The horses heave, their chestnut coats glistening on a clear day at the highest polo field in the world, more than 12,000 feet above sea level. The drum beats in the background, pumping adrenaline among the thousands of spectators present.
Forget Royal Ascot and Derby. You’re witnessing ‘the game of kings and the king of games.’
No rules, just game
The game at Shandur is unlike any other in the world – it is freestyle, no rules, no umpires. The game tries to be as close to its origins as possible.
Unlike international polo games where four players play on each side, Shandur has six players-a-side, two halves of 25 minutes each and a 10-minute break. Besides, playing at that height poses its own challenge – the lack of oxygen.
Polo at Shandur dates back to over a century but the first recorded tournament played at this ground was in 1936.
Since then every year in July a grand polo tournament takes place at Shandur pass. What makes it even more compelling is the on-field rivalry between the mountainous states of Gilgit and Chitral.
Drawing the crowds
The polo festival at Shandur not only draws spectators from across the country, but also foreigners who fly in to witness the historic game in the spectacular valley.
“I attend polo tournaments throughout the world and the festival at Shandur is one of the best,” said Hediya, a polo fan from Switzerland who has been coming to Shandur for the past seven years.
“The altitude at Shandur makes it very tough for the horses and the men, especially the horses because 80 per cent of the game is played by them,” she said. She dismissed any security concerns and said her visits are proof that guests are provided adequate security.
“I have never felt under threat here,” she said.
“It is unfortunate, and unfair, that there is a lot of bad publicity about Pakistan. The situation does not demand that level of concern.”
She also commended the hospitality of her hosts and said she truly feels at home here.
“I love to be here and you will see me again next year and the year after that.”
Cowley, another regular visitor from South Africa said Shandur was ‘magical.’
“The mountains and the lake here are absolutely beautiful. This makes me want to see more of Pakistan,” she said.
War, not game
For some, the aggressiveness of the game is an attraction.
“People here are very passionate about polo,” said Wajdan Shah from Karachi.
“When rivals Chitral and Gilgit play against each other, it’s not a game of gentlemen. It’s almost a battle,” he said.
This year’s festival also featured, for the first time, paragliding.
“We have brought several flying clubs with us to Shandur this year from across the country,” said Syed Sajjad Hussain Shah, the first paragliding pilot in Pakistan and president of the Pakistan association of free flying.
Shandur is a natural home for paragliding, he said. “It is a sport for the mountainous areas and Shandur has the mountains, and a beautiful plateau,” he added.
He is hopeful about the sport’s prospects in Pakistan
“It is a new sport but it is doing very well,” he said, adding that they are expecting to arrange an international paragliding event in Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 11th, 2011.
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