Polo in Gilgit

by Michael Sheridan

A traveler in Pakistan gets a lucky break when an acquaintance tells him that despite polo season having ended, there is rumor of a polo match happening that very day.

The sky is calm and crystal clear; a deep and rich blue, up here in the icy chill of late November at 1,500 m altitude in the Karakoram mountains. Our surroundings, however, are anything but calm, as we weave our way through the chaos that is the NLI market in central Gilgit. Gilgit sits near the junction of the Himalaya, Karakoram and Hindu Kush mountain ranges, and is where we are spending the final few days of our trip in the stunning Northern Pakistan mountains. The streets are packed with people, nearly all men, dressed in the traditional flowing shalwar kameez, topped with various shades of brown pakul hats. 

Smoke wafts from street-side kitchens grilling chicken tikka (I make a mental note for dinner plans), and motorbike horns blare against the soothing sounds of the call to prayer drifting out from the Jama Masjid Ahl-e-Sunnah mosque – the magnet that pulls us and everyone else in the same direction. Conveniently adjacent to the mosque, sits the real reason we are here today: the Aga Khan Polo Ground. 

We had been lucky enough to see both cricket and football matches in the beautiful city of Skardu at 2,500m altitude, but had sadly been informed we had missed polo season. With it being our last day in Gilgit-Baltistan, we are resigned to flying back to Islamabad empty-handed. 

However, our lovely guesthouse owner at Madina Hotel 2 is aware of our interest in watching a polo match, and is well-informed on the local grapevine. That morning, we sit in the much-needed warmth of the courtyard, and the guesthouse owner comes to bring us our morning coffees, along with the excellent news that later that afternoon, there will indeed be a polo match.

Rumors spread very quickly in Pakistan. Be it regarding bus times, weather conditions, or polo matches, actual facts such as confirmed timings and locations are deemed less important and take longer to unearth. However, a good measure of hope, perseverance, and faith will take you a long way here. 

As such, we set out for this mythical polo match, striding out into the mayhem of NLI market. We immediately get sidetracked by the process of buying a shalwar kameez, allowing my girlfriend the futile thought that she, a Londoner, might be able to blend in at the match. The slick salesman at the shop convinces us she looks every bit a local Pakistani woman, and I am inclined to agree. The problem, however, is that the polo match is attended by roughly 5,000 men, and not one single woman. With her new outfit, we have indeed ticked the Pakistani box, but not the male one. That said, her efforts at embracing local culture are much appreciated by the people we meet.

Eventually, we safely navigate the market, motorbikes, horses, and barbecues to reach the polo ground, which takes my breath away. As any sports fan will know, that moment when you first walk into the stadium and hear the crowd roar is a goosebump-inducing moment. This was unlike any other sports ground I had ever seen, set in front of the giant snow-capped peaks of the Karakoram mountains, with the gleaming white minarets of the mosque providing a stunning backdrop.

Polo is crazy. Pakistan is crazy. Polo in Pakistan is off the charts.

There is only one rule; that there are no rules.

These colorful words are painted behind one stand and are perfectly fitting for the dusty chaos unfolding in front of us. The stands are nearly vertical, with men clinging to one another to avoid falling into the pit of horses and polo mallets, a task which many fail. There are limbs dangling from all sorts of places, like rooftops and building sites, as people strive to get the best view. 

Unsurprisingly the rumored start time comes and goes, which, as it turns out, is no bad thing. Music provides the pre-match entertainment, with the iconic sounds of the surnai instrument causing snake-charmer-esque music to echo around the stadium and the mountainous valley. This prompts men to jump from the stands and dance on the pitch, twirling, twisting, and clapping along to the rhythm.

Slightly apprehensive, I walk onto the pitch and meet some of the players, desperately hoping I don’t get dragged into the very public dance contest, which, without an ounce of exaggeration, would be my worst nightmare.

I meet the dapper-looking Abdul Hazziz in his British racing green polo shirt, adorned with a bright white number 4 on the back. Despite our lack of common language, I am swiftly informed by his friends that he is the best player, which, judging by his body language, is a fact he tries to downplay. As a bit of movement stirs among the crowd, and I have no wish to be trampled to death by horses or decapitated by a polo mallet, I make a swift retreat to the relative safety of the stands.

The match does eventually get underway, but the pitch is so long and thin that I struggle to work out what is happening down at the far end. As the cheers grow louder and closer, and all eight horses charge towards us, we get some sense of how difficult this game is. To simultaneously control a horse with one hand while swinging a mallet in the other, and trying not to die (only a few players wear helmets), is a feat that takes immense skill.

The galloping horses and swinging mallets are literal inches from men in the crowd who are holding onto each other for support to avoid falling onto the pitch, or perhaps holding someone else’s arm in case they need to use them as a human shield. For the poor souls in the front row, it involves a lot of holding your breath, closing your eyes, and hoping your head is still attached once you reopen them as the game moves on.

The nature of the game means that the ball often gets stuck up at one end of the ground, giving a few brave (or naive) fans the opportunity to sprint across the pitch for a toilet or snack break. The crowd laps up this stupidity, whistling and cheering each man until he safely reaches the other side. While the ball is down at the far end, this seems more entertaining than the match itself. One man times it all wrong, however, and quickly finds himself surrounded by horses and flying mallets, yet somehow emerges with his limbs still intact.

The sun begins to set behind the mountains, creating a golden light and long shadows that enhance the dusty spectacle. After a fast and furious hour of play, the game suddenly stops, at which point fans flood onto the pitch and the music restarts, turning the scene into a dance party. 

The victors are hoisted onto people’s shoulders, trophies are handed out, and hands are shaken, signaling the end of the match and time to head home. We walk back through the now slightly calmer NLI market to the secluded courtyard of our hotel, absorbing what a fantastic final day in the mountains we have just had. 

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