Belfast Telegraph

Writer recounts mountain polo match

A Co Down woman has recounted watching polo at the top of the world in the heart of central Asia.

Diana Gleadhill explored the famed Karakoram Highway, reputedly the highest paved international road, which connects Pakistan and China through some of the most remote mountainous terrain on the planet and forms part of the mythologised Silk Road trading route.

As part of the trip, the librarian turned travel writer recalled visiting the arid district of Gilgit to watch the quintessentially British horseback sport of polo in a place which claims to have produced some of the earliest players.

She said: "You could not see it very well because it was a very dry arena and the dust blew up and the setting sun, I don't know how they saw what they were doing but it was great fun."

In Ireland, England, or South America, polo players and their ponies are virtually "armour plated" with protective gear, the writer added.

"Not in Pakistan, the riders were unadorned."

The visit was the culmination of days of travelling the highway, an arterial route through eponymous mountains which was only finished for vehicles in 1986 despite being plied by traders for centuries, Ms Gleadhill added.

The Karakoram range extends some 300 miles and forms part of the greatest concentration of high mountains in the world.

Ms Gleadhill addressed a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society in Northern Ireland at Queen's University Belfast.

The writer began her journey in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad then followed the Karakoram Highway along the Indus River , one of Asia's great waterways, which runs from high peaks to plains.

Ms Gleadhill said: "You would expect the Indus to be pristine-looking and sparkling and it is not, it is bringing lashings of grit and sand down from glaciers."

On one side lies the western extremity of the Himalayas, on another the wilds of the Hindu Kush and the spiky black mass of the Karakoram range forms the other part of the natural amphitheatre of rock.

The travel writer added: "It is terribly volatile, you just find that the walls of the cliffs that you are going through in the car are weeping, often water just running out of them, meltwater from glaciers, so there are lots of landslides."

The area has been fought over by rulers or khans for centuries and their forts pockmark the area.

One, a monument of sandy rockwork which dominated surrounding landscape perched on the side of a cliff top, was built by a princess and had fabulous views down the valley to spot any invading armies.

Ms Gleadhill said when she visited a glacier she expected the pure whiteness of South America but was confronted with a mass of ice blackened by rock gorged out from the surrounding massifs.

"We teetered down the slope and just got on it enough to say we had stood on it.

"You could hear it groaning and every now and then like a pistol crack going off as pieces would break off."

She has written extensively about her experiences and is raising money for victims of the Philippines typhoon disaster.

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