Extreme Polo

There are no holds barred at the annual grudge match in northwest Pakistan’s “land of mirth and murder”

At an altitude of 12,300 feet, the Shandur Pass is usually populated by grazing yaks. But once a year it turns into the world's highest polo ground. When teams from Chitral and Gilgit face off—as they have since 1933—tribesmen gather for the mayhem. (Paul Nevin)
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When our talk turns to polo, he tells me that a win in this year's match is vital for his son's pride and reputation. "If Sikander loses again this year," he says, "the villagers all the way to Chitral will pelt him with tomatoes and curses as he and the team bring home their horses."

He pauses, then adds with a wry smile: "That's better than putting him to the sword, like they might have done in years past."

We sip tea beneath a steep slope where ibex gambol, and our talk turns to tactics. "The Gilgit team uses black magic to win," Khushwaqt says. "But we spurn such evil."

I may soon see what he's talking about—my next destination is a region north of Gilgit, called Hunza, which is home of the wizard who is said to summon the snow fairies.

Hunza lies in a valley close to the Chinese border, amid the savage beauty of the Karakoram Mountains. Nearby, the peak called Rakaposhi towers at 25,707 feet, and Ultar Mountain protects a once-secret pass to Central Asia. Hunza was largely cut off from the world until a road was hacked into the mountains in 1978, linking it with western China.

Today, the valley has a population of about 50,000, and the slopes are thick with apple, peach and apricot orchards. Mud hut villages front terraced fields of wheat, barley and potato dug out of the dizzying rock slopes. Friendly-looking people throng the bazaars lining the road. Unlike the lowland Pakistanis, the Hunzakuts are rosy-cheeked and fair-skinned, with blue, green or gray eyes. Their hair ranges from corn yellow to raven black. Here, too, the women wear no veils with their colorful robes and scarves. And here, too, Mehdi, the Pakistani geneticist, has found genetic links to Alexander's army.

On my 1998 visit to the region, Ghazanfar Ali Khan, Hunza's pale-skinned king, greeted me at the steps of the 700-year-old Baltar Fort, a granite stronghold in the region's capital, Karimabad. His black velvet robe was embroidered with gold thread, and he wore leather slippers with upturned toes. Precious jewels studded his headband, from which a feather fluttered in the breeze. At 48, the king still had a warrior's face, and his piercing blue eyes gripped mine.

"My family has ruled Hunza for 900 years," he said as we climbed the fort's stone steps to the rooftop courtyard to gaze over the verdant valley. One of his royal predecessors reportedly bragged of his descent from a union between Alexander and one of the snow fairies inhabiting the alpine meadows and icy peaks. Ghazanfar pointed to Rakaposhi and said, "Our wizard can call down the snow fairies to dance with him."

The wizard of Hunza is Mashraf Khan, 40, a stocky, dark-hued man with wild eyes. He was appointed to the job when he was 8 years old by Ghazanfar's father. When I meet him over a pot of tea, Mashraf tells me that when he dances with the snow fairies, they help him see the future. "Two hundred years ago, a wizard here prophesied that metal horses carrying men would one day fly through the sky, and so it happened," he says. Now he will carry out a ritual that Alexander himself might have seen.

On a field facing Rakaposhi, three musicians sit cross-legged on the grass playing drums and flutes. The wizard, clad in pantaloons and a cream woolen coat, bends over a fire of sacred juniper leaves, inhales deeply and leaps into the air. Then he looks skyward and smiles beatifically. "He sees the snow fairies coming," my guide explains.


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