It is called the king of games, and the game of kings. But long before polo became an obsession of Ralph Lauren and defined a style of elite elegance, it was played by tribal horsemen in the rugged wilds of North Pakistan, minus the rules, the referees, and certainly the champagne.
That tradition continues 12,500-feet up in Shandoor, the world's highest polo field. It is here, backdropped by stunning mountains, that the neighboring towns of Chitral and Gilgit have faced each other for more than 100 years. It's a unique tradition that preserves polo as it was intended to be played, and shows a side of Pakistan that most of the world never sees.
"The first important thing the Mongols brought to Chitral was polo. The second was Islam," says Khushwaqt-ul-Mulk, the 94-year-old patriarch of Chitral's ruling family. Although historically inaccurate, such statements show the enthusiasm for the game here.
According to historical sources, polo was introduced in northern Pakistan 1,000 years before the Mongols ever arrived. The word "polo" derives from the word "ball" in the local Balti tongue.
The Shandoor tournament draws tens of thousands of spectators, many foreign, and this year I decided to join them. Part of the appeal is trying to get there. The journey takes 14 hours heading north by 4x4 from Peshawar over rutted roads flanked by sheer mountain drops. Thousands make the trek in beat-up buses; the truly brave set forth on motorbikes. Some walk, and at intervals we picked up many a hitchhiker, dust-covered and dog-tired, but excited to see the game.
By the time I arrived, my face was burned, my bottom bruised, and my lungs clogged with silt. But the wear-and-tear is smoothed over by the sensation of setting foot on the top of the world.
I had never seen a game of polo, let alone a polo field. I doubt any other will seem as splendid, which is funny given the rustic setup at Shandoor. Spectator stands are fashioned from crude stone and pebbles, and the grass on the field, baked mercilessly by the sun, lacks the luster that Western spectators probably enjoy. But surely no polo field in the world is nestled in a ring of the Hindu Kush mountains. And just beyond the field, shimmering in the breeze, sits Shandoor Lake, an ethereal plate of glacial blue.
The natural serenity contrasts with the brutishness of the polo. The play periods, called chukkers, usually last seven minutes. At Shandoor they go for 20 – without a referee.
The final game of the match, played out under a blistering sun, drew a record 35,000 people, including President Pervez Musharraf and his entourage.
The president, wearing a Chitrali cap and a firearm at his side, used the occasion to trumpet tourism as an antidote to terrorism. Several ambassadors attended, along with spectators from Denmark, England, Italy, and the US. "We would like to see more of you coming every year," General Musharraf told them. "It is you who we want to spread the good word of this place."
Many foreigners, among them Evelyn Van Manen of Holland, were ready to do just that. Ms. Van Manen was happy to see something positive about Pakistan being celebrated. "The [image of this place] is so negative. It's so ridiculous, because if you just come here, you know it's safe," she says, adding that she liked the game's lack of formality here. "It's very rough," she says, smiling.
On the field below, rival players antagonized each other with thrashing arms and mallets, their limbs entangled as their horses careened down the field. I marveled that no one fell. Giddy anxiety pulsated through the crowd, erupting in a pandemonium of shouts and drumbeats whenever a player, stretching far over his horse's flank, rocketed the ball through the posts downfield. For an hour, the momentum swung back and forth between the rivals, forcing the final into two overtimes, the players slumping over their slumping beasts. Chitral eventually triumphed 9-7.
Siraj-ul-Mulk, the match's official commentator, says that Shandoor was about much more than polo. In days past, it was about settling old scores, land disputes, and elopements. Today, it was about preserving a tradition that ordinary people, poor people really, held dear to their hearts.
"What's important is that ordinary people play polo here," he says. "It's a game that only rich people play in other parts of the country." Without help, he lamented, a tradition stretching back to the Mongols and beyond might die.