The magnificence of the world’s highest polo ground inspires and frightens simultaneously
Slowly, my friends and I tread on a broken highway en route Shandur, carefully avoiding the jabbing rocks in our four-wheel drive vehicle. To call it a highway would be a disgrace to an actual road. This is more of a broken cross-country track, having never seen any more maintenance than a tractor displace the debris of constantly shifting mountainsides. Bad as the track may seem, it is exciting and with each bump we hit on the road, we are drawn in by the peculiarities of the environment.
After spending five hours on this arduous track starting in Chitral, we gradually climb onto a beautiful plateau. A sign in Khowar, the lingua franca of Chitral, greets us here, without forgetting to point out the makers of the signboard. I fail to comprehend why we have to be told that it is a certain wing of scouts, administration or for that matter anybody that is welcoming us here.
Why can’t it be a simple greeting to the beautiful Shandur plateau? Whether it is the feeling of superiority we all tend to bathe in or the inferiority complex we all so abhor, it represents an utterly displeasing and exceedingly discourteous culture.
The track, previously winding as it climbs up from Laspur, now straightens out fairly and leads to a checkpoint. This post is occupied year round by a contingent of the Chitral Scouts, even in conditions where there is absolutely no access for up to three months at a stretch in the winters.
As we reach the checkpoint, we are welcomed by a nicely dressed sepoy of the contingent, who makes an entry in his logbook of our details as the rare, out of season visitors, while also offering a nicely brewed cup of tea to us. Soon thereafter, I stray off into the clouds towards the distant ridgeline, hoping to enjoy Shandur.
Shandur is a very high altitude mountain pass, being roughly 12,250 feet above sea level. Depending on the month of the year, the surrounding mountains can be snow clad or bone dry. There is a magnificent lake here that remains frozen for about four to five months of the year along with three other water bodies of significant proportions nearby, which appear small only courtesy to the large size of the main water body.
The atmosphere is different, as also is the ground and the grass. There is a wind here, and I’m told it is fairly consistent. As I gaze towards the awe-inspiring higher peaks clothed in a spotless sheet of white, it seems that the mountains are calling out loud, daring me to climb over and embrace them. The proposition is not so bad, and on a crispy September morning I do venture out, trying to sneak a peek at the lake from 5,290 feet above. It takes me a grueling six and a half hours to manage it, but it was certainly way beyond reality.
My several visits to Shandur have allowed me to see and appreciate the beauty of the area at different times of the year. On a freezing May morning, it snows as I begin my pursuit of the early morning chorus of the Himalayan Snowcock on the surrounding mountains before dawn; mid-day in December, the ice shove around the lake is astounding, and I have a hard time finding a safe passage to the centre of the lake that is already frozen; in August, strong winds pummel the rocky shores with light waves; while the early November freeze turns stone-throwing challenges in the lake into a crafty art.
Every day is different, but every moment is the same -- punishing yet at the same time criminally pleasurable.
For a short time in the summer months, the rocky ridges of the plateau and the gentle slopes of the surrounding mountains turn green. The duration of this curious lifecycle shortens as one goes higher on the surrounding mountains. What are dusty plains for half of the year become muddy slushes as the winter snow melts and icy grounds thaw.
This is how Shandur has been shaped and this process of perfectioning shall outlast me by proportions unimaginable.
On the eastern end of the plateau is a grassy meadow, where free-ranging horses and semi wild yaks roam and thrive on the scarce fodder that nature has endowed this high mountain plateau with. Crisscrossing this meadow is a small mountain stream, gently flowing towards the east. Overlooking this little fairytale landscape are cliffs of stupendous heights hiding in their rocky expanse herds of ibex, flocks of snowcock as well as the rare bear.
Shandur plateau happens to have the only road linking Chitral with Gilgit. There is always a furious debate in both Chitral and Gilgit as to the ownership of the Shandur Pass, with both sides staking a claim to the incredible plateau. As long as the mountains here are welcoming and the plateau willing to divulge its secrets to visitors, this shouldn’t matter at all.
In the summer months, traditionally a festival is held here, with tourists pouring in from all over the world. The polo teams of Chitral and Gilgit face each other in a show of excellent free-style polo. In the last few years though, the festival has been a rather rare occurrence, for reasons ranging from seasonal floods to the border dispute between Chitral and Gilgit.
This year too, the Shandur Polo Festival is planned to be held sometime in July. Be that as it may, Shandur as I have seen it, is way beyond a yearly game of polo being played out in a challenging environment. It is a place where complex intertwining of various forms of life and natural processes, that creates a unique ecosystem which never fails to inspire and frighten simultaneously.