Travel diaries: Shandur Polo Festival

Discretion: These series of events were actually filmed for a travel show by the title “Greatest adventure of Pakistan” and was aired on ATV – Pakistan.

All good stories start with a bunch of friends on a Saturday night, with too much extra time on their hands. This is partially true especially in my case. In my youth, I was an avid adventurer with a few achievements under my belt. As the story goes, my friends took up a project for filming a road trip and as much as I wanted to be a part of it, I couldn’t because of my day job. So, like any self-respecting adventurer faced with a road block, I buckled under peer pressure and quit my job on a whim and left on this amazing journey which in way altered my life for the better. I consider this trip a landmark because it gave way to the adventure wanderlust inside of me. Lives were saved (exaggerated), feeling of brotherhood was created and a new rolling skill was achieved (story for another day).

So, like I mentioned earlier, a friend of mine worked closely with a production house and suggested to film a travel log.  Since it was the summer season, we decided to head over to Shandur and witness the legendary Polo festival. Shandur has the world’s highest Polo ground and as far as looks are concerned, it doesn’t come second either! Reaching Shandur is in itself an adventure. The road conditions now have been significantly improved but back when we decided on our escapade, it was still being constructed and it was bumpy (understatement!). What made our trip legendary was not the trip itself but our state of the art, sturdy as steel, vehicle of vehicles, the one and only “Swamp thing!” Yes that the name of our ride!

“Swamp Thing!”

What made this vehicle a one of a kind was the fact that it was literally 4 wheels on top of scrap metal with next to zero interior comfort. Swamp Thing was designed for rally racing and all creature comforts which could weigh down the car, was stripped off. There was no back seat and the floor protection sheet which was supposed to insulate the heat from below was also a thing of the past. Too late to back out (I did quit my job!) and not wanting to whine, I instead decided to sit in the back of this truck with my friend. From here onwards the 1400 KM that we travelled in total, I along with my friend Hamza sat in open air, on top of all the luggage whereas the other four guys sat inside the death trap (exaggeration!) The only thing that even came remotely equal to our entertainment was the number of times Swamp Thing broke down during the journey (spoiler: it broke down more times than Shahid Afridi’s call to retirement).

We started off from Islamabad rather late at night at around 9ish. The plan was to avoid the summer sun since we had no cooling in the car and make our first pit stop in Abbottabad. Close to around midnight we reached Abbottabad where we were greeted by an old friend who was up waiting for us. We had tea and some snacks to freshen up and took time to charge up all our electronics. Before the break of dawn, we repacked and made a move to avoid the early morning commuters.

Outskirts of Abbottabad: The car broke down for the second time

As morning approached, vehicles on the road started filling up. Fruit venders, office goers, children going to school, everyone seemed to be in a rush. The traffic we encountered was such an anticlimax to our road trip. Roughly travelling another 100 KM or so, we arrived in Battagram. We were hungry, tired and cranky. Lack of sleep and hunger often brings out the crankiness in everyone. Luckily, we had a friend with a hotel in Battagram. We decided to stop over and get some decent rest and wait out the sun’s intensity. Our objective now was to rest up for a few hours or so and then head out to cover as much distance as we could. After a well deserved break and refuling our energy, we were all set to leave. Our local friend escorted us off the the city but before leaving, we were given an opportunity to explore this little town. At first glance, there was nothing to our fancy but soon enough we spied a cable car suspended across the river. The urge to cross the river was too great and we decided to have a quick go on it before we head back on our journey.

As the journey continued, the topograpghy had drastically changed from this point onwards. The mountains kept on getting larger and the road seemed to never end. One could not help but to feel so small in this landscape. Sitting out in the open gave a unique perspective to this trip. I got to view the surroundings a lot and had all the time to keep myself entertained with my thoughts.

 

         Traversing the valley in the cable car – Battagram

We drove on as evening approached. The beauty of the high mountains become visible in the bright moonlight. The moon was out in its full glory, making the other stars invisible. The mighty Indus flowing besides us was also lit up, making the journey even more spectacular. For the better part of the evening, my friend and I at the back, had one of our each limbs in a lock with the other’s limb. The last thing we wanted was to be thrown out of the vehicle in our sleep (Totally happened – almost!).

Thaleechi – Near Gilgit

By Late night we approached Gilgit city, all broken down, tired, hungry with dust in every impossible corners! I bet that my own mother would not have recognized me in this condition. In hindsight, our journey would have been much quicker had we not made unnecessary stops for our video documentation and car issues. By the time we reached PTDC Gilgit, it was like we had lost the will to speak and the only thing in our mind was sleep.

Bright and early morning next day, we were done with our much needed sleep. After a decent meal (Heads up: didn’t have much of these in the days to follow), we decided to hit the auto workshop to fine tune Swamp Thing. Turned out that Swamp Thing need quite a few adjustments. We had a broken shock, things were falling apart and there were leaks! None the less we were convinced that Swamp thing will survive, and it did!

Swamp Thing at the Workshop, again! – Gilgit

While Swamp Thing was being “adjusted”, we decided to hit the local NLI market and stock up on provisions for the trip. NLI market is a wonderful one-stop solution to all needs. There was a time when this market was flooded with high quality Chinese products ranging from Silk to electronics but I believe now the “good stuff” is transported elsewhere. None the less, we stocked up on dry fruits and other camping equipment. As we were heading out, we heard some distinct music from a nearby shop. Turns out we were in the presence of a notable celebrity. None other than Jan Ali, a prominent local musician was entertaining a small crowd. My friend Tabbish being an old school drummer, joined in by playing on the pots nearby, improvisation at its best! Judging by our enthusiasm, some of the locals got impressed and invited us over to the Cultural Music Center for a musical evening, which we at once accepted.

The Musical evening was a great success. Not only did we get to hear some amazing cultural music but we also got to perform with these talented musicians. These local musicians have been in this profession for generations out of which, many are self-taught. We danced to the local Hareep which then was transformed into a Dhamaal. Interacting with such talented locals gave as the inspiration to have a concert in this very city. Eventually the evening came to an end. Our real journey was to begin early next day thus we were eager to hit the bed at a more respectable hour.

 Tabbish jamming with Jan Ali – NLI Market, Gilgit 

      

Cultural Music Center – Gilgit

A unique feature of high altitude is that the quality of sleep gets remarkable or maybe its just the fatigue. A good night’s sleep and a strong cup of tea can revitalize any soul. After a much needed beauty sleep, our team was ready to embark on to the second leg of the journey. We planned to head straight to our next destination; Phunder Valley situated in the Ghizer district of Gilgit-Baltistan.

Phunder is situated roughly 160 KM East of Gilgit. The roads have significantly improved and one can reach PTDC Phunder in roughly 4-5 hours (depending on your car not breaking down!). This lush green valley is extreamly beautiful with its calming scenery and turquise coloured river. The only attribute which surpasses the beauty of this place , is the hospitality and good nature of the locals. Never have I ever come across more genuine folk than the locals residing in this area. These people would make the Danes from Denmark a good run for their money in the happiness index.

Fishing enthuists from all over the country flock here during fishing season for trout and we were not an exception. Phunder is roughly 50KM short of Shandur and we considered it a perfect location to set up our camp. We reached  here by late afternoon, well in time to setup camp. We choose a site close to the lake so that we could try our luck with the fish. Soon enough, our campsite was up and functional, a bon fire was lit and the few fish that we caught were cooked. Had we only relied on our fishing skill, we would have slept hungry! Lucky for us, a small tavern was nearby which catered to our basic need; food!

Enroute to Phunder!

 

Toe dipping contest – Gupis

 

Phunder Valley!

 

Phunder Lake – PTDC Phunder

                                         

Phunder Phunder Phunder cats, hooooo! – Phunder

Campsite – Phunder

Trout for dinner – Phunder

Phunder valley!


Some more Phunder for you!

4th day into the trip, we were camped roughly 50KM short of our main destination; Shandur. Packing up is the worst feeling in a road trip of this magnitude. We fall in love with the sights and sounds of a place and then just before we get used to it, with a heavy heart we pack up and move to the next destination. I could have easily stayed in this location for another week if it was up to me. None the less, the show must go on.  We were locked and loaded and made a final check of our campsite. It was a great concern for us to not leave behind any traces of our campsite. By cleaning up after our selves, we paid tribute to this beautiful and majestic land as should everyone else!

The move was slow as the distance wasn’t too much none the less we were anticipating heavy traffic from here onwards. There is only a single road leading up to shandur and every polo and fisshing enthuist would be on it. We were also concered about finding a suitable campsite near the polo ground. Its all about being the early bird. The road beyound Phunder was mostly beaten up and dusty but the landscape was still as devine as ever. Travelling in this region makes us secretly wish to move here and embrace our inner hermit! While on route, we had a chance enounter, we caught up with another group of friends who were also heading up to the Shandur Polo Festival. It was fun running into them but not unexpected, a lot of friends had planned to visit and Shandur is not a big place. Soon enough, Swamp thing had another jeep for company and we got more man power which meant more fishing!

               Beyound Phunder!


Reunited with friends – Langar

The beauty of Langar!  

 Polo horses being acclimatized! – Langar

Almost there! – Shandur Top

After having our fill of trout, nature and selfies; we are literally at the doorstep of Shandur top. The air was crisp and the sun’s rays were intense. Sunburn is a real thing is this high altitude. Even though I had covered myself yet I was badly sunburned. I looked like a tomato in pain and so did everyone else. At times like these I realize my mom’s wisdom when she was forcing me to take sunblock and I thought I was too cool for it (Life lessons: Listen to your mother!)

Shandur top had drastically changed in this last week. This is an open ground with no permanent constructions. This place serves as grazing grounds and is generally uninhabited except for the shepherds. Shandur becomes alive during this polo festival. My best friends; Wiki and google tells me that this polo ground was constructed in the mid 30’s. Located 3700 meters above sea level, this polo ground is the world’s highest polo ground. Playing here takes special practice and the horses need weeks of acclimatization. Horses dying off during the game is common. Galloping at those high speed and at this altitude does take a toll. Free-styled mountain polo is arguably polo in its purest form. This version of the game played in Gilgit-Baltistan has attained legendary status and is of great interest to international and domestic adventure tourists alike. There are no umpires and there are no holds barred. For those who are unaware of the rules of the game, the rules are: There are no rules!

Each team has six members with 2-4 reserve players in case of injury etc. The match duration is usually one hour. It is divided into two halves, with a 10 minutes interval. During intervals the locals enthrall the audiences with traditional and cultural performances. The game decided in favor of the team scoring nine goals.

The sport of free style polo had its beginnings in Gilgit-Baltistan (Northern Area of Pakistan). The princely kingdoms adopted the sport and made it their own, with their natural proclivity for riding. Kingdoms kept special stables for polo ponies, and their teams included among the very best in the world.

The Ruling Rajas were formidable polo playing families in Gilgit-Baltistan. With the glamour of the game, they drew international publicity for Pakistan, and the sport has remained one of the most prominent in the elite social circuit. Some of the most formidable polo teams of Gilgit-Baltistan are from Shigar, Kharmang, Rondu, Khapulo, Skardu, Astor, Nagar, Chitral and Gilgit. Every year, enthusiasts gather from all over, just like us, travel to these far flung areas to witness this jaw dropping spectacle.

We were lucky to find a nice spot to set up our camp near the polo ground. We were surrounded by many other campsites just like ours. The whole area had transformed into a make-shift bazaar. There were tourists in large numbers and the media teams were everywhere. I guess everyone wanted to cover the event. By the time we had set up our camp, the matches had already begun. The crowd favorite teams Chitral and Gilgit were playing against each other. Chitral has been having a winning streak for the past few years where as we were supporting Gilgit (spoiler: Gilgit lost). The days were spent watching the matches, in the afternoon we would fish and in the evenings there would be music being played from every corner. Every camp was enjoying the festivities and everyone was welcome to attend. You could interact with the polo players, dance with the musicians or just chill with the foreigners and hear their travel stories.

This was a three day tournament but we decided to leave a day early to beat the traffic. We still had a long way to go before the journey ended. The only thing at this point, I missed the most was my bathroom back home. I was dying for a hot shower. I was badly sunburned, still tired and experiencing a bit of altitude sickness.

The event ended in a high note. The entire crowd was in high spirits. Chitral was taking the trophy back with them and we were just ahead of the procession. We figured if swamp thing broke down again, we would have some help. Luckily, Swamp thing pulled through and did not break down until we were close to civilization. (Personal note: I will never sit in this vehicle again!). Our journey beyond Chitral was uneventful. Swamp thing broke down a couple of times again but beyond that, it was smooth sailing. We had a wonderful and an adventurous trip and I can’t wait for the next one.

World’s Highest Polo ground – Shandur

Roof of the world – Shandur

 

Polo – Shandur top

Polo – Shandur top

The long route to Chitral!

Dehydrated, hungry and waiting a bed to straighten out the spine – Chitral

Surprise! Surprise! Swamp thing broke down again!

 Promo of our show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBQ0cWKvp-c

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