The rival sides climbed through the Hindu Kush like medieval armies, horse-mounted warriors leading thousands of fanatical followers to do battle on a grassy highland arena.
But this epic spectacle, which unfolded in Pakistan’s North West Frontier province last week, was a matter of sport, not war. And there wasn’t a Taliban fighter in sight.
Every summer, polo teams from the mountain districts of Chitral and Gilgit converge on the Shandur Pass, a spectacular natural stadium surrounded by snow-sprinkled peaks that, at an altitude of about 3,700m, is the world’s highest polo ground.
The tournament dates back to the 1930s, when a British officer named Cobb formalized a centuries-old sporting rivalry.
“The game of kings and the king of games,” reads the sign at the entrance to Shandur.
It remains a rambunctious, impassioned affair. Locals claim to have invented polo and their version — known as “freestyle” polo — has little of the money, pomp or indeed rules of the more genteel game played elsewhere.
The riders, rugged mountain men on sweat-soaked horses, thunder down the pitch, clinging precariously to their saddles and wielding mallets like sabers. Clashing, they swing their mallets like scythes, hitting man as often as ball.
Assistants dash into the fray, risking injury to replace lost or smashed mallets. Noses are bloodied, horses tumble and, as the ball cannons towards the goal, the crowd rises to frenzied cheers.
But if the rules have not changed in decades, circumstances have on the frontier. And this year the tournament was nearly canceled.
Chitral is an island of peace in a province at war. In districts on every side — Dir, Swat and across the border in Afghanistan — Pakistani and Western troops are battling the Taliban. The violence has not spread to Chitral, which has a minority Pashtun population.
But the idyllic valley has not escaped the bitter crosswinds. Over the past year at least 20 Chitrali paramilitary soldiers have been killed in fighting elsewhere. Green Pakistani flags flutter outside houses in a mark of the bereaved.
Last week, the district head Maghfirat Shah called on the government to scrap the festival, arguing it was disrespectful to the slain soldiers. Critics accused him of an ideological agenda: The mayor is a member of a religious political party that has virulently opposed the military operation.
At a public rally days later his supporters issued a more sinister warning: that there could be a Taliban suicide attack. After intense back-room talks and the deployment of extra security, the organizers prevailed.
“They are just creating a fear factor,” said Siraj ul Mulk, of the princely family of Chitral. “It’s precisely because of distractions like this that our people are not falling prey to the Taliban.”
The crowd was smaller than previous years but equally fervent. A tented city sprung up around the pitch, where 200 foreigners joined thousands of locals. The sponsors, a mobile phone company, provided Blackberry coverage.
And on the eve of the final, young men jigged and twirled to traditional, drum-driven music into the small hours. The players tried to sleep. Most are amateurs — soldiers, teachers, policemen and watchmen, some in their 50s. But the best are feted with Premier League-style adulation.
“If they win, the people give them their hearts,” said Mazar Ahmed, a hoarse 19-year-old Gilgit fan. “For us, this is like the World Cup and Twenty20 cricket all in one.”