Polo – The Game of Kings
Passion for Polo will be the highest on the world’s highest Polo ground. Every year, Shandur (3,700 meters) invites visitors to experience a traditional polo tournament between the teams of Chitral and Gilgit from 7th to 9th July. The festival also includes folk music, folk dance, traditional sports and a camping village is be set up on the Pass.
Polo is an equestrian sport with its origin embedded in Central Asia dating back to 6th century BC. At first it was a training game for cavalry units for the King’s guards or other elite troops. To the warlike tribesmen who played polo with as many as 100 players to a side, it was a miniature battle. It became a Persian national game in the 6th century AD. From Persia, the game spread to Arabia, then to Tibet, China and Japan. In China, in the year 910, death of a favourite relative in a game prompted Emperor Apao-Chi to order beheading of all players!
Polo was introduced in South Asia, by the Muslim conquerors in the 13th century. English word ‘Polo” is in fact a Balti word meaning, “ball”. In ancient times, there was no limit to the number of players and no time limit. Whichever team scored nine goals first, became the winner. Today, there are six players to each side, but this is by no means a rule in local polo games.The game lasts for one hour with a ten-minute break.
Gilgit, Chitral and Skardu have always played the game of polo closest to its original form. In the past, local Rajas, Mirs and Mehtars were the patrons of the game. At times, more than 50% of the annual budget of their principalities was spent on supporting the game.
SHANDUR POLO TOURNAMENT
The first time a polo tournament took place at the Shandur Pass, was in 1936. A British Political Agent, Major Cobb, who was fond of playing polo under a full moon, had the polo ground near Shandur, named, “Moony Polo Ground”. The most exciting polo tournament of the entire Northern Pakistan is played on top of Shandur Pass, 3,700 meters high above sea level. It is a place unique and exotic in itself, surrounded by some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the world. The event marks the annual rivalry between the polo teams of Gilgit and Chitral. The Polo tournament has some added attractions for the visitors; trout fishing at the nearby streams and lakes and a festival of folk dances and music of the Northern Pakistan.
The highlight of the festival is the final match between the Gilgit and Chitral teams. The final provides the most colourful spectacle. Supporters of both sides travel long distances from the remote parts of Chitral and Gilgit, to watch the thrilling game. The event, as such, offers a fascinating insight into the lifestyle of the people of this region. Their culture and indigenous customs are a delight to behold for the visitors.
It is advisable to be there one day in advance to enjoy all the festivities of the tournament. Activities at Shandur include dance and music performances by different groups, trout fishing, mountaineering, trekking, hiking and horse riding. Crystal clear lakes, snow covered mountains, alpine flowers and vast stretches of green grass, are added attractions.
A tourist tent village with restaurant facilities is sprung up during the tournament. Merchants from Peshawar, Chitral and Gilgit set up souvenir and folk craft shops. The tournament offers visitors an opportunity to mix with the locals.
HOW TO REACH?
The Shandur Pass lies almost midway between Chitral and Gilgit on a jeep road, travelling on which, is adventurous, to say the least. One can get to Chitral or Gilgit by Pakistan International’s daily flights from Peshawar and Islamabad. There are daily two flights from both destinations, subject to good weather. Visitors planning to go by air must expect adjustment of minimum 02 days in their itineraries just in case the weather does not permit flights to operate.
Access to Chitral by road is either from Peshawar or from Islamabad. Both these routes join up in lower Swat valley near Chakdara, from where you proceed via Dir over 3,118 meters high Lowari Pass and on to Chitral. It will take about 11 hours for a direct ride, otherwise, a stopover in Dir is recommended. From Dir, you shift to 4x4 jeeps for your onward journey to Chitral and on to Shandur. From Chitral side, travellers can also enjoy overnight stay at Mastuj whereas from Gilgit side,Gupis and Phandar are suitable places for an overnight halt. While travelling by road from Islamabad, along the Karakoram Highway (the Silk Route), visitors may like to spend the night by the side of the mighty Indus, at Besham.
WHERE TO STAY?
For visitors to Shandur, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) has set up its motels with all facilities like, attached toilet/bathroom, hot/cold water, restaurant etc, at Panah Kot (Dir), Chitral, Bamburet (Kalash Valley), Mastuj, Phandar, Gupis, Besham (KKH), Barseen (KKH)and Gilgit. There are many private hotels and Inns as well. On the Pass, a tent village with all facilities is set up.
SUGGESTED TOUR ITINERARY
Day 01: (Islamabad-Chitral, 365 Kms – 11 hours drive) Assemble at Flashman’s Hotel, Rawalpindi and leave for Chitral at 09:00 hours by a Toyota Hilux (4x4) via Dir and Lowari Pass. Overnight stay at PTDC Motel Chitral.
Day 02: (Chitral-Bamburet-Chitral, 30+30 Kms – Day excursion) After breakfast embark on a day excursion to Bamburet (Kalash Valley). Return back to Chitral for overnight stay at PTDC Motel.
Day 03: (Chitral-Shandur, Kms – 4/5 hours drive) Today we head for Shandur. After settling in our tents, watch an afternoon Polo match. Overnight camp at Shandur.
Day 04: (Shandur-Phandar, Kms – 4/5 hours drive) Watch the thrilling Polo final between the teams of Chitral and Gilgit. After the ceremonies, departure for Phandar (fishing opportunity). Overnight stay at PTDC Motel Phandar.
Day 05: (Phandar, Day at leisure and fishing) Just relax or go on a hike or fishing in Phandar lake. Overnight stay at PTDC Motel Phandar.
Day 06: (Phandar-Gilgit, 117 Kms – 4/5 hours drive) Continue to Gilgit through spectacular valleys and mountains via Gupis. Overnight stay at PTDC Motel Gilgit.
Day 07: (Gilgit-Hunza-Gilgit round trip, 105+105 Kms – 06 hours drive) After breakfast, leave for Hunza Valley. We shall drive along Hunza River on the KKH with splendid views of Rakaposhi (7,788 m). Visit Baltit Fort, Karimabad etc. Return to Gilgit for overnight stay at PTDC Motel.
Day 08: (Gilgit-Rawalpindi, 625 Kms – 16 hours) Early morning departure for Islamabad. Enroute view Nanga Parbat (8,126 m), rock carvings and inscriptions at Chilas and Shatial. Arrival Rawalpindi/Islamabad late in the evening.
DISTANCE FROM CHITRAL
Destination Distance Height
Shandur Pass: 145 km 1,518 m
Mastuj 38 km 2,378 m
Booni 70 km 1,012 m