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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As the music quickens, Mashraf charges around the clearing, whirling, face beaming. Suddenly, he twitches and jerks as if an invisible person has him on a string. "He's dancing with the snow fairy queen," the guide whispers.

Mashraf bends low over the musicians and begins to sing in a thin voice, echoing a prophecy related to him by the snow fairy queen. Then he rises, spins furiously, then abruptly falls down and lies as still as death on his back, his arms outstretched.

After he has "recovered," Mashraf tells me that the snow fairy queen and several subordinate fairies came to dance with him. "They resemble humans, but their mouths are wider and their legs are much longer than ours, with the feet facing backward," he says matter-of-factly. "They have wings to fly through the air, and are clad in green robes."

Of course I am eager to know what the snow fairy queen prophesied, but when I hear his answer, I am sorry I asked: "A girl will die a month from now, falling into the river to the north," he says.

As the day of the polo match draws near, the slopes of the Shandur Pass have become thick with tribesmen who traveled from across the region. Tents have spread across the slopes like desert daisies after a rain, and charred mutton kebabs scent the air. The two rival teams have pitched their tents close by each other, separated only by a rocky knoll. Their battle flags flap furiously in the wind while their flint-eyed horses, tethered to poles, paw the ground.

In a tent amid the Chitral cluster, Prince Sikander sips tea with visitors. At 49, he resembles a middle-aged Freddie Mercury from the band Queen. He seems self-assured, but his eyes look wary. "Polo started about 2,500 years ago as a Persian cavalry training exercise, and there were up to 100 players on each side," he tells me. "It was like a battle, not a sport. Our form of polo is closest to the original, although we have just six players on a team."

The grudge match was established in 1933 by Col. Evelyn Hey Cobb, a polo-loving British political agent, in an effort to unify the region. Today marks the beginning of a three-day tournament, whose preliminary matches pit lesser teams from each side of the pass against each other. In the first game, a team from the Chitral side is easily beaten. That night, as a numbing wind sweeps down from the mountains, the Chitralis throw off their gloom from the loss with traditional dancing, twirling to wailing flutes and thudding drums. But in keeping with local Muslim custom, women are utterly absent from the revelry, remaining in the tents that dot the slopes.

The next day, the play is faster and more furious. As one player—a schoolteacher by day—charges an opponent to get the ball, his horse trips and cartwheels across the field, snapping its neck. The rider walks away with scratches and bruises, but the horse has to be euthanized by a veterinarian. After play resumes, the team from the Chitral side of the pass vanquishes the team from the Gilgit side. That leaves the sides tied with one victory each, but the preliminaries are incidental: only the final game really counts.

That night I walk over to the Gilgit tents. Their star, the Hawk, is tall and spare as a hunting knife. "I've been playing polo at Shandur for 20 years," he tells me in Urdu, which is translated by one of his teammates as acolytes scurry to serve us tea and biscuits. He introduces me to Mohammad Fakir, a shaman, who tells me he has cast a spell to ensure Gilgit's third straight victory in the big game. "Sikander and his team don't stand a chance," the Hawk boasts.

On the day of the final match, the stands are packed, with Chitral fans on one side and Gilgit fans on the other. A few hundred women, faces veiled, are clustered in a separate stand at the field's far end. Musharraf has taken a seat on the Chitral side, which offered a grandstand.


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