Atop the World

The world’s high­est play­field is lo­cated at Shan­dur in Gil­git where polo is played with all the fan­fare of a vil­lage fes­ti­val.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Sarah Fahim

Cra­dled be­tween Chi­tral and Gil­git in the Ghizer dis­trict of Gil­git-Baltistan, the scenic val­ley of Shan­dur at­tracts tourists, lo­cal masses and var­i­ous lo­cal sports­men ev­ery year. Lo­cated at a dis­tance of 147 km from Chi­tral and 211 km from Gil­git, the Shan­dur top is called ‘the roof of the world’. High, snow-cov­ered moun­tain

peaks and the crys­tal clear Shan­dur Lake de­fine this pic­turesque gorge to the tourists. When trav­el­ling from Chi­tral to Shan­dur, one can wit­ness the strik­ing nat­u­ral pull of Mas­tuj and Surlasp val­leys, whereas Gahkuch, Gupis, Phan­dar and nu­mer­ous sparkling lakes cross paths with trav­el­ers com­ing from Gil­git and Shan­dur.

The English word ‘Polo’ is de­rived from a Balti word which means ‘ball’. The sport is ex­tremely popular among the in­dige­nous peo­ple and dates back to the 6th cen­tury BC. Polo be­came a Persian nat­u­ral game in the 6th cen­tury and gained mo­men­tum in Saudi Ara­bia, Ti­bet, China and Ja­pan in the lat­ter years. It was in­tro­duced in the South Asian re­gion dur­ing the 13th cen­tury by Mus­lim con­querors. The Ra­jas, Mirs and Me­htars of­ten spent 50% of their an­nual bud­gets for sup­port­ing Polo. His­tory refers to the sport be­ing in­tended for train­ing the elite troops of th­ese rulers. It is of­ten tagged as the ‘the game of the kings and the king of games.’

It was in 1936 that the first polo match was held be­tween the teams of Chi­tral and Gil­git. The team from Skardu also par­tic­i­pated at times. A Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal agent, Col. Eve­lyn Hey Cobb, ini­ti­ated the first proper polo match in the re­gion. He was fond of the sport him­self and named the ground in Shan­dur the ‘Moony Polo Ground’.

At an altitude of 3,700 me­ters and 12,200 feet, the Shan­dur Polo Ground is the world’s high­est play­field. With a width of 60 yards and length of 220 yards, the play­field has a 2 feet high stony wall sur­round­ing the ground. The tem­per­a­ture there can drop to as low as -10 de­grees centi­grade at night and can rise up to 40 de­grees centi­grade dur­ing the day. As a con­se­quent con­di­tion of the altitude and weather, oxy­gen in the area is of­ten scanty and the polo play­ers have to rely ex­ten­sively on stamina and phys­i­cal com­pat­i­bil­ity to the en­vi­ron­ment.

In 2014, eight teams from Gil­git and Chi­tral par­tic­i­pated. There were four matches to the vis­i­tors’ de­light. The game fol­lows no um­pire or rules and lasts for sixty min­utes with a ten­minute break. In an­cient times, a team could com­prise up to a hun­dred play­ers and fol­lowed no time limit for matches. The team that scored nine goals be­fore the other would win. Nowa­days, each team has six par­tic­i­pants and ev­ery player is al­lot­ted only one Afghan-bred pony to ride dur­ing the match. The player can only stop if he or his horse has been se­ri­ously in­jured. Each rider and horse to­gether is given a sym­bolic num­ber.

In the event a player can­not con­tinue the match, the player with the same num­ber from the op­pos­ing team is also stopped from play­ing the match. The polo sticks must not get in be­tween the horses’ legs. For the record, the sticks are not only used to hit the ball; the play­ers don’t keep from hit­ting the op­po­nent play­ers on the shoul­ders and arms ei­ther. Each team’s goal­post is the op­po­site end of the field and af­ter ev­ery goal, the goal­posts are reversed.

The polo fes­ti­val at Shan­dur is held dur­ing the first or sec­ond week of July ev­ery year for three days. It is no more merely a match – but a cel­e­bra­tion with high spir­its of the at­ten­dees. Ac­tiv­i­ties like folk mu­sic and danc­ing, tra­di­tional tug of war and hand­i­crafts dis­play, sitar mu­sic, para-glid­ing, river raft­ing, horse rac­ing, Buz Kashi (an­other lo­cal game) and tent-camp­ing along the Shan­dur Pass at­tract an am­ple num­ber of tourists each year.

Trout fish­ing in the nearby streams is an ad­di­tional treat for both the lo­cals and tourists. Peo­ple travel from afar and take a glimpse into the in­dige­nous cul­ture, ways and cus­toms. Vis­i­tors usu­ally add an ad­di­tional day into their itin­er­ar­ies and ar­rive at least a day ear­lier than the matches to en­joy the tra­di­tional treats of trekking, moun­taineer­ing, hik­ing and horse rid­ing amidst the lakes and alpine flow­ers of the val­ley.

Trav­el­ling to the pass is a life­long mem­ory. Fly­ing to Islamabad only marks the be­gin­ning of a quaint jour­ney ahead and con­tin­ues with a drive to Chi­las. The drive winds around the Karako­ram High­way and lasts for roughly twelve hours, cov­er­ing a dis­tance of 461 km. From here on­wards, an­other seven-hour drive to Hunza Val­ley in Karimabad stretches on to 240 km. Fi­nally, the drive to Gil­git takes ap­prox­i­mately four hours to cover an­other 110 km. The last 215 km af­ter an overnight tent-stay in the camp­ing vil­lage brings the tourists and lo­cal trav­el­ers to the Shan­dur Pass that leads to the world’s high­est polo ground.

Two flights from Islamabad and Pe­shawar bring pas­sen­gers to Gil­git and Chi­tral. The route through Chi­tral, Booni and Mas­tuj val­leys soothe the mind. The land­scape and the scenic colours along the course of the jour­ney add to the beauty and nat­u­ral fresh­ness. Para­troop­ers show­case their skill be­fore the polo matches begin ev­ery year. The three-day tri­umph hosts a num­ber of in­ter­na­tional celebri­ties and sight­seers at the Shan­dur Pass.

The Shan­dur Pass is of­ten re­garded as ‘half­way to heaven’. The jour­ney is ex­quis­ite. Light air, lush greens and white peaks wel­come you. The Shan­dur top is a flat plateau that can be crossed be­tween late April and early Novem­ber. How­ever, the drive re­quires a 4x4 jeep for the steep roads and sharp turns that are par­al­leled by deep, deadly ditches on ei­ther side. There are a num­ber of mo­tels with ad­e­quate pro­vi­sions in Panah Kot, Dir, Bam­bu­ret, Be­sham, Bas­reen, Chi­tral and Gil­git. To en­sure the safety of trav­el­ers, 1200 per­sons were posted on the roads lead­ing to the pass in 2014.

The fes­ti­val at­tracts plenty of tourism and en­hances Pak­istan’s per­cep­tion among the peo­ple of the var­i­ous coun­tries who visit the matches.

The writer is a free-lance jour­nal­ist.

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