The rule is, there are no rules!
Save a few conventions, the Shandur Polo Festival depicts Polo – once known as the king of games, and the game of kings – in its purest, unadulterated, roughest form. But what’s special about this festival, ironically, is not the way in which polo itself is played; rather, what takes every tourist’s breath away, is where this festival takes place.
Come a little above sea level, a little more, and then, travel a whopping sum-total of 12,500 feet! And behold, you will find yourself in majestic company. From the centuries old traditions of Gilgit-Baltistan to the mammoth embrace of the Himalayas, from the warmth of green pastures of a level field to the night moon afloat sparkling lakes, the Shandur Festival can easily be anybody’s cup of tea.
The 3-day polo festival has been taking place at the Shandur Pass, every year since 1936, from the times of the British Raj in the sub-continent. Mas Junali was the name given to the ground that formed the playing field, which literally means, the pologround under the moon. The Shandur Pass is a plateau, nested almost mid-way between the historic towns of Gilgit and Chitral, in the pristine beauty that is a trademark of the northern areas of Pakistan. Qualifying teams from the two cities participate in the festival that takes place from July 7 to July 9. No umpiring. No rules. And play only stops if either man or beast are seriously injured.
There is something very zen about sportsmen battling it out in the backdrop of some of the highest, snow-capped peaks in the world. The unusual hybrid of man’s fierceness and nature’s calm and quiet, tickles undiscovered bones in the body, and in a good way. It sounds cliched, but observing and cheering on polo players at the Shandur Pass – best known as the ‘Roof of the World’ – is an experience of a lifetime.
The game of polo is not all there is to the festival. These wee hours of July give the locals a chance to welcome the outsiders to their culture – with lots of open-air barbeque, local dances and shows. Of course, adventure sports like trekking, horse-riding, hiking and mountaineering are optional – and highly recommended – portions on Shandur’s platter.
How to Get to the Festival: Shandur is completely zonked out, compared to the hustle and bustle of the average modern lifestyle. Fortunately though, it is possible to commute by jeep or by jeep and plane combined. While the former is an 11 hour journey from the Pakistani capital city of Islamabad (you can stop at a facility in the city of Dir for a night’s rest – or not), the latter can be a quicker though less adventurous combo of a flight from Islamabad or Peshawar to Gilgit, and then, a 4 to 5 hour jeep ride into the Shandur Pass.
Where to Stay: Full facility camps are set up next to the pologround every July, for players, participants and the audience. The pure-hearted trekker should always opt for this experience. Alternately though, for the more picky traveler, there are hotel and motel accommodations – both government-owned and private – in the nearby cities, including Gilgit and Chitral, hometowns of the participating teams. Of course, bear in mind that daily jeep rides to and from the festival will then be a necessity.
The Shandur Polo Festival is a traveler’s ticket to not only feel at the top of the world, but actually be at the top world.