Discover polo in Pakistan, India and Mongolia
Steeped in history
While polo matches today conjure images of glamorous events attended by the well-heeled, the origins of polo has its roots in more tribal settings. It has evolved from gruelling military training maneuvers and remains as a way of preparing the young amongst the tribes of Central Asia for war.
Given that polo's origins predate written history, no one really knows where it sprung from, but the likely contenders are thought to be Persia and Central Asia. After all, the earliest written accounts of the sport were recorded in Persian, Arabic, Byzantine, Chinese and Japanese.
Modern polo spread via military links, first venturing into India via the Muslim invaders of Persia before being picked up by the English through military channels. The modern form of polo that we're familiar with today is shaped largely by rules developed by the English.
This article focuses on places, with one exception, where a more tribal form of polo is played. Dubbed 'no-rules' polo, players play with either a reduced set of rules or none at all. Here, players also play in chukkas (each polo game is divided into periods known as chukkas) that span longer periods and enter the arena padded with less protective gear. In Shandur, for example, it is not uncommon to see players facing off with either no helmet or just the traditional Chitrali hat.
At almost 4,000 metres above sea level, Shandur is known as the highest polo grounds in the world. Each year, it hosts a tournament between Chitral and Gilgit in Pakistan's North Western Frontier Province. The captain of Chitral's team is the local prince, Sikander Ul Mulk. I had the pleasure of meeting him when I was en route to Chitral and stayed the night at his place in Mastuj. I was told that I'd just missed a practice chukka close to the hotel of his brother, Siraj, in Chitral by about a week.
Chukkas here last half an hour and sees the horses and players going at it for the entire duration without a break. This is quite a feat, especially considering the thin air conditions of these high altitudes. Given that horses in modern polo games play up to a maximum of seven minutes, the horses here show considerable strength, too.
Keen to catch the polo tournaments that take place here in July? You can choose to stay at tents on the festival grounds itself or at the Hindukush Heights Hotel which has hosted celebrities such as Robert De Niro. Flip through the hotel guestbook and you'll find this comment by Winston Churchill's grandchildren: "Glad we're no longer at war."
Remote but replete with stunning scenery, Ladakh and Zanskar in the Indian Himalayas still hold considerable cache amongst travellers inclined towards the less trodden path. While modest guesthouses are the norm here, luxury has arrived in Ladakh in the form of tents pitched for the summer season. Expect to find modern comforts the likes of four-poster beds, copper-tooled wash basins, and crisp linens in these stylish tents.
The form of polo played here is closer to Shandur's no-rules polo, featuring longer chukkas played on ponies hailing from Zanskar. The horses are smaller and call for the use of a shorter mallet, making the game here more challenging than what you'll find elsewhere.
Known for the skilled horsemen that formed the thrust of its armies, Mongolia has gradually lost its tradition of polo over the years. However, Christopher Giercke has brought polo back to Mongolia with the introduction of the Genghis Khan Polo Club. This is the only place on this list where it is possible for visitors to play polo — assuming of course, that you have a handicap — as Giercke routinely invites international polo players to play at his camp in summer. Giercke supplies cashmere to Hermès and the gers at his camp boast high threadcount sheets, fine wines and caviar.
Local boys have been introduced to the sport of polo and there is a team of Mongolian polo players now travelling to train and compete in places such as Thailand, New Zealand and Nepal. Urbane Nomads organises polo trips to Mongolia with possible extensions into the North, where guests travel on horseback to visit the summer encampments of the nomadic tsaatan reindeer herders. Mongolia is the only place that I know of where it is still possible to ride reindeers.