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.
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.