ye-travels.org


Polo and Partying, Pakistani Style

We joined up in Karimabad with a Dutch girl named Margo who had also decided to leave the comfort of the Hunza Valley for the polo festival at the Shandur Pass. The pass is right on the border between two of Pakistan's territories, the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) to the west and the Northern Areas to the east. Every year thousands of people assemble there for four days of polo and partying.

We had one afternoon and evening in Gilgit to make our plans for the trip. The local bus had no seats left, so we had to find another form of transportation. Our first offer was from the guest house tour operator, who had conveniently NOT reserved us seats on the government bus, claiming that a jeep was the same cost. Funny, the jeep costs 1500 rupees per person if we can manage to fill it, and the bus costs 220 rupees per person!?!

While buying drinks at a small shop we were approached by Sana, a young, aspiring tour guide, looking to fill empty spaces in his jeep. By some miracle, Margo and Yann managed to get him to agree to sell us the spaces for 400 rupees each. After he agreed to the price he seemed to really regret it, and until he showed up to pick us up the next morning, we weren't certain if we actually had a ride to Shandur. As we suspected, the jeep "with much much room" turned into a five person jeep with eight people in it and enough food and supplies for ten. Sana had been hired by another tourist to drive up to the pass with food and supplies for a whopping 120$US while he rode there on his motorbike. By sticking us in the jeep he was just making a litle bit extra (I felt kind of cheap, but not cheap enough to pay him anything more, he had already ripped off one tourist and that was enough). Margo and I rode in the front with the driver, because Sana "respects women". Yann was stuck in the back with the four others. Up until the last 50km the ride went smoothly, we spent 4-5 hours on the paved highway gaining altitude while following the Gilgit River.

Things then got more complicated, the road turned into loose rock and Sana decided it was meal time. By this time it was late in the afternoon, all the cooking gear was strapped and packed away in the jeep. Even though we were almost at Shandur, the plan was to cook chicken biryani from scratch. Our five jeep mates didn't understand our objections (we had no tent and no organised accomodation at the pass), but agreed to only make tea and bread (a process that still involved completely dismantling the carefully packed jeep). We breaked for at least an hour, were visited by most of the local boys interested in the strange arrivals, then we finished the trip with two more hours of travel to the top of the pass. The pass is a spectacular sight, surrounded by mountains, covered in green grass, a "natural polo ground". We arrived the eve of the festival, but many tents had already sprung up all over the pass. It was getting dark, Sana had invited us for chicken biryani, but before dinner we had to find somewhere to sleep. While Yann and Margo sought out tents, I stayed back to help poor Sana. He had no idea how to set up his tent, he had forgotten a flash light, a sharp knife for food preparation and worst of all his masala biryani. Margo and Yann returned, we set up the tent and consoled frazzled Sana, telling him that his biryani would surely be good without the spices. Margo and Yann had selected a small tent inside a larger covered tent village. It was set up with a small shop, a generator providing some light and even a Chitrali musical group. After waiting over three hours for the chicken biryani, which was delicious, we walked back to our tent across the pass in the pitch black and quiet. Only one tent seemed to be generating any noise (or light), as we approached it we were overjoyed to find that it was ours. Crowds of men had gathered to listen to music and dance the night away. Helped by alcoholic 'Hunza water' and loads of hash, men volunteered themselves onto the dance floor and spun around, usually until they had crashed into the crowd. We watched in absolute awe as they partied to the beat of the Chitrali music. The lovely man next to me tried to teach me the subtle differences between Gilgiti, Pashto and Chitrali dancing. Meanwhile, Sana, a proud Gilgiti, complained the whole time that the Chitrali show wasn't as good as the Gilgiti non-existent one. The show finally collapsed when one of the heavily intoxicated musicians refused to play, feeling like the crowd wasn't throwing enough donations his way, Sana felt vindicated "this would never happen at the Gilgit show!". We were kind of grateful for the hissy-fit because we were exhausted, it was late, and there didn't seem to be an end in sight.

Margo, Yann and I squeezed into our two person tent, happy that we had rented sleeping bags, it was very cold. We awoke to the first official day of the festival, with two polo matches scheduled. After a breakfast of hot bread dunked in local honey we headed down to the polo field and joined the crowd of supporters. Watching the game start was exciting, with the players racing their horses down the field. The players ride beautifully and ruthlessly, the game here in Northern Pakistan is played with no referee. We cheered for every goal and everytime a player made contact with the ball. Half way through the game a horse made a sharp turn and his leg snapped, his rider was flung off and the poor horse shook with pain and fear. The game was stopped and the horse carried away in a small truck, we found out later that he would be euthanised. It was a wake up call to how dangerous the game actually was. In the afternoon game a horse crashed into the side barriers and threw his rider about 10 feet through the air into the crowd, this time the rider was carried away on a stretcher. During most of the game a band plays music from the stands, and at halftime they head down to the field with dancers. Spectators throw themselves onto the field to join in on the dancing, even the soldiers showed off their moves. In between the two games people pack into tents for drinking, eating, music and dancing. The atmosphere is joyful and friendly and foreigners are given a tremendous welcome. At the halfway mark of the second game, winds started to pick up and clouds of dust rose up through the valley. When the rain began we raced back to our tent only to find its staff holding onto it desperately in an attempt to keep it from blowing away. As more of the tents inhabitants appeared, we all began to grab onto random tent poles and hold on with all our strength as the wind whipped through the tent. After about an hour, the wind died down and the tent was safe. The weather never really got better though, it rained for the rest of the day, soaking the walls of our tent and keeping the cultural shows from being held. We had a cold night, with little to no sleep. We were leaving just as the festival was getting exciting and more and more people were arriving, but we had experienced a full day of polo and we didn't really have the time to stay longer. We waited all morning for the bus coming from Chitral to show up, and finally accepted a ride in a small car from two men. The driver didn't speak any English and his friend spoke almost none, but they had driven over 40 hours up to the pass with no warm clothes, had frozen through the night and then decided they were going home, without even having seen a polo match. Our driver was calm and cautious which was not the case with his friend, who smoked hash and sang at the top of his lungs for most of the 10 hour ride. He also jokingly made Yann swear not to cut off his beard, because it made Allah happy, and we wouldn't want to make Allah unhappy would we? We had two flat tires and multiple tea breaks but we made it to Gilgit before dark, which was quite a feat. We seemed to have made our two carmates extremely happy, we had somehow justified their long journey to Shandur, they hadn't seen any polo, but they had spent an entire day with three foreigners, including two women if that's not worth 80 hours of driving on shitty roads, I don't know what it.

5 comments:

Jordan said...

booze, dope, violent sports, silly weather, parties.... sounds like Canada!

Y&E said...

yup, just like Canada, minus all the girls.

2par4 said...

Hey, what's with the face masks at the polo match? Is there a problem with the air?

And we finally got a peek at your packsacs. Not too big. Impressive.

par.

2par4 said...

Hey, what's with the face masks? Was there a problem with the air at the polo match? Nice photos.

And we finally got a peek at your packsacs. Not too big. Impressive.

par.

Y&E said...

Face masks at the polo match were a big seller. There is alot of dust during the day, and the wind is really strong through the valley (see photos of us trying to keep tent from blowing away).

The bags, yup their pretty small 36L and 40L, but dense as hell.