In the warm sun with a cool mountain breeze, the fans and players enjoy an intense match between the provinces Gilgit and Chitral. Riders blitz strategically across the field in perfect sync with the next battle about to take place. The fans lean on the edge of their seat for the next unexpected turnover, collision, or goal taking place at any moment. The goals consist of two posts on each end of the field with no crossbar, the team finishing with the most shots through the goalpost wins. Before today’s match, polo was a distant reality in my head played by only the wealthiest people. However, there is a much richer history to the legacy of polo, the Shandur Polo Festival, and many reasons why Pakistan loves it.
It is safe to say, most people who have not played or even seen polo before asking the question how on Earth did a sport like this begin? Originally in Asia around 6th century BC was the first-ever polo match. Polo was not made for entertainment purposes but to train the military in simulating a real-life battle so the horse riding cavalry could develop muscle memory for the battlefield. The military would play polo a little differently than traditional polo where they played part sport and part training for war.
Each side in a match had as many as 100 men and horses and this tradition moved from Central Asia to Iran between 600 B.C and 100 AD. Soon after being played in Iran, polo officially became Iran’s national sport played by the upper class and military. Through Iran’s enticed heart for polo, the sport quickly gained traction and moved all throughout Asia. The military around the world continued to use polo not only to improve the riding skills of cavalrymen but to develop leadership, teamwork, and strategy as well. Even the United States Army, beginning in 1896, supported polo until the Second World War due to developing technologies.
One of the most prestigious polo tournaments in the world is the Shandur Polo Festival. Where is the Shandur Polo Festival held every year? In the beautiful northern mountains at an elevation of 12,210 feet in Shandur Upper Chitral District of KPK, Pakistan. The polo grounds in Shandur Pass are the highest above-sea level polo grounds in the entire world. The Shandur Polo Festival is a celebration with traditional music, local markets, community tents, and professional polo. The festival is a celebration of much more than the game of polo.
In 1935, UK Administrator in Northern areas Evelyn Hey Cobb asked different regional leaders in the area to build a polo ground in Shandur which was completed efficiently by leaders and the local population. Cobb was impressed by leader Kakakhail’s resourcefulness and efficiency and wished to reward him. No reward would be accepted other than for the trout to be brought into the Ghizer River from England for the common benefit. This decision has brought a lively fish population into Hundarap Lake and Baha Lake Khukush Nallah where the trout reach up to 40 kilograms. Therefore, the source of celebration at the Shandur Polo Festival is a deep connection between the people of Chitral District and Gilgit-Baltistan.
The Shandur Polo Festival is a three-day weekend polo tournament where locals and foreigners alike come to watch five total legendary matches. The tournament in Shandur is structured by the best polo players from Chitral District and Gilgit-Baltistan comprising A, B, C, and D teams from best to worst. Prior to the tournament, there is a series of preliminary matches played to determine which players and horses are chosen for the final games by the local juries. Throughout the weekend, the D team will begin battling, ending with the grand finale of the elite A team players competing against one another on the last day. In a polo match, each team has six members on each side with two to four reserve members in the instance of injuries. A match typically lasts an hour long divided into two halves with a ten-minute halftime. During halftime, there are cultural and traditional performances such as Kalash Valley performers vibrantly dancing, playing upbeat instruments, and showcasing festive clothing. The Shandur Polo Festival is traditionally held on July 7th, 8th, and 9th where the final game is played on the 9th.
The polo grounds in Shandur are about 70 meters shorter than a traditional polo field at 200 meters by 56 meters long. On each side of the field, there are billboards with a foot-and-a-half tall mound of rocks supporting them running the length of the field. Since the playing grounds are smaller, the horses run less in a more crowded environment slowing down the pace of the game. Helmets are optional during the game and the horses wear little to no bandages or protection on their bodies. Many times the players and horses are struck by the ball bouncing off them like a baseball. The spectators in the audience often need to stay ready in their seats to move because horses often jump over the walls in front of the stands when space gets too tight! The most legendary status of the Shandur Polo Festival comes from its rules and regulations. In Shandur, there are legitimately no limitations or restrictions to how players can compete. Because there are no umpires to officiate, a player can even strike the polo stick right out of another player’s hand.
In Shandur Pass, the incredible polo grounds reside next to the picture-perfect Shandur Lake. The valley and lake are surrounded by snow-covered Hindukush mountains. Many travelers who come partake in gawking at the natural beauty of the landscape otherwise known as the Roof of the World due to the area’s high elevation. Many bloggers, photographers, and tourists come to experience this one-of-a-kind cultural experience standing unique to any other destination. The screen-saver-worthy scenery of the lakes, streams, mountains, and sunset make fishing a popular activity choice for the guests of the Shandur Polo Festival. One of the most underrated parts of camping at the Shandur Polo Festival is the night sky. The Shandur Valley is in between mountains with soaring jagged peaks and virtually no light pollution throughout the night. This leaves countless stars completely visible early in the night including an almost full view of the Milky Way Galaxy!
Anyone who may not have experienced the exotic culture of Pakistan may ask where is the Shandur Polo Festival held every year? The Shandur Pass is specifically located on the edge of Gilgit Baltistan, held in the same area annually. Animal lovers enjoy the sight of yaks, ibex, cows, donkeys, and their shepherds helping keep the grass trimmed and bringing interactive life to the experience. During certain times of the year, the remote area of Shandur is closed off to the public due to intense weather conditions bringing freezing temperatures and snowfall that locals say drop up to nine feet in Winter.
The Shandur Polo Festival is one of the biggest festivals held in all of Pakistan and stands as the pride of the nation showcased for all nations. As a pre-ritual ceremony before the polo matches, top-ranking military officers will parachute out of an airplane onto the pitch starting from the lowest to highest rank. The concluding result of patriotism is epic with national music playing on loudspeakers, helicopters circling the valley, and parachuting officers descending on the pitch; the experience is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The best part about packing for this festival is that many items can be purchased upon arrival for a low price such as tents, hats, sunglasses, food, and water. The sleeping conditions comprise a mixed variety of tent communities including a campground exclusively for foreigners to stay and socialize. Events such as polo matches, music, dance performances, and concerts provide a full itinerary for the day where following the crowd can always lead to another adventure. At night, the party continues with a concert and an audience where a modern Pakistani band gets crowds full of energy and excitement. Be careful if going to bed early because the show must go on, earplugs may be a good idea to bring.
The Shandur Polo Festival is a three-day-weekend, culturally immersive celebration of Pakistan’s best polo players on the most stunning mountain ranges in the world. Infused with rich history, this weekend not only represents the most elite athletes in Pakistan but the most colorful performances, exciting music, and epic national pride comprising a sample of everything Pakistan loves. Travelers across the world come to celebrate Shandur’s Polo Festival every year and do not regret experiencing the fullness of Pakistan. This adventure awaits anyone desiring to explore abroad the robust Pakistani culture. To see the Shandur Polo festival for yourself, be sure to check out the Kalash and Hunza Valley itinerary.