By midmorning's light, a military helicopter descends on the Shandur Pass, a 12,300-foot-high valley hemmed in by mountains whose jagged peaks soar another 8,000 feet above us. This part of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province is usually inhabited only by hardy shepherds and their grazing yaks, but today more than 15,000 assorted tribesmen are on hand as Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf emerges from the chopper, a pistol on his hip.
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Musharraf, who has survived several assassination attempts, seems to be taking no chances in a province roamed by Muslim extremists. But still, he has come: after all, it's the annual mountain polo match between Chitral and Gilgit, rival towns on either side of the Shandur Pass.
Persians brought the game here a thousand years ago, and it has been favored by prince and peasant ever since. But as played at Shandur, the world's highest polo ground, the game has few rules and no referee. Players and horses go at one another with the abandon that once led a British political agent to label Chitral "the land of mirth and murder."
This valley guards an important chain of passes on the ancient Silk Road linking Western Asia with China. In the 19th century, the area loomed large in the Great Game, the spy-versus-spy shadow play between the Russian and British empires. The exercise of local rule, however, remained with the Ulmulk royal family, whose reign extended from 1571 to 1969, when Chitral was incorporated into Pakistan. It was in reference to the Ulmulks that the British political agent, Surgeon Major George Robertson, wrote in 1895: "Their excesses and revengeful murders went hand in hand with pleasant manners and a pleasing lightheartedness."
Now, as Musharraf takes his place in the stands, the two teams begin parading around the Shandur ground, their stocky mounts tossing their manes and flaring their nostrils. The team from Gilgit, a garrison town, comprises tough-eyed Pakistani soldiers and police officers, and its star player is an army sergeant named Arastu but called Shaheen, or "the Hawk." The Chitral team is led by Prince Sikander, a scion of the Ulmulks—and the losing captain for the past two years. This is his day: to be shamed forever as a three-time loser or redeemed as champion of the mountains.
Chitral is isolated for several months each year by heavy snows, but in warmer weather a propjet can spear through a gap in the high, barren mountains of the Hindu Kush. I first visited the town in the summer of 1998, when I met another Ulmulk son, Sikander's brother Prince Siraj. He owns a local boutique hotel, whose celebrity guests he is not known to fawn over. (He once asked Robert De Niro what he did for a living.) It was Siraj who first told me about the grudge polo match held each July, and it was at his invitation that I returned for last summer's tilt.
As it happened, it was during my first visit that President Clinton ordered the bombing of Osama bin Laden's suspected headquarters in a cave just across the border in Afghanistan. In response, the mullahs in Chitral called for the killing of all foreigners in town after Friday prayers. And so a mob of extremists screamed for our blood as they marched through the bazaar—but the paramilitary police herded me and the few other foreigners around into a hotel until we could be flown out to safety a few days later.
This time, as Siraj and I drive through the bazaar, a warren of hole-in-the-wall shops selling everything from ancient flintlocks to assassin's daggers to juicy melons to pirated running shoes, little seems to have changed. As before, there are no women in sight, and most men are bearded and robed. But then I notice that not a single man wears the black robes, black turban and long beard of the Taliban. "Following 9/11, the government forced them back into Afghanistan," Siraj says. "We were glad to see them go."
The region's tribal warfare and religious strife reach back millennia. At the same time, the towering mountains and labyrinthine passes have isolated some peoples in time warps all their own. If you roam around, you can find tribes who claim descent from Alexander the Great's army, or meet a wizard who summons snow fairies from the mountains in a ritual that predates even the Macedonian conqueror's time.
The polo match is still a week away, but Siraj says the Chitral team is already in the mountains making for Shandur, usually six hours on bumpy roads by jeep. "Even though the men and their horses are used to high altitudes, the pass is so lofty that they need to acclimatize to its thin air," he says. Sikander and the team spend each night at a different village, playing practice games.