I smell the petrol first. I slowly spin around to see where it’s coming from, as flakes of snow flutter past my nose. I see an energetic line of naive men twitching anxiously in front of a flaming ring of fire, all set beneath the majestic and intimidating Passu Cathedral mountains in Northern Pakistan. The first victim takes a deep breath, slowly accelerates towards the bright orange ring of fire, then plants one muddy boot in the ground to act as a springboard, and dives Superman style through the centre of the flaming ring.
I can thankfully say no-one is hurt in the event, but roughly 80% of people judge their jump wrong and catch their foot, scarf or hat in the fire, nearly bringing down the whole blazing mess on top of themselves. While I swear out loud, the rest of the crowd are laughing their heads off. The whole village, from young to old, has braved the blizzard to come and watch, and they are not going to let a mild bit of pain and suffering ruin their fun.
If it wasn't for the intense fog, blizzard, and low grey cloud, I would be able to describe what an incredible backdrop the intimidating Passu Cones provide to the annual village sports day. As it is, the snow and fog creates a sharp focus on the games, as aside from the patter of snowflakes on people's raincoats, all background noise from the adjacent road is muffled.
The annual sports day is taking place on a muddy farm at 2,500 m altitude, next to the iconic Karakoram Highway in Passu, Northern Pakistan, just shy of the world's highest road border crossing at Khunjerab Pass (4,800 m) into China. The sports day started some 20 years ago when the leader of the more liberal Ismaili branch of Islam, Aga Khan, visited the village late one November, so the locals created a fun village get together to mark the occasion every year.
There are hundreds of women in attendance today, with modern more Westernised clothing the more common attire, both of which are rarities in Pakistan. Most men are wearing jeans and sporting colourful winter jackets, many with a pale bearded complexion more reminiscent of a Glaswegian hipster than rural communities in Southern Asia. The modern clothing is attributed to the majority Ismaili population on this side of the Upper Hunza Valley, which is far less traditional or strict than in the neighbouring valleys. Crossing the river into the Astore Valley, or indeed into Gilgit further South, the overwhelming majority are Sunni or Shia Muslims. In these other valleys, the traditional and muted flowing shalwar kameez is the ubiquitous dress for men, and women are infrequently seen outside of markets.
Nobody is quite sure how Pakistan's ethnic diversity came to be, but the fair skin, green eyes, and curly red hair of many in Upper Hunza is often claimed to be due to Alexander the Great and his marauding Army, who hailed from what is now known as Macedonia. The whole combination of terrible weather, primitive games, and ginger beards only adds to the feeling of this being Pakistan's Highland Games.
Many generations of marauding men have ensured that the setting for today's frivolity has historically, and still is currently, of hugely significant importance. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Russian and British spies were attempting to melt into Gilgit life during the Great Game, as Russia sought to extend their territory into and beyond Afghanistan, Pakistan, and into the jewel in Britain's crown; India. Even now, countries are still sniffing around, with the New Silk Road being funded by China; and the tarmacking of the Karakoram Highway linking China with a brand spanking new Gwadar Port on Pakistan's South coast.
As sport so often does, the colour and humour of the day temporarily breaks the spell of history lingering over Passu village, and the sight of kids performing such a terribly executed three-legged race is just side splittingly funny more than anything else. I do have to admire the blatant and cynical cheating some of the boys resort to, tripping and sabotaging their rivals' race at every step, leaving not a single standing pair of boys at the finish line. All that is left is a muddy pile of boys all tangled up in rope, alternating between shouting at, and laughing with, one another.
The itinerary for the day also includes girls fishing for sweets in bowls of flour, a huge tug of war involving everyone in the village, the elderly grannies' throwing competition (note the apostrophe - that is grannies doing the throwing, not grannies being thrown), and a women's volleyball match. The culmination of the activities, and what I think might be the culmination of some men's lives, is the ring of fire death jump. You couldn't script worse conditions; bad visibility, muddy and slippery ground, and a crowd egging them on to do things they may not want to do. They are playing with fire, literally.
For a couple of peaceful hours, I have temporarily forgotten about my frozen toes, my reddening nose, and the lack of electricity or hot water in the village. However, I am suddenly snapped out of my joyful gaze when I naively make eye contact with the ringleader of the fire men. He casually beckons me towards the flames with a wag of the finger. Just as casually, I peel away backwards, hopefully blending into the crowd to let the fools be fools without me, and to disappear behind falling snowflakes.