polo in gilgit
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 Karakorum mountains. Our surroundings however, are anything but calm, as we weave our way through the chaos that is the NLI market in central Gilgit. The streets are packed with people, nearly all men, dressed in the traditional flowing shalwar kameez, topped with various shades of brown pakul hats.
There is smoke wafting from street-side kitchens grilling chicken tikka (I make a mental note for dinner plans), motorbike horns blaring, all contrasted by the soothing sounds of the call to prayer drifting out from the Jama Masjid Ahl-e-Sunnah mosque; which is the magnet that is pulling us and everyone else in the same direction. Straight after prayers, conveniently adjacent to the mosque, sits the real reason we are here today; The Aga Khan Polo Ground.
We had been told we had missed polo season, and with it being our last day in Gilgit-Baltistan, we were resigned to flying back to Islamabad empty-handed. As was becoming a running theme in Pakistan, the complete opposite happened. Luckily, our lovely guesthouse owner at Madina Hotel 2 was well aware of our interest in watching a polo match, and was well-informed on the local grapevine. That morning, he had brought us our hot coffees in the sunny courtyard, accompanied with the excellent news that at 3 p.m. today, there will indeed be a polo match.
We eventually safely navigate the market, motorbikes, horses, and barbecues to reach the polo ground, which completely takes my breath away. As any sports fan will know, that moment when you first walk into the stadium, and the pitch becomes visible as the crowd roars, 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 Karakorum mountains, with the gleaming white minarets of the mosque providing a stunning architectural and natural backdrop.
Polo is crazy. Pakistan is crazy. Polo in Pakistan is off the charts.
“There is only one rule; that there are no rules”
The colourful words are painted behind one stand, and are perfectly fitting for the dusty chaos that is unfolding in front of us. The stands are nearly vertical, with men (all men, no exceptions) 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.
The pitch is long and thin, making it hard to work out what is going on down the far end, but as the cheers draw closer, and all eight horses charge their way 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 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 ground for a toilet or snack break. The crowd laps up this stupidity, whistling and cheering each man until they safely reach the other side. One man timed it all wrong however, and quickly found himself surrounded by horses and flying sticks, but somehow emerged with his limbs still intact.
The sun begins to set behind the mountains, creating a golden light and long shadows that the dusty spectacle only enhances. After a fast and furious hour of play, the game suddenly stops, at which point fans flood onto the pitch and the music immediately turns the scene into a dance party. The iconic sounds of the surnai instrument project snake charmer-esque sounds across the ground as trophies are handed out and hands are shaken, signalling time for Pakistan’s other love; food.
The cold ramps up a notch as darkness takes hold, making the alluring warmth of the street-side barbecue joints even more appealing. A young student studying engineering in China kindly walks with us and invites us to his family home for dinner, typical of Pakistani hospitality. With it being our last night however, I had one place in particular on my mind, and had to politely reject his offer. This is a skill that becomes essential given the extraordinary hospitality of Pakistani people, as it is quite simply impossible to eat everything you are offered.
Rehmat’s chicken tikka only serves one food, with the juices from the succulent spicy chicken being mopped up by a fresh nan and cooling yoghurt to balance out the chilli. Unsurprisingly, owner Rehmat gives us a few extra chicken kebabs and a hot mug of chai for free. A burden and a joy all wrapped up together, I proceed to finish it all. Stuffed, we walk back through the slightly less chaotic NLI market to the secluded courtyard of our hotel as we slowly begin to absorb what a fantastic final day in the mountains we have just witnessed.
A special country, and a special region, with truly special people.