Battle for the high ground: saving the polo festival at the world's highest pitch

Feature The world's highest polo pitch is host to Pakistan's Shandur Polo Festival, an annual event attended by thousands. But with one of the leading teams pulling out this year due to a land dispute, its future prospects are in doubt.

The Shandur Polo Festival: the sport of kings at high altitude.
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The world's highest polo pitch is host to Pakistan's Shandur Polo Festival, an annual event attended by thousands. But with one of the leading teams pulling out this year due to a land dispute, its future prospects are in doubt. Words and pictures by Rebecca Conway Wind whips across the 3,700m, high Shandur Pass in northern Pakistan, stirring the cobalt waters of the Shandur lake and sending smoke from cooking fires spiralling over a gathering crowd.

Dappled sunlight picks out small groups putting up tents, drinking chai and greeting friends, to a backdrop of rising and falling notes from gathered musicians. The start of northern Pakistan's Shandur Polo Festival is bringing life to a barren land. A silent and uninhabited stretch of ground that straddles the mountain peaks between the districts of Gilgit - to Pakistan's east on the Karakorum Highway, and Chitral, north of the city of Peshawar on Pakistan's Afghan border - the Shandur Pass is covered in snow for half the year.

Surrounded by ice-capped peaks, scattered with tiny teahouses, and more used to playing host to grazing animals and the northern bus route that ferries passengers over the mountains, for three days in July every year the pass takes on a new identity and welcomes around 20,000 visitors and tradesmen for a sporting event steeped in history and one which sustains a very modern rivalry. The Shandur Polo Festival draws smaller teams from the surrounding valleys and the two great rivals, Gilgit and Chitral, to the world's highest polo ground. It is a celebration of freestyle polo that culminates on the final day in a highly-anticipated Gilgit-Chitral derby that is played between the best players from both towns.

The event turns the desolate grasslands on the pass into a makeshift town and is covered in tents by the visitors, security forces, players and traders who camp out during the festival, a necessity as the Shandur Pass lacks any permanent accommodation. Days begin early, with the owners of tent-based tea stalls flipping puri and frying eggs soon after dawn, as the polo players put their horses through their paces on the polo ground.

In the run-up to the event, trucks laden with supplies make the 212km journey from Chitral and the 147km trip from Gilgit to the pass, and a temporary bazaar feeds visitors throughout the event. The festival has been running since 1936, usually between July 7 and 9, and reports from players and former captains vary as to whether it has ever been called off. Most agree that, even in the face of regional instability and conflict, the polo festival has endured. No one is even really quite sure which side has won the most matches but one thing is certain; the festival is one of the most highly-anticipated events on the social calendars of both the Chitral and Gilgit districts.

The former Chitral captain Siraj, brother of the current captain Sikander-ul-Mulk, explains: "I can't think of a time this event has ever not run - maybe once or twice it may have been cancelled - but this is a historical, extremely important meeting, and it carries on a tradition and culture deeply embedded in the history of these areas." This year, though, the event has suffered a huge setback that some feel could alter the course of the festival in future years. A dispute over organisational control and who benefits from revenue resulted in Gilgit staging a last-minute walk-out, pulling their teams and horses off the pass days before the event was due to start.

Teams bring horses up to the pass about a week before the festival to acclimatise and practise. The tournament is organised by both towns every year. This is normally when local grievances are ironed out and when both sides divide up responsibility in terms of organisation and financial benefits. However, this year the provincial tourism ministry and the Sarhad Tourism Corporation have been in charge. A lot of the financial benefits gained from hosting the event, such as hiring staff and promoting it have either gone to Chitral or to outside sponsors. In recent years, the event has also become more corporate. Clashes over land and administrative control have driven a wedge between the two sides.

According to sources, the key reason for the walkout was Gilgit's annoyance over their depleted role in planning the competition. Apparently, they felt sidelined and claimed that they were not seeing any financial benefits from this year's event. There is also a long-running dispute over which district "owns" the pass; it has been determined by a geological survey recently that it is Gilgit territory, so Gilgit feels it should have the bulk of the organisational power and funds to run the festival.

"Because we were not given an equal share of the organisation we pulled out of Shandur. The problem is that we are not being given a fair share of the sponsorship money. Most of the organisation is done between the teams but Chitral does more," says the former Gilgit Polo Association president Ashraf Gul. "There is still not an equal split of the funds. We have not earned a single penny from this, and there should at least be money given to the players and the horses. Polo and the life of a polo player is hard. I lost two horses last year, one on the ground itself and one on the pass. We will talk to Chitral about next year. We want the respect that we deserve; we need to be consulted about the festival. It is not all about the money but if Gilgit had funds we would also share them with Chitral."

Siraj says: "With Gilgit not participating this year, matches will be played by towns from in and around Chitral. The reason Gilgit has gone is officialdom; this year, control has been passed over to the tourism ministry and companies. It has been taken away from local control. More funds from sponsors have gone to Chitral, Gilgit hasn't been consulted on the organisation. This type of thing will kill this event. It's a horrible thing not to have Gilgit here."

The current Chitral captain Sikander-ul-Mulk agrees, and says: "There's always a meeting to discuss the organisation of the festival every year, between the two sides. This year it was held by the new organisation committees, from the ministry and companies running the event. No one from Chitral itself went, and Gilgit's questions and demands were not addressed. I have spoken to players who have said, 'Why didn't you meet with us to organise the event?' But no Chitralis were invited to attend so this year there has been no prior meeting between the two districts. That has caused the problems. Everyone from the Chitral side is wishing Gilgit was here with us for the festival."

Despite the tension, the festival has still drawn a strong crowd, with estimates suggesting an attendance of around 8,000 this year, about a 20 per cent drop from last year, according to ground staff. This year has also seen a strong security presence, with members of several regional and national security forces visible in and around the polo ground and campsite. Despite the last-minute withdrawal, the festival is continuing with a raft of matches against local teams, several hastily drawn up using only players from Chitral. Kick-off is at 10am and 4pm, and matches last around an hour - 25 minutes each way, with around ten minutes at half-time for the horses and riders to catch their breath. Despite less real competitive action, spectators roar with every swift pass and rapid shot at goal.

Freestyle polo, the type seen every year on the Shandur, has next to no rules, offering a fast-paced and often brutal alternative to the more genteel polo matches seen elsewhere around the world. "You can ride into players from the opposition but you're not allowed to hit them with the polo sticks," says Sikander-ul-Mulk. "You can hit a player with your horse. Those are the main rules. Freestyle polo doesn't actually have many rules. But we have long matches and you need a lot of flexibility, stamina and balance - it's tougher than the polo most people recognise."

Six players on each side battle it out, employing speed, agility and sporadic combat to drive the ball towards the goalposts. The scoring side is rewarded with a free hit designed to give them a further advantage. Despite claims that winning teams are the first to score nine goals, the final results at this year's festival rarely reach that, and winners are declared nonetheless. Despite smaller numbers than usual this year, enthusiasm among spectators is palpable. Whipped up by drumbeats from musicians in and around the polo grounds, crowds alternately heckle and applaud, surging onto the pitch at the close of play, swarming around admired players, shouting with delight at local victories.

This is a sport that inspires passion and loyalty. It is deeply rooted in military history and forms one of the oldest Central Asian sporting traditions. Formerly used to train military regiments, polo began as a troop exercise, employed across China and the Central Asian republics. Sides could be vast, with games depicting small-scale battle formations. A Persian national game, polo spread across Asia to horse-centric regions such as Tibet, Arabia and Japan in the sixth and seventh centuries, slowly morphing into the recognisable form of the game seen today.

However, the much-celebrated Shandur event does bring problems. Local traders have seen rising pollution and littering, and say the annual surge in numbers on the pass brings congestion and damages local roads. Muhammad Ali runs a tiny teashop on the pass and is a permanent fixture for the six months of the year when the snows have melted and traffic can pass between the Gilgit and Chitral districts. He has witnessed the festival's mounting popularity over the years, but also says the event causes increasing problems to Shandur locals.

"Many local residents living in the villages near the pass graze livestock here - sheep, yaks, donkeys, goats - and the rubbish left behind by visitors during the polo can have a very poor effect on these animals. We've seen animals die up here because they eat what's left on the ground and have swallowed plastic wrappers, bones or food not meant for them." Ali also says large volumes of extra traffic have a damaging effect on Shandur's infrastructure. "We get huge amounts of traffic here too - it can damage the roads because they aren't paved and cause rubble to roll off the main tracks. It means the roads can be less stable and more worn-down by huge increases in trucks and cars."

There are many positives though - Afsar Ghafar, a driver and guide known as 'Ghfari', has been coming to the Shandur every year since the mid-1980s, and believes the benefit to the local area, and to the wider northern regions, is vital. "It's important because it brings tourism and money here but it also shows the things the districts have to offer and what Pakistan's northern areas have in the way of sports and festivals. It brings some problems, because of the number of people and the amount of litter and noise that goes on, but it is a very special event."

The three days on the pass certainly offer a vivid snapshot of northern life; paragliders spin on thermals above the polo ground, bonfires heat the frozen nights and traditional dancing and music, with vast banquets, keep guests entertained. The festival is still growing, with organisers and long-time visitors commenting on the development of new spectator stands and the increasing number of VIP guests and tourists whose helicopters throw up dust from the floor of the pass as they arrive.

But players and polo purists insist that despite the changing, expanding event, and this year's absence of one of the key teams, polo must, and will, remain at the heart of Shandur's annual sporting pilgrimage. Izhar Ali Khan plays on Chitral's A team, and has previously won Man of the Match playing in the Shandur festival against Gilgit. He says, "It's different this year. We are missing Gilgit and hoping something will be done so that next year it returns to the usual format. Polo is the focus here."

Siraj agrees. "Polo is at the centre of everything here and the event must remain that way even if different organisations run it and more activities are offered. We must find ways to heal the problem with Gilgit and keep polo at the heart of this great festival. It is a tradition and a cultural celebration."