I was told there was no accommodation. Then, just a few minutes later, I found a 'hotel'. It was surrounded by cloth-walls. Inside were a row of tiny tents. Single occupancy rooms!
Whilst that ‘hotel’ wasn't quite en-suite luxury, it was certainly opulent for a campsite. There were sitar concerts every evening, and meditative performances on the Javan each morning. There were toilets too:
Mmm, where to begin? At the beginning perhaps? No, that won't do. It was far too long ago, and far too much has happened in between. (Even if the religionists, who swarm around Pakistan like bees, keep on telling me the world is only ‘Five God Days’ old). So let’s cut a long story short by saying that I replaced my visas, made it to Lahore, and then headed for the Shandur Polo Festival…
I spent the first night of that journey trying to sleep on a stool at the front of a bus. But I was woken every time anyone moved. That's a lot of times. For South Asians seem to be able to sleep through anything, and so don’t show any respect for other people’s periods of shut-eye. It's not unusual for a sleeping Pakistani commuter to lurch forward, sway from side-to-side, rock back-and-forth, and circle round-and-round; their sleep undisturbed, zeds rising in a constant stream. A passenger may awake in a confused stupor when they hit their head on a seat or metal pole. But they’ll be back asleep, swaying around, in a matter of minutes. Only unaccustomed tourists actually wake up when someone kicks their legs, elbows their ribs, or uses their shoulder as a head rest.
The latter part of that journey involved a series of packed minibus, which squeezed along sun-baked mud-tracks. By the time we arrived in Chitral, we’d been stopped nine times by underemployed and overzealous soldiers. They logged my details on no less than six separate occasions.
After three days of illness I continued on, hitching a lift from a government jeep. There’s nothing spectacular in that of course; as with the nationals of most Muslim countries, Pakistanis are naturally kind, incredibly friendly, and innately helpful. What was unusual, was the fact that two of the passengers were female. The only other females I saw on that journey were burqa-clad. They relied on their menfolk to fetch water, and flinched at the merest glance. The polo festival also proved to be a male-only affair, apart from on the final day.
As mountains grew taller, greenery rarer, and dust, err, dustier; I arrived (stood between a ridiculously large number of people, in the back of a ridiculously small van) at the Shandur Polo Festival. Well almost. The tire burst just before we arrived, and the spare was also flat, so we had to walk the last few hundred metres.
SOUTH ASIA BLOGS
Back in 2007, aged 25, I was in a sort of cul-de-sac. I'd graduated from university with a top degree, but I didn't want to commit to the wrong career. So I went to India to 'find myself' instead.
As I travelled I uploaded a series of random blogs to my new MySpace page (remember that?) From the mystical Kumbh Mela festival to Delhi's Toilet Museum, these include a mixture of humour and insight, fact and emotion. I'd like to think there's something for everyone here. I hope you find something you enjoy...
Pakistani polo is anarchic, violent and incredibly entertaining. I had barely sat down when a local informed me there were no rules, no umpires, and that the game was an act of war. He wasn't wrong.
The festival is held on the highest polo ground in the world, at an altitude of 3700m. In the daytime it’s too hot, and at night it's too cold. That makes a pleasant change from the rest of Pakistan, where it's just too hot. Always.
Teams from the rival towns of Chitral and Gilgit compete over three days of play. In the first game Gilgit took an early two goal lead. But two Chitral players clashed with their opposite numbers, breaking their sticks in the process. Gilgit were down to four men, and Chitral cashed in on their numerical advantage. They were on their way to an unlikely victory…
Lieutenants, generals, and beasts of war chased a little ball around a long strip of mountainous land. Elbowings, horse charges, stick fights, and tangles were common. It was ugly. It was enthralling.
Teams were regularly reduced to five players. Horses ran into sideboards, players went flying, men and animals landed in messy piles. One horse died.
The half time shows were just as bizarre. They featured tartan clad bagpipe players, and a group of men in white, who span around whilst waving their handkerchiefs. Such prancing was common at Shandur:
On the festivals’ second day, a dust storm caused everyone to don face-masks. The residents of our ‘hotel’ had to stand with their backs to the wall for an hour, to stop it from collapsing. But everything else passed without a hitch, until the final day…
Mr Musharraf (El Presidente, Commander-in-Chief, friend of the West, almost ousted military commander) decided he'd pop by for the final match of the festival. The game was delayed, whilst his helicopter passed over the pitch. It kicked up a cloud of dust, which covered every spectator who was able to make it through security cordon:
“You're not allowed to take that in”, the first man to inspect my bag told me.
“Take what in?” I asked. I was carrying exactly the same things I had carried the previous two days.
“It's ok, you can go in anyway”, the army man replied.
The next soldier to search me pointed me over to a third guy, who asked me to take a photo. My camera passed the test. But a forth guy passed me back to the third guy when he found my glasses. After a brief moment of confusion, they were also deemed acceptable. I walked through a metal detector, and onto the terraces.
The festival finished, and I headed down the Silk Road. That journey required seven minibuses; the normal buses had all been cancelled because of ‘roadblocks’. But no such roadblocks appeared. Then we saw this:
Quite how these yellow monsters were going to clear that hole was beyond me. But the climb around it did provide as good opportunity for some more Islamic sermons.
The next day’s journey from Besham stopped behind a small group of protesters, who held up hundreds of buses and lorries.
South Asia is normally a cacophony of noise. Motorists compete with one another to beep-beep, honk-honk and bah-bah as loudly as they can, for no apparent reason. And yet here, where such noise-pollution would have been appropriate, everything was silent. Not a single vehicle made a noise. Not one! And when, after thirty minutes, I asked the driver to honk his horn, a fellow passenger told me to keep quite in the name of security.
So let’s talk about security. I‘ve already mentioned the number of police stops on the way to the festival, and the number of checks going into the final game. Those stops continued on my return journey too. Soldiers were everywhere. Yet did they do anything to move this protest, which was blocking the road, delaying cargo and citizens? Did they bollocks! They ignored us. And so I’ve done everything I can to ignore them ever since.
After several hours, the protest subsided, and we made it to Islamabad; a planned town which is still growing out of its infancy. White, wide, open highways split the capital into several soulless blocks. There’s no town centre. The diplomatic section is full of marijuana plants. Signs surrounded empty plots: 'Museum to be built here’. 'Location for an Esso petrol station'.
I learned about a siege of a mosque in sector G6 that evening, whilst surfing the net in nearby sector G7. Maybe that was the reason for the day's protest. But then again, maybe it wasn’t…
This national penchant for inanity is apparent from the minute you step foot into Pakistan. The Wagah border-closing ceremony, which has been taking place every day since 1948, is a sight to behold. Indian and Pakistani soldiers take it in turns to try and out John Cleese each other; raising each leg slightly higher, and slightly straighter, than the previous one. Crowds gather on the terraces, as a man who should be old enough to know better, runs around like a kid in a school playground, waving a flag, and shouting: “Pakistan Zindabab! Pakistan Zindabad! Allah Akbar!”