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Featured Image: Shandur Pass Polo Festival, photo by Shipton Trekking, the polo ground is at 12,300 feet (3800 metres) and the mountains rise up to 8,000 feet higher
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 1 August 2021
Extreme Polo in Gilgit and surrounding areas on the KKH 1995: Our Trip 3
This is the fourth article on our trip up and down the KKH. The first is The Karakorum Highway, the second The Lower Karakorum Highway and the third Besham to Gilgit the Terrain.
We arrived in Gilgit on 18 May 1995 at 7pm in the evening after a long day’s travel from Besham and were snagged or touted at the bus stop by the delightful Mr Ibrahim owner of a new lodge called the Mountain Refuge (more of whom later).
We enjoyed our stay in Gilgit marred only slightly by intermittent rain. We even hired a motor-bike. Though the state of the roads meant that we could not travel as far as we would have liked and bits kept falling off the bike, sometimes making the travel uncomfortable.
We left Gilgit on 27 May when the rain seemed to have set in permanently. Surprisingly, at our next stop in the Hunza Valley the rain stopped and we had delightful weather during our stay there, though the rain began again immediately we left and we saw almost no scenery up to the Pakistan border post at Sost.
Whilst in Gilgit, one of the things we most enjoyed was the series of polo matches in a tournament several of which we managed to see. These matches would eventually lead up to the famous Shandur Pass match in July.
History of Polo
Polo probably began as a simple game played by Iranian equestrian nomads in Central Asia. In time polo became a Persian national sport played by the nobility. Women played as well as men.
The first recorded tournament was in 600 BC (between the Turkomans and the Persians – the Turkomans were victorious). The name is supposed to have originated from the Tibetan ‘pholo’ meaning ‘ball’ or ‘ballgame’. Although all of this is debatable.
The modern game was derived from British tea-planters observing it in Manipur (located between Burma & India). The first official rules were not created until the 19th century by an Irish Captain in the 13th Hussars and the modern International Rules are based on them. The size of the polo pitch (nearly 10 acres in area; the largest field in organised sport) has not changed since one was built in Isfahan Persia in the 1500s.
Each team has four players and each player must have at least one spare horse. The game is played over 4, 6 or 8 chukkas. Each chukka lasts 7 minutes with a break of 3 minutes between chukkas and a five-minute break at half time. More chukkas normally require more spare horses.
Polo mallets are made of wood. The head is of a hardwood called tipa and the shaft of varying types of wood and flexibility. The mallet must be exactly 2 foot six inches in length. The ball was originally bamboo, then wood and has mainly been fibreglass since 1990. The object of the game is to score goals by hitting the ball through the goal posts. The game is fast, furious and exciting. There are a range of tactics, strategies, allowed manoeuvres and fouls.
As with most equestrian sports the need for a number of horses and equipment make polo an expensive sport to play.
This is the same with polo played in the Northern Areas of Pakistan. The upkeep of the horses is expensive. Although less horses are required.
Denise used to play a game in Australia called polocrosse (a cross between polo and lacrosse) which is more widely played and is less expensive than polo because it requires only one horse. Another similarity with extreme polo is that the game is also played with six players on a smaller ground.
Extreme Polo in Gilgit
The history of polo in Gilgit and the Northern Areas of Pakistan (now called Gilgit Baltistan) is not so ancient. The Smithsonian magazine says the Persians brought the game to the Chitral, Gilgit Baltistan area a thousand years ago, but without providing evidence. It may have been later, but more than 500 years ago.
The Shandur Pass Polo Match
The ‘grudge match’ between Chitral and Gilgit Baltistan on a polo ground constructed on the Shandur Pass, instigated by the baltit Raja of Skardu who built the ground, has been held on 7-9 July annually since 1936. It is the most famous extreme polo match in the Northern Areas of Pakistan and is a tourist attraction. It has been so since a jeep-able road was constructed from Gilgit to Chitral over the Shandur Pass in 1982.
The meeting at the Shandur Pass at 3,800 metres (12,300 feet) is the highest regular polo match of any form anywhere in the world.
In 1995 there was an amateur element to the game in Gilgit Baltistan that is less evident now. We would have loved to go to Chitral when we were in Gilgit, but transport was exceedingly difficult or prohibitively expensive. Attending, the polo match on the Shandur Pass would have been easier, but it wasn’t until early July by which time we were in India.
In 1995, the change from needing to be a seasoned traveller to reach remote locations was beginning to be a thing of the past.
I wrote in my journal:
I think that things have changed in Marshall McLuhan’s ‘Global Village’. The remotest parts of Earth are now more accessible to group tours and those on annual vacation than they are to long-term independent travellers.
Today, as with the Kashgar Sunday Market and other remote locations, the Shandur Pass polo festival is something else entirely. It is too easy to get to and you can pay a tour company to take you there.
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