. The winner of the races has to be both fast and skillful as the rider is requested to pick up the khata (silk ritual scarf) from the ground in full gallop. The races, which are held in between Manang and Braga villages, are followed with the interesting and colorful rituals in the local temples. Most people in Manang, both men and women, would wear their traditional dress and nearly all villagers will take some part in the feast.

Yartung 2013 will be held from 12th to 16th July. The detailed festival program is as follows:

The detailed festival program is as follows:

12th July: Around noon youngsters from Manang village gather at Teen Dhara. They sing a song while riding over their horses. Then from there, they move to the Thang where the race is held. They hold some races and come back to Manang. At around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, both the youngsters and adult gather again at the Teen Dhara, sing a song and head down to the Thang and hold race again and go back.

13th July: Same ritual is followed as of first day excluding morning part.

14th July: The day’s program begins at around 4 o’clok in the afternoon. The villagers go to the Pocho Gompa and light the butter lamps. After lighting the lamps, they head to the Thang and race. Then they go back either to home or gompa. At around 8 to 9 o’clok in the evening, the villagers are divided into two groups and one group is led to Pocho gompa and the other to Karki gompa. Then Oley dance is performed at both the gompas.

15th July: Villagers gather at Pocho Gompa in the afternoon as usual and go for a race at Thang. After completing the race, they come back to Manang.

16th July: Youngsters dance on top of the roof of the Gompa at Manang Village and concludes the festival.


Possible itineraries and access

Trekking to Manang for Yartung festival can be combined with great variety of itineraries with different length and grade. The traditional trekking start is Besisahar, but due to the recent road extension, it’s better to take jeep till Dharapani, reducing the walk to Manang to 3 days and avoiding monsoon affected parts.

The trekking itineraries which covers Manang village includes:

  • Naar-Phu trek
  • Thorung-la pass to Muktinath and Jomsom
  • Tilicho lake trek

All of these treks are viable in the summer season. For Tilicho lake, the July is actually considered as the best time.

Also Manang village can be the goal of the trek itself. Just 3 days walk from Dharapani, trekker can reach this beautiful village surrounded by high peaks and stay several days, attending festival and making day hikes around the village. There are several options of hikes around Manang:

  • Milarepa cave hike via Braga village to Milarepa gompa and holy cave approximately 4500 meters high.
  • Ice Lakes trip with wonderful views of the Manang village and Annapurna massif reaching the beautiful mountain lakes in the elevation of about 4700 meters.
  • Manang vicinity round covering Karki gomba, Pocho gompa, Gangapurna lake and Tenki village