“Let other people play other things – the king of game is still the game of kings”
This verse is inscribed on a stone tablet next to a polo ground in Gilgit, and modern day polo players in Pakistan have taken the saying to heart. Shandur’s famous polo ground is one of Pakistan’s largest tourist draws, luring in adventure lovers to the world’s highest polo ground at 3,738 meters. The annual festival is held each July in a pass that lies midway between Chitral and Gilgit. We read that the first ever polo match was held in 1936 and it has been held every year since. Photos of the exciting event had inspired us to make our own trip here, and we were keen to witness the sport that had “originated in the dim and distant past in the high mountains of the Hindukush and Karakorum ranges…here it is still played in its original form, a game as tough rough and hard, on man and horse as the surrounding mountains themselves.” Shandur’s no holds barred polo is a game without rules, where the players settle the score out on the field. We were thrilled to experience this amazing game first hand. Afterwards, we headed over to nearby Phander where we reveled in glorious hot water at the pristine PTDC Phander hotel, before setting out to hike and camp at the nearby Hundrap Lake.
Our jeep’s mechanical problems still plagued us, so we spent some time in Chitral trying to find replacement parts. As the morning passed by, we were getting quite antsy to continue as we still had a long drive ahead of us, and today was the opening ceremony of the Shandur Festival. Eventually, we hit the road again and made a brief stop to buy bottled water. Our journey was short lived, as we stopped at the first mechanical car garage for some additional tinkering with the jeep. At this point, we were a bit annoyed as we’d most likely miss the opening ceremonies and afternoon polo match, and the jeep’s malingering issues were growing old. We made up our minds to contact VE headquarters to ask for a replacement jeep as soon as possible, because we didn’t want these mechanical problems to persist our entire trip. Unfortunately for us, cell phone coverage was dodgy and we had a difficult time getting in touch with VE. After about an hour’s delay, we were on the road again with Hamid attempting to make up for lost time by take a route across the river. Little did we know at the time, but one of the bridges we intended to cross further ahead was not open for river crossings. While ultimately would require us to backtrack across the very river we had just traversed. Ignorance was bliss though, and we continued on our merry way happily thinking that we’d be able to get to Shandur a little earlier than expected. As fate would have it, we got into a minor fender-bender and our jeep’s right side chassis was stuck in an irrigation ditch. Pakistanis are the most amazing people…a van behind us full of passengers hopped down from the rooftop and willingly came over to help us pull our jeep out of the ditch. There was absolutely no question in their mind to drive on by…it was almost like it was their obligation to help fellow travelers in need. Once they learned of our intentions to cross the bridge up ahead, they quickly informed us we’d be better off turning back and making our way to Shandur on the other side of the river. So at least something good came out of our minor accident.
Several hours and a missing tent later, (all of our luggage was strapped down real tight at the back of the jeep but the mess tent had managed to wiggle itself free), we finally pulled into the spectacular Shandur plains as dozens of jam-packed vans and jeeps started zooming away in the opposite direction. To our dismay, we had arrived just as the final polo-match of the day ended. While there were hundreds (maybe thousands) of spectators who had decided to camp overnight for the 3 day festival, many others were commuting in/out of Shandur each day. Hamid and Saeed immediately starting setting up our North Face tent up a slight incline and we assisted with lugging our gear uphill. Wow, the elevation at Shandur was no joke. We were slightly winded carrying those bags uphill and can certainly attest that the Shandur polo field is played “on the rooftop of the world”.
The first thing we noticed and scoped out at Shandur were the toilet facilities. A series of cubicles built out of rock wall with a small pit in the center was it. Bring your own blanket and toilet paper! To conduct your business in private, you had to drape your blanket over the entrance of your particular toilet cubicle, (a rock or two would adequately weigh it down on a windy day), and squat over the hole in the ground and voila! Quite an experience at 3,800 meters.
We wandered down to the Shandur bazaar area for dinner which consisted of BBQ’d chicken, na’an and soda. It had been sunny all day but once the sun set, it was quite chilly at night at this elevation so we had to bundle up. A nice camp fire was crackling near the BBQ stand, so we joined Zia and Hamid in huddling up next to it. After dinner we strolled around the lively Shandur strip and contemplated heading over to the tent that had live music and dancing but it had been a long day and we were keener on getting some shut eye.
Prior to our trip, we had done some research on the Shandur Festival, and found a wealth of information at this website, http://www.travel-culture.com/articles/shandur_polo.shtml. The author gave us a great idea of what to expect and we wanted to share some highlights of the article.
“The approach by jeep – if one owns such a vehicle – from Chitral in the west takes a good nine hours. From Gilgit, east of the Pass, the journey may take probably thirteen hours. With few exceptions, the journey leads through the paradise-like green and cultivated highlands. But one is constantly aware, on the dusty and rocky drive, that the wheels of the jeep can be two inches away from an abyss – from ‘hell’. This nerve-wracking journey along narrow, stony paths from which even the vertigo-free mountain goats retreat, will worsen when suddenly another jeep appears from the opposite direction. Both drivers risk dangerous manoeuvres in an attempt to pass each other.
It says much for the attraction of the Shandur Pass polo festivals that the players of the six invited teams – three from either side of the Pass – must also endure this dangerous trek. Even more alien to the modern western player is the fact that the ponies of participating teams must face a five day march. In order to acclimatise the ponies – and only one per player is allowed, it should be remembered – small training games are held every night, when camps have been made on the trail.
Unfortunately, not everyone arrives safely. Every year, including 2001, several deaths or serious injuries are recorded en route. Those who were fortunate enough to avoid the several hundred metre fall ‘into hell’ arrive dust-covered at the Pass and, light-headed in the thin air, feel themselves ‘half-way to Heaven’ indeed. With every day bringing the historic tournament closer, more and more people arrive. Before long, the empty Hindukush landscape is transformed into a bustling, scent-filled marquee town. Until the final on the Sunday, when the two ‘A’ teams from Chitral and Gilgit meet, in excess of ten thousand spectators, who somehow appeared from nowhere, will be camping out in temperatures that reach -10C at night and +40C during the day.
There are also hundreds of police in combat gear and heavily-armed soldiers holding apart the supporters of each side. On one side of the field the fans of Gilgit settle down in their camp – on the other, the followers of Chitral. In between are the neutral street peddlers, chefs and conmen trying their luck at earning a few rupees.
The game of games is ready to begin. The fans have taken their seats around the polo field on rocks, hills and other natural grandstands. The players, strong and aggressive, exchange terse but friendly handshakes and wish each other good luck. The sticks, for once, must not be allowed to get between the legs of the ponies. The Pakistani-bred Punjabi and Afghan Badakshani ponies, both the result of breeding from Himalayan mountain ponies and English thoroughbreds, are ridden in a wild style, with a lot of skill and at full speed through the mêlée. A total of twelve players are not afraid to use their sticks to hit not only the ball but also, and vehemently, the arms and shoulders of their opponents.
Broken arms and ribs do not stop the players, after an interval for bandaging and splints, to continue the game. The final was won, just short of the one-hour time limit, with a goal from Gilgit. Of course, afterwards, all barriers came down, and the heavily-armed and sometimes baton-wielding police did not manage to prevent the masses from flooding onto the field. Nevertheless, they succeeded in getting President Musharraf to present the cup to Bulbul Shan, captain of Gilgit, in front of thousands of jubilant fans, who then joined in the victory dance and carried the players on their shoulders from the ground.
It should be remembered that the victors, after the celebrations, had again a life-threatening two-day journey home by jeep, and the ponies a four-day journey down from the Shandur Pass.”
8 July: We got up early because we wanted to get a head start on breakfast, after which we planned to check out the Shandur polo field before the morning game commenced. Zia linked up with us while Hamid opted to stay with our tents and keep an eye on our stuff. The night before, Hamid was upset to learn someone had stolen the jeep’s stereo speakers…quite a bold move considering that there were dozens of potential witnesses camped beside us who would not have tolerated the theft. Nevertheless, Hamid was reluctant to leave our gear unguarded, and we had uneasy qualms as to whether or not our unsecured belongings would be safe in the tent. Over the next few days, we quickly found out that Pakistanis are some of the most honest people on earth and the disappearing jeep speakers were a fluke. But that’s a story for later…
Breakfast was held at the Shandur bazaar. We strolled down the hastily erected main avenue and stopped at the first inviting tent where chicken was already being deep fried so early in the morning. Our morning chai was piping hot and delicious, the na’an was fresh out of the oven, and we decided to try the fried chicken for breakfast. The first thing we noticed while people watching around the bustling bazaar was that the Shandur festival is truly a magnet for foreign tourists. All of our previous destinations had been sans tourists, but Shandur was an exception. We strained to eavesdrop on our fellow travelers’ conversations and found that this eclectic group of tourists hailed from a conglomerate of different nations. Very cool that all of us had converged upon the mighty Shandur plains to catch a glimpse of some no holds barred polo. A group of Pakistanis eating breakfast nearby asked if they could take some photos with us, and we thought it was funny that they were as excited to take photos with us as we were to take photos with them. Excitement for the upcoming Chitral – Gilgit match was in the air, with everyone picking a side to support and cheer on.
We had about an hour to kill before the first match of the day, so we decided to walk down to the Shandur Lake, which is nestled between towering mountains. Dozens of police had been brought in for security, and we were all under the watchful eyes of the alert policemen who directed the way to the only authorized path to the Lake. The lake was apparently the place to be, with some people lathering up and bathing in its frigid waters, while others were trying their luck at fishing. We had been told that seating would be available at 11 am, but at 10 am we saw crowds growing on either side of the access points leading to general seating. So we followed suit to ensure that we got good seats. Becky noticed that there was a women’s only seating area (but it just so happened to be on the far corner of the polo field…yikes! No thanks). Lucky for us, we found three perfect seats where we commandeered an incredible view of the playing field. Excellent.
We quickly befriended the Pakistanis sitting next to us, and they kept us informed on the schedule of events (the parachute drop onto the field, the ultralight buzzing the excited crowd, the arrival of the Chitral C and Gilgit C polo teams to thunderous applause). Meanwhile, a super motivated fan couldn’t contain his excitement and ran out onto the field and led the fans in an impromptu dance…definitely a carnival atmosphere. With drums beating and fans cheering, the polo game kicked off and it was 30 minutes of non stop excitement watching adrenaline-fueled polo players pushing their horses to the brink of physical exertion. As our friends proudly explained, polo played in the Northern Areas is “free style”, which means absolutely no rules. Players can wildly whack each other at will, (we noticed quite a few players had adopted wearing a protective hat while the hard core players still hadn’t learned their lesson yet), while horses were trained to stop on a dime and rear on its hind legs in an “attack” on the opposing team’s horses. The polo horses are magnificent animals, but at Shandur’s altitude, they are physically wiped out after a match. We read that each festival, it is normal for one or two horses to succumb to a heart attack and die on the playing field. After the first thirty minutes of play, a halftime production took place, with drummers and dancers flocking to the field and putting on a wildly popular show to the delight of the die-hard fans. After the horses and players had a chance to cool down and catch their breath, the second 30 minute match was held, with the crowd going wild after each and every score. A makeshift scoreboard kept a tally of Chitral vs Gilgit goals and upon culmination of the game, a security force raced to the field and held up a flimsy rope barrier in the false hopes that it would prevent the jubilant crowd from rushing the celebratory Gilgit players on the field (Gilgit won 8-1). After watching our first polo match, we were hooked and ready for the afternoon session, but the crowd dispersed as quickly as it had gathered. Perhaps everyone takes a short siesta in between matches?
We thought a short afternoon nap would be in order, and snoozed for a few hours until the 1500 afternoon match between the B teams of Chitral versus Gilgit. Apparently, the polo teams are divided into categories of A, B, C and D teams (each team has 6 members) with the elitist/best members forming the A team which would play tomorrow just before closing ceremonies. The sun was setting, so we decided to sit on the opposite side of the field where locals clambered down on rocks, hill tops, or any piece of real estate they could get their hands on. We joined the locals (and found the security measures to be a whole lot stricter as our bags and bodies were pat down and searched), before we somehow found ourselves in the front row sitting next to a brother of Chitral polo player. Score! He invited us to visit his family in Chitral to partake in some horseback riding…very nice guy. After the game kicked off, our adrenaline started pumping furiously as the polo match ball came precariously close to whacking us full force…missing us by mere inches. Maybe front row seats are not the place to be during a free style polo match? At the speed the polo ball was traveling, it would have smashed some teeth or bruised us up something fierce. After our close call, we really started paying attention to the match and more especially, to the ball. The B teams were equally as impressive as the C teams who played during this morning’s match and the game was over before we knew it. The sun at Shandur’s elevation is no joke, and we were parched after sitting in the heat all afternoon. Our first order of business was finding large bottles of water to quench our thirst. We loaded up and bought several liters of water, before trudging back uphill. After wheezing our way uphill, we chilled in the tent for a few hours until Zia showed up with dinner and drinks. Dinner did not settle well with Becky, who found herself throwing up and feeling nauseous. She didn’t realize what her symptoms were at the time, but she had a mild form of altitude sickness (headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, light headedness and shortness of breath upon exertion). This became readily apparent after we departed Shandur and descended back down to Gilgit and her symptoms immediately dissipated.
Fireworks lit up the night and a spectacular show seemed to go on forever. Afterwards, Robby and Zia headed down toward the fest tent, where a late night concert had been organized. The main singer, Zeek Afridi, was really good and the hyped crowd joined in with some spontaneous singing and dancing up on stage. Perhaps the concert organizers were afraid that too many people might rush the stage, because the show abruptly ended leaving many in the audience bewildered as to why it was cut short.
Meanwhile, Becky was having her own adventures. She had attempted to join Robby and Zia at the concert, but only made it as far as the make shift latrine. Feeling nauseous, she decided to go back uphill and lie down in the tent. What she didn’t realize was that at the base of the hill, she had inadvertently dropped her camera’s lens hood. Laboriously shuffling back uphill, she crawled into the tent and waited for the nausea to subside. Once the concert was over, Robby and Zia returned back uphill. Once Robby reached the tent, he was surprised when a complete stranger reached over to him, grabbed his hand, and gently deposited Becky’s lens hood. Keep in mind that it was pitch black out, with no light to illuminate the hill top. How the kind stranger knew that the hood belonged to Becky is something that still mystifies us, and how he knew to wait outside the tent until Robby returned is another of life’s mysteries. Needless to say, we were constantly struck by the kindness of strangers our entire time in Pakistan. It was a long, miserable night for Becky as she tossed and turned, and raced out of the tent to find a secluded place to throw up. Ah, the joys of being up at 3,800 meters (12,500 feet)!
9 July: Becky still didn’t feel good this morning, and woke up with nausea and a splitting headache. We were surprised to see Craig (our Scottish hitchhiker) bumming around the jeep. He was looking for onward transport to Karimabad, so we explained our itinerary didn’t take us there for a couple more days as we were headed to Phander for our next destination. However, we invited him to join us as far as Phander if he wanted. Craig looked as bad as Becky felt. He told us that his first night at Shandur, he ran into some friendly souls who invited him to stay in the VIP area for free! However, last night, he fell as sick as Becky had, quite possibly suffering from altitude sickness as well. We bid him farewell as we headed down to the polo field with our VIP passes in hand (seating today was restricted), and told Zia and Hamid that we’d catch up with them after the closing ceremonies.
Security was tight, and our VIP passes were scrutinized before we were allowed to pass. Even though we arrived an hour early at 10 am, the seating stands were already full and we felt lucky when we scrounged around and were able to get two adjacent seats. The morning match was supposed to kick off at 11 am, but we were told that it would be delayed until the late arrival of the VIP spectators. Our fellow spectators explained that the morning match would most likely be delayed for at least an hour or more, calling it the “norm” in Pakistan, as the VIP helicopter was always “fashionably late”. The morning weather started off cool and a bit chilly, but the sun eventually emerged and started roasting us. #1 lesson learned: no matter how the day starts off, always remember to bring sunscreen while visiting the Shandur plains. The sun was brutal, burning all exposed skin to a crisp. We used our scarves as sun shields, but still managed to get burnt…the sun is no joke at this elevation!
The crowd was getting restless, and we were happy when the VIP helicopters finally landed, so that the final polo match between Chitral and Gilgit’s A teams could kick off. The first half was exciting, with the exhilarated crowd rooting on their favorite team. The half time production was way too long though, with everyone patiently waiting under the scorching sun while all the VIP guests were served lunch on china, after which we tried our best to stay awake during the excruciatingly long winded speeches. After over an hour, the second half of the polo match was finally a go, and we could tell the players and horses were eager to get back out on the field. The second half was equally as exciting with the final score a tie! Chitral: 7 vs Gilgit: 7. So we had to wait while the polo match went into a tie breaker. The Gilgit team was on the brink of exhaustion and it soon showed, with Chitral emerging victorious at 9:7 after a few minutes of extended play.
After the triumphant closing ceremonies, it was controlled chaos as vehicles fully loaded with cargo and passengers from top to bottom careened out of Shandur in either direction. We bought more water and struggled up the hill, waving goodbye to our fellow campers as they packed up ready to leave. However, our joy was short lived. Our jeep wouldn’t start! So we sat down for an hour while we waited for Hamid and Zia to tinker around with the jeep, almost willing it to start. Somehow, we got lucky as the jeep finally roared to life (albeit amid a cloud of dark smoke) and we hopped in, eager to get to Phander and a hot shower. Becky found herself feeling better and better as we made our descent, and we were in good spirits as we headed towards Phander. It didn’t take us too long to get there, and we reached the PTDC Motel by mid afternoon. Unfortunately, the PTDC didn’t have our reservation and were fully booked (with like minded souls who had planned to stay here after the festival). Indeed, the parking lot was crowded with other tour groups (foreign and local) who had been told the same thing. We were invited to stay and camp out on the grounds of the motel if we wanted. We must have looked pitiful, because as we walked in to get a view of the fantastic scenery to the rear of the PTDC, the owner took pity on us, and gave us the “last available” room. We were so grateful and happy that we would sleep in a warm bed and be able to take hot showers. After finding out dinner was a buffet style starting at 1900 on, we both took gloriously hot water showers, before dressing in some clean clothes. Laundry was also in order, so we scrubbed bucket loads of dirty laundry and hung them out to dry throughout our room. The PTDC hotel couldn’t have come at a better time and we thanked our lucky stars. Becky’s appetite was non existent, so it really was a waste to have the buffet dinner where nothing suited her stomach. Robby chowed down though, and before we knew it, we both crashed hard for a really good night sleep at the PTDC. Two thumbs up for the Phander PTDC!
10 July: We woke up groggily from our sleep and didn’t want to leave our blissful state! But we had to get going, as we had prearranged to meet with Hamid and Zia at 0800, and still had to eat breakfast first. Breakfast consisted of paratha, fried eggs, and chai (which was a very common morning meal…good thing we loved the paratha and could never get enough of it!) Hamid and Zia stayed at a nearby motel, and they brought along its owner, a friendly man who agreed to be our porter and help carry our gear up to Hundrap Lake. Our destination today consisted of the lovely Hundrap Lake, which is a popular trout fishing retreat. We all loaded into the jeep and drove from Phander to a small village below Hundrap Lake. Yesterday, Zia had organized our fishing permit (it is illegal to fish without one…if you are caught without a permit, you can be fined), so we had to link up with the fisheries director first. The entire village came out and shyly observed us, curious about how long we intended to stay at Hundrap Lake. The girls were especially cute, and were quite happy to pose for photos with us before we set out on our 3 – 4 hour trek uphill. We were joined by the local village’s fishing expert, Hasan Sha, who knew where the trout liked to bite. The scenery all around us was quite pretty, making for an enjoyable trek. After about 45 minutes, the incline grew a bit steeper. We took a short break at the halfway point, before trudging further along. Since we were walking next to a rushing river, we’d come across huge pockets of water at random intervals. Each one looked as if it could be Hundrap Lake, so we’d glance up expectantly at Zia, who simply shook his head and pointed onward. It took us just over 3 hours to reach Hundrap Lake, where we dropped our gear, stripped off our shoes and soaks, and immediately soaked our feet into the FREEZING cold water.
Our porter struggled to carry our mess tent, table and chairs uphill, and he gradually caved in and hired a donkey to lug up our gear uphill. Hundrap Lake is a picturesque setting, so we set up our tent right next to the lake’s edge and Robby started fishing. Hundrap Lake is famed for being one of the most beautiful lakes in the Northern Areas, reputedly full of trout. Indeed, we soon spotted a fellow fisherman proudly displaying a huge, beautifully spotted trout. Meanwhile, our fishing efforts proved a bit more elusive, with the trout refusing to bite. Robby eventually got lucky and landed a trout, but the rest of us were luckless. We soon found out the secret to our fellow fishermen’s success…they were using fishing nets! Unfair advantage, but it definitely resulted in a whole lot more trout. We were counting on some fresh fish for dinner, but with our bad luck, we thought we’d be going hungry tonight, splitting our single trout between the 6 of us! However, when a neighboring fisherman heard our plight, he donated 6 trout…yeah!
Dinner that night was fantastic, with freshly fried trout (yum yum), rice with dhal, and na’an. Absolutely delicious and worth the hike up to Hundrap Lake! We sat around the camp fire (it gets chilly at night), and shared our chocolate bars with everyone. Two thumbs up for another fun day in Pakistan.
11 July 2008: Today is Golden Jubilee Mubarak. We weren’t sure what that was, but it basically meant that Ismaili Muslims were out in full force, celebrating with food, dance and festivities. Robby woke up at the crack of dawn, hoping to get lucky with some early morning trout fishing. No luck this morning, but our fishing expert, Hasan Sha, caught a trout which we thoroughly enjoyed frying up for breakfast. Absolutely delicious! We had a long day today, so we broke camp, packed our gear, and started our downhill hike. It took us just over 2 hours to trek back down hill (which was a whole lot easier than yesterday’s uphill hike), where we were greeted by the villagers who saw us off yesterday. The children gathered around us and were super curious about our cameras. They kept showing off in front of each other, hoping that we’d take a photo of them. The girls were especially good at juggling rocks, and we were quickly smitten by them. Even the women of the village came out to greet us, regaling us with their outfits and box-shaped hats which were especially dressy today due to the Golden Jubilee. Hasan Sha invited us to have lunch at his house, before we started our 5 hour drive to Gilgit. His wife remained hidden in the kitchen while she prepared our meal, but Becky did catch a glimpse of her peering around the corner to see if we were enjoying our food. Hasan’s two year old son shared the exact same name as Zia (Zia Ali) and he quietly observed us from a distance. We thanked Hasan Sha for his hospitality and wished him and his family a very happy Golden Jubilee Mubarak before setting off at around 1300.