Luxury Travel Pakistan
Luxury Travel Pakistan
Luxury Travel Pakistan
“Creating the Wow Factor:
Urbane Nomads turns the typical tourist itinerary on its head by scouring the world for the most unusual travel experiences. They seek out the ‘unseen’ in every destination, and bundle it with luxury accommodation and unusual travel modes.
This July, for example, the innovative tour operator is organizing a trip to Pakistan to witness a no-rules polo match on what is known to be the highest polo grounds in the world.”~
Dusty, narrow, winding roads give way to the spectacular Shandur plateau pass, where a fierce no-rules polo match between the best teams of Chitral and Gilgit takes place annually. More than 3500 meters above sea level, stretching approximately 20 kilometers long, Shandur is referred to by some as a place “halfway to heaven”, and is the highest polo ground in the world. Luxury travel to Pakistan is very much about the beauty of its pristine natural surroundings. With lakes and streams, shepherds and their herds, the occasional glimpse of colorful fruit orchards on the way to the top of the pass, a baking blue sky overhead, and no city or cement to be seen for miles, so one easily has the sensation of having been transported back to the past.
Indeed, although the first officially-recorded tournament played on Shandur took place only as recent as 1936, polo in northern Pakistan is said to hark back almost 300 years. The sport of polo itself has its origins in Central Asia, and dates back to the sixth century BC. It supposedly began as a training game for cavalry units for royal and elite troops in Persia, where it was then called chughan (Persian for “stick”), and it became a Persian national sport in the sixth century AD. In its most primitive form, as many as 100 players could play to a side, resulting in the game turning into a small-scale war of sorts. In those ancient days, there was no limit to the number of players and no time limit; whichever team was the first to score nine goals won. From Persia, the game spread to Arabia, Tibet, China, India, and the Himalayas. It was around the China-Tibet-Pakistan region that the British picked up the game, giving it the name by which the world knows it today, polo. The etymology of the word is supposedly from the Tibetan word pulu, which means willow root, which was the material from which the ball was constructed. Today, Chitral, Gilgit and neighboring Skardu and Hunza play the game of polo closest to how it was originally played: With no rules, no umpire, and a good deal of reckless courage and sporting bloodshed. Each game lasts for an hour, with a short break between two half-hour plays, or chukkas. During a game, horses cannot be changed, let alone rested. Time-outs are only given when there is serious injury to either player or horse, but “seriousness” is relative here; broken ribs and arms have not stopped players before, and in fact, bandaged, bruised limbs or an injured horse are considered signs of a good match. Players do not usually wear protective guards of any sort, and the polo stick is used as much as a weapon as it is used as equipment, being used to whip and hook the horses of opponents, as well as hit and beat at the shoulders and arms of the opposing team’s players. It is not considered cheating, but rather, an extreme and scintillating display of horsemanship skill and tactical savagery. The horses used in the games are typically crossbreeds of Himalayan mountain ponies and English thoroughbreds, and are ridden wildly and at full-speed for the entire length of the match.
A trip to Pakistan is certainly an adventure- as reactions from friends and relatives would undoubtedly inform you as you openly contemplate a trip to the country. The luxury of visiting Pakistan now, perhaps, is one of being where few people have and certainly, whilst the most savvy travelers have ventured through to Pakistan, the infrastructure for mass-luxury tourism is not in place yet, making it an ideal location for the intrepid luxury traveller.
A unique aspect of Shandur polo is its music, which is provided live and throughout the game by traditional musicians. Instruments typically range from one big drum to a few smaller kettle drums, and also include a long pipe, the traditional surnai, which is a variety of the wind instrument. As in many contemporary games, when a goal is scored, the musicians play a tune unique to the scorer, his chosen anthem. For the duration of the games, a bazaar is also held on Shandur, and here, one can buy handicrafts, souvenirs, listen to folk music of the Kalash tribes who live in those mountainous regions (among other performances), and also enjoy folk dancing every night. A restaurant tent is also set up for tourists and visiting locals alike, creating the opportunity for a good dose of intercultural exchange. Accommodation for visitors is typically by luxury tent, thus ensuring a comfortable stay in the midst of all the natural mountainous beauty.
Luxury travel to Pakistan is less about luxury hotels (although there are quite a few stunningly restored boutique hotels) but is instead about privileged access- staying in the home of a Prince in Chitral, knowing personalities on the ground as well as exclusive access to a fort on the border of Afghanistan- this is a country where ‘luxury’ is certainly defined by connections and insider access. From witnessing polo matches on the world’s highest polo grounds to royal homestays, Urbane Nomads offers tours to Pakistan in as much luxury as possible.
Photo courtesy of Ghazi Ghulamraza and Hajar Ali