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Dawn – It will be blood and guts when Gilgit will take on Chitral in Pakistan’s annual Shandur Polo festival next month.
The festival takes place on the Shandur Pass, the world’s highest polo ground, rising 3,700 meters above sea level.
To an outsider it may seem like a scene from a medieval war-epic and it might as well be. While the two teams involved do play polo, there are a few uncomplicated rules and what ensues is high-octane entertainment where bloodied noses and broken ribs are all part of the game for the players. The rules are simple: there two are half-hour chukkars (halves); if the ball goes out of bounds, a spectator throws it in and play continues. There is no referee and the first team to score nine goals wins.
The 60-minute melee is so intense that the horses sometimes collapse in the high-altitude and thin air. The dramatic arena, an elevated grass pitch, surrounded by enormous snow-topped peaks and flowing streams, only fuels the passion of the two teams that wait every year to face each other for three days.
The festival dates back to 1936 and although decades have passed, the face-off between the otherwise peace-loving people of Gilgit and Chitral, still carries wounds of past battles.
This year’s festival, running July 7-9, promises to be as exciting an affair, especially now that it is being backed by the tourism department of Pakistan. There is additional hype this year as the world renowned Gilgit team, thrashed last year by Chitral, will have a point to prove. The first couple of days will feature the village and the ‘B’ sides whereas the final day will showcase the grand battle between the best of Gilgit and Chitral.
Like every year, a large foreign and local audience is expected and the national airlines will charter special flights for the occasion. An estimated 10,000 people attended the event in 2009 and similar numbers are expected this year.
Shandur Pass will wear the look of a tent village to accommodate the visitors when the festival begins. Traditional music, local delicacies, paragliding and trekking activities are also planned.
It is rumoured that President Asif Ali Zardari, an avid follower of horse racing, and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani will also attend the festival.