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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 July 2007, 16:40 GMT 17:40 UK
Polo match draws all the performers
By Masud Alam
BBC News, Shandur

Polo playing at the Shandur festival
The action is fast and furious

While security forces were preparing for the final assault on militants holed up in Islamabad's Red Mosque compound, thousands of polo enthusiasts were gathering high up in the mountains for three days of festivities.

The Shandur festival is no ordinary event after all. It features both the sport and the game.

The sport is polo - exquisite, thrilling and spectacular - played on the highest ground in the world. The game is politics - cheap, conventional and irrelevant in the context of this, or any sporting event.

The sport is patronised entirely by locals for whom the annual event is the only means of entertainment and competitive sport.

They walk, hitch-hike, and use public transport to get to the festival site, a dizzying 12,500ft (4,000 metres) above sea level.

They have two dirt mounds on one side of the rectangular field to make themselves comfortable and watch the game.

Shandur is a mesmerising place, and the sport of polo is a pleasure to watch

Across the field is the main pavilion. It's aptly called the VIP area. It has sofas in the front row and steel-frame chairs placed on a purpose-built stepped enclosure.

Except for the officials of nearby towns, the vast majority of VIPs are government officials from Islamabad, their families, their families' friends, and those who bought their travel package from the state-run tourism agency at a minimum of 25,000 rupees ($400) per head.

Idyllic valley

The real VIPs are brought in by military helicopters or flashy four-wheel drive luxury vehicles flying Pakistani flags - a symbol that the car is bought with public money for official use by a minister or such like.

There's a third category of spectators: the tourists - both from Pakistan and abroad.

Members of the Gilgit team
The tournament attracts a wide cross-section of people

They are few in number and sidelined, but happy to be independent.

It's an 18-hour drive from Islamabad to Shandur. Or one could take a plane to Gilgit and then drive for nearly six hours.

The only other access is from Chitral, a journey which is shorter but because of bad roads - actually there's no road, just an unpaved narrow track made of sharp stones - it takes longer.

Shandur is an idyllic valley overlooked by snowy peaks. It has a lake beside the polo field and pretty much nothing else.

There are no dwellings in sight even in the summer. For these three days, hundreds of tents mushroom all around the field, four-wheel drive cars galore and local traders set up a bazaar that sells anything and everything from shoe laces to camping equipment and from bottled water to yak milk.

The locals shack up in home-made tents and in their jeeps and trucks - the tourists bring everything of their own - and both groups respond to the calls of nature by squatting in the open.

If you go to Shandur next year, check the chief guest. If it's anyone bigger than a local poet, don't go

My lodging for a night is in a camp set up by local government which, thankfully, has a tent specifically meant for this purpose and is marked 'VIP Toilet'.

Inside, there's a hole in the ground. The rest is left to one's own imagination and resourcefulness.

The festival sees a lot of polo played between local teams and culminates in the final match between traditional rivals, Gilgit and Chitral. But there are other forms of fun to be had on the last night. And it happens in an amphitheatre under a star-filled sky.

Shandur spirit

It's a surreal setting. A dozen male performers perform before a crowd of a thousand or so men, all fiercely demanding to be entertained.

Every interruption is resented and every time the host comes onto the stage and takes more than a few seconds to announce the next act, he is booed and sworn at.

Polo at the Shandur festival
Competition is intense

This is a man's world and it's a happy one. It's the Shandur spirit.

The next morning I woke up early, marvelled at the clear blue sky, enjoyed the chilly breeze, and took a little walk around the lake before heading for the field.

The arena was cordoned off and heavily guarded with armed personnel, metal detectors and what not.

The VIP helipads are off limit to the general public from the start of the festival.

Security was also tightened at two access points - Gilgit and Chitral. Scores of check points were set up within the cities in addition to the regular monitoring spots on the main roads.

All this in anticipation of the arrival of President General Pervez Musharraf - the most vulnerable general ever - who eventually did not show up.

Once inside, I was shown the way towards the dirt mounds that had already filled to capacity.

Eventually I found some space in the ladies' enclosure simply because there were too few women, and also because this mound is farther away from the field and doesn't offer a full view of the field.

The game commenced. One after the other, the VIPs started arriving in helicopters.

Shameless gate-crashing

I wasn't too close to figure out who the VIPs were, but I could make out families streaming out of these military aircraft meant specifically for official use.

But then taking a general's or a minister's family to Shandur on an air force or army helicopter may constitute official duty in this country!

The end of the match at the Shandur festival
A spirit of goodwill prevails throughout the tournament

While the entire management of the festival was focused on the crucial task of sending out luxury cars to carry the VIPs from helipads, situated a couple of hundred metres away, and making sure they were seated comfortably, the crowd was intently watching their teams warming up their horses outside the field.

They general's replacement as chief guest was a mere federal minister, so a slightly more relaxed atmosphere prevailed.

At half time, the defending champions Chitral were 2-0 up, and Chitrali supporters were ecstatic. Taking advantage of the break, it was the turn of the dignitaries to perform in the arena.

One after the other the municipality head, the district administration head, the minister all took the microphone and delivered political speeches which lasted more than half an hour.

"This government has done this for you, the benign army is busy doing this, the great general's rule has brought this and that benefit."

When the sport started again, Chitral looked even more dangerous and made some beautiful moves.

Gilgit were getting desperate, and as can sometimes happen in such situations, they got a goal through a fluke, and then another one.

That really raised the tension levels among the crowd. There were ooohs and aaahs all around, and every move was being appreciated or booed with equal enthusiasm.

Mesmerising place

Finally Chitral won 3-2. A few minutes before the final horn blew, people started rushing towards the general parking area to beat the rush.

Stands surrounding the polo ground at Shandur
There is a natural amphitheatre at Shandur

Silly fellows. Perhaps they knew the sport but they'd certainly under-estimated the performance of the dignitaries.

A policeman ordered a police truck to block the road leading to Chitral until all the VIPs had had their refreshments, and had left the venue.

Hundreds of cars revved up their engines in protest, filling the pristine environment with toxic diesel fumes.

The early afternoon heat made the wait even more unbearable. People came out of their cars and exchanged hot words with policemen but nothing could change their resolve.

If it had been decided to make the riff-raff wait, wait they must. In this case it was an hour-long wait.

Here's the conclusion: Shandur is a mesmerising place, and the sport of polo is a pleasure to watch.

The local people are very laid back and friendly, and the weather is simply beautiful in summer.

But if you are planning to go to Shandur festival next year, do check who the chief guest is. If it's anyone bigger than a local poet, don't go.

If you must, find a VIP who can take you along. And don't worry about the bill. It'll be picked up by the Pakistani tax-payer.

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