Paul Raffaele ventured deep into the mountains of Pakistan to a place known as “the land of mirth and murder” to witness the world’s most brutal polo tournament. But first he watched the wizard of Hunza dance with the snow fairies.
“The wizard, clad in pantaloons and a cream woolen coat, bends over a fire of sacred juniper leaves, inhales deeply and leaps into the air,” Raffaele writes in “Extreme Polo,” a delightful story in the January issue of Smithsonian. “Then he rises, spins furiously, then abruptly falls down and lies as still as death on his back, his arms outstretched.”
After he recovers from his arduous dance, the wizard from the town of Hunza describes the snow fairies, who are invisible to everybody but him: “They resemble humans, but their mouths are wider and their legs are much longer than ours, with the feet facing backwards.”
Raffaele loves this stuff. He’s an adventurous Australian who travels the globe in search of strange places and weird people. Last year, Smithsonian published his accounts of sojourning with cannibals in New Guinea and drinking a powerful drug with a South Seas cult that worships a fictitious American sailor they call John Frum.
In this piece, he travels to the mountains where Osama bin Laden is said to be hiding, and encounters tribes of people with blond hair and blue eyes. They claim to be descended from Alexander the Great’s soldiers, and DNA testing by Stanford University researchers seems to support that claim. They are a violent people; for centuries their royal families killed each other in bloody feuds. Now they’ve found a slightly less violent means of competition — a no-holds-barred variety of polo.
“We’ve given up fighting with guns and swords and now do battle on the polo field,” says a 94-year-old prince named Khushwaqt.
Prince Khushwaqt has been ruling one place in these mountains since he was appointed to the job on the day he was born. “When I was 4, my father married me to a 6-year-old noble girl,” he says. “When I met my father again, at age 9, instead of greeting me, he pressed a lighted cigarette against my face. He was testing my toughness.”
Khushwaqt’s son, Sikander, is the player-manager of one of the teams in the annual polo tournament. Sikander’s team, Chitral, has lost to its archrival, Gilgit, for two years in a row, which is not good for his people’s self-esteem.
“If Sikander loses again this year, the villagers all the way to Chitral will pelt him with tomatoes and curses,” his father says. Then he smiles. “That’s better than putting him to the sword, like they might have done in years past.”
On the day of the tournament, Pakistan’s dictator, Pervez Musharraf, helicopters in to watch the big event, a pistol strapped to his hip. And then the game begins.
“They crash their mounts into their opponents’, seeking to unseat them, or lash out with their mallets, indiscriminately whacking horse and human,” Raffaele writes. “Up close, the grunting and thwacking are terrifying.”
At the end of the match the score is tied at 5, so there’s an overtime period, which is interrupted by an explosion in the stands. The crowds flee in terror, but it turns out that the “bomb” was just a cigarette lighter detonated by the hot sun. The match resumes and . . . well, I don’t want to spoil the story. If you want to find out who won, read the piece