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Polo on the Top of the World

By Bruce Cowley

The Hindu Kush. A truly magical word, for anyone who was ever introduced to the works of Rudyard Kipling, invoking the mysteries of Central Asia and the intrigue of the Great Game. Remote mountain passes, spies, horse traders, adventurers. Sometimes it’s better to keep the mental pictures and never put the real place to the test, because invariably reality can never live up to expectations painted in the glowing colours of childhood’s imagination. But not the Hindu Kush. The reality is simply more spectacular than one could have ever imagined. And all the characters are still there, even more vivid than in the books.

So it was entirely fitting that my sister and I set off for the Hindu Kush to meet a horse trader of my acquaintance – Ashraf Gul, who also happens to be President of the Northern Areas Polo Association (NPA) – and watch a tribal polo tournament at the highest polo field on the planet, the Shandur Polo Festival. Ashraf has captained Gilgit in the annual Shandur tournament, against Chitral, for the last few years. And his pedigree, for this most dangerous version of polo, is impeccable. His father, a previous President of the NPA, died on the polo field.

Polo in the extreme North of Pakistan is still played the way it has been for over 1000 years. There are no rules and no umpires! There are no re-mounts. And the game consists of two 25-minute chukkas, with a live soundtrack provided by drums and flutes to stir the heart of pony and player alike. By limiting the number of horses a player can use, they have kept polo as egalitarian as possible. A polo player may be a farmer, a grocer or an Emir (prince) – he has the same chance on the field, relying on his skill as a horseman and the ability of his single mount. Bigger bank balances won’t buy you an endless stream of fresh horses here. And there is a team of venerable judges who may retire any pony that appears exhausted – forcing the player to continue the match on foot.Many of the players are in fact very poor people, for whom their polo pony is transport, sport and a member of the family. In fact, when the winter snows set in, the horse actually does move into the house with the family.

To reach Shandur you fly from Islamabad to either Gilgit or Chitral. Either flight is spectacular, flying over the Himalayas and Hindu Kush mountains, with the plane to Gilgit dropping into the Indus Valley and following its course up towards the source. We flew to Chitral, in the North West Frontier Province, spending a day with friends at natural hot springs and a night at the absolutely wonderful Hindukush Heights Hotel, before setting out early for the Shandur Valley. The festival lasts from 6th – 9th July, but we headed up on the 3rd in the hope of acclimatizing enough to play some polo. Chitral lies at around 5,000 feet, Shandur Valley at 12,000, which is why the teams and their horses go up around three weeks before the tournament to become accustomed to the altitude.

All roads follow the rivers, as there is little alternative in the mountains. The landscape is a contrast between rugged mountains and fertile valleys, which look rather like a cross between an English garden and a scene from a Constable painting. The villages become fewer, as the tar soon disappears and the road narrows to a single lane winding precariously above the river. And all the time you’re climbing steadily.

On the drive up it took us about seven and a half hours to complete the nearly 150 kms in a trusty Hilux bakkie. A bit longer than average, but I’m pretty sure it was due to me expressing a particular dislike for plummeting hundreds of metres to my death, during a drive the previous day. The driver, arranged by a friend of ours, was obviously under very strict orders not to scare the nice people and he did an admirable job considering the circumstances.

Quite simply, no photograph can ever come close to conveying just how high the mountains are, or just how narrow the roads really are – or just how long the vertical plunge (into a rushing river full of melted snow and glacial run-off) really is. But this is the magic of the Hindukush. The reality is far more awesome than you ever could have imagined. (Surely Muhbab Ali, the horse trader/spy master in Kim, had a broader road to bring his caravan down? Apparently not, things change very slowly in the North.)

We finally arrived at the Shandur Valley and stopped at the Northern Scouts camp to ask for Ashraf. Much clearing of throats boded ill, but Ashraf arrived and took us to his camp. “Where are the horses?” Carmen asked. Only after we were fortified with a mug of local Mulberry liquor (hey, call it Mampoer) did he tell us that the horses had left at midnight and Gilgit had pulled out of the tournament over some rather complicated politics that had come to a head over stables and toilet facilities for the Gilgit team.

For the first time in the tournament’s history, Gilgit would not be playing. Which seemed to defeat the entire object of the Shandur festival, as it has always been played between Gilgit (from the Northern Areas on the Kashmir side of the Hindukush) and Chitral (in the North West Frontier Province, on the Afghan side of the mountains). As the Gilgit camp was packed up around us I became a bit anxious as to the whereabouts of our camp – which eventually arrived after dark.

That evening our first visitors were from the Chitrali team – Ashraf’s nemesis Secunder Almulk the Emir of Chitral and Captain of the Chitrali team. Over many predictable comments along the line of “you left because you know you had no chance” the warmth of their mutual respect and fondness for each other (along with considerable quantities of ‘mampoer’) kept the cold at bay, while our cooks rustled up some dinner. After a freezing night, I awoke to what sounded like hoofbeats, but I assumed it was a tent flapping in the wind. Then there was the unmistakable crack of stick hitting polo ball – and I emerged to find a practice game happening right in front of our camp.

This was what Shandur festival was about for me, this year. Sitting down to breakfast, with a 360 degree vista of snow-capped peaks, served by our ever-faithful ‘retainers’ (“More chai Sahib?” – seriously!), while we watched polo. Some mornings the drummers came over too and added the soundtrack. And then, each morning, some of the players would drift over and, displaying the hospitality for which the Pashtun’s are famed, offer us their horses. Now, you have to remember that these are their match horses – there’s no point trucking any old horse all the way up here and entertaining it for a week – and they only have one each.

I ride to play polo. My sister is a rider. Dressage background, does horseback safaris for a living, plays polocrosse, etc. – I’m sure you understand the difference. So, she was all fired up to try their horses, which I had warned her she might hate. I’ve played in Gilgit before, so I have some experience – they are all stallions and they are all a trifle forward. Basically, they have two speeds. Hang on the reins means stand still. Give a bit of rein means bolt. They are all played on snaffle bits and none of them have any brakes. In fact, before you play, you knot the reins to give yourself something substantial to hang on to – as there is no other way you can hold the horse for a 25 minute chukka. And remember these are horses that can play 2 x 25 minute chukkas. You can’t just take him for a gallop and think that he’ll run out of steam after a few kms.

Most players play one of two breeds. The Afghani Badakshani, a short chunky horse that is as tough as the terrain he developed in. Or Punjabis, a warmblood that is very reminiscent of the ancient Akhal Teke breed. Against all my expectations, Carmen loved the horses, she admired the riders, and she certainly impressed the tribesmen. While we did a bit of stick&ball every morning and most afternoons – the altitude meant that I could barely manage 10 minutes on a horse, so we didn’t join in any of the games.

From the 5th, more and more characters began to drift in. The paragliders arrived bringing seemingly endless supplies of whiskey, and a film crew – including an insane Australian and his Polish mate, who fly 7 hours over the Hindukush. Some mountaineers from Gilgit, who had been climbing for days and didn’t know their team had pulled out, brought a sheep. And so, while the peace of our camp was shattered, there were always new people to chat to and exchange stories with.

The actual polo tournament was a bit of an anti-climax. Chitral was forced to reduce the number of players from the traditional 6, to 5, in order to make up an extra team. We dutifully attended the matches every morning and afternoon and witnessed some pretty good polo. But the fierce rivalry, between Gilgit and Chitral, was missing. There was a market selling some handcrafts, and a ‘restaurant’ selling kebabs or briyani, which made a welcome change from our ever-dwindling flock of chickens (who my sister had named Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday). But what makes Shandur Festival an absolute must-do, is not the polo. It’s the warmth of the people, the awesome beauty of the mountains and the smug knowledge that almost no-one else will ever get to experience it.

Now, I believe I’ve delivered mountains, horse traders and adventurers. So what of the spies? Well, there were the 2 American ex-marines now teaching at a local school. I’d say they are prime suspects.

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