Polo in Gilgit
Several hours down the KKH is capital of the Northern Areas, Gilgit. The city has a long history of invading forces including the British who left unmistakable marks on the local culture as well as other parts of British India. One of those is polo.
I arrived in perfect time to catch part of the Gilgit Uprising polo tournament. This smaller tournament features mostly local teams and a few surrounding villages with the police and military teams being the most dominant. The games and considered “freestyle” polo with no referees and loose rules allowing the play to become very aggressive and violent.
Gathered around the long, narrow field were several thousand people, all men, in it’s height. The crowd also spilled over onto the playing field at the goal ends and in the middle of the field where (guarded) doors allow access. Subsequently horses would also charge into the watching crowds sending bearded spectators scurrying for safety.
At other times several steeds would have the equivalent of a horse fender-bender that sent the riders flying off the seat and crashing to the ground. At least twice I witnessed someone knocked out cold and carted off in an ambulance.
The security explained that these games are like proxy wars between the villages and the intensity of the games very high. At one point a grizzled, older player dismounted his horse to stand guard on foot by the goal, mixing it up and throwing elbows at the horses.
Trophy games drew huge crowds, and myself and the other handful of foreigners present were escorted into the VIP section and given chai. We were allowed onto the field in the roped off section to take pictures of dancing celebrations and the handing out of trophies, like we were press. A bit surreal at the time… a feeling that would repeat itself many times in the near future.