A land of mirth and murder

Paul Raffaele in Smithsonian Magazine:

Polo_main_1By midmorning’s light, a military helicopter descends on the Shandur Pass, a 12,300-foot-high valley hemmed in by mountains whose jagged peaks soar another 8,000 feet above us. This part of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province is usually inhabited only by hardy shepherds and their grazing yaks, but today more than 15,000 assorted tribesmen are on hand as Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf emerges from the chopper, a pistol on his hip.

Musharraf, who has survived several assassination attempts, seems to be taking no chances in a province roamed by Muslim extremists. But still, he has come: after all, it’s the annual mountain polo match between Chitral and Gilgit, rival towns on either side of the Shandur Pass.

Persians brought the game here a thousand years ago, and it has been favored by prince and peasant ever since. But as played at Shandur, the world’s highest polo ground, the game has few rules and no referee. Players and horses go at one another with the abandon that once led a British political agent to label Chitral “the land of mirth and murder.”

More here.