Asia 24 – The best of the rest

The best of the rest (4)

Shandur Polo Tournament

Where? Shandur Pass, Pakistan

When? July

How long? 1 day

The highest and most remote polo tournament in the world is staged in the Shandur Pass, in the far north of Pakistan, between six teams from each end of the pass. It’s a fantastically remote place for a sports event, 11,000 feet up, and nine hours’ rocky and precipitous drive from Chitral to the west or thirteen hours from Gilgit in the east – you have to be either a keen polo fan, or a determined traveller, to make it. But ten thousand or so people do so, including the Pakistani president, and the experience, whether you like polo or not, is pretty unforgettable.

Sisters’ Meal

Where? Taijiang, China

When? April or May

How long? 2 days

Deep in the hills of Guizhou province, southwestern China, teenagers of the Miao ethnic group get together and celebrate spring by choosing their partners at this huge shindig, which involves scores of villages and more than thirty thousand participants. It all begins on the fifteenth day of the third lunar month in the showgrounds at Taijiang with a dance spectacular, the girls dressed in ornately embroidered jackets and massive silver headpieces, the young men wearing cut-off jackets and leggings that show their muscles to good effect, and playing four-metre-long lusheng pipes. That evening, the main street of town is jammed solid for dragon-lantern dances, where village teams race paper dragons through the streets while onlookers throw fireworks and crackers at them. Noon the next day sees buffalo fights – wrestling matches between bulls – out on the river flats around town; the animals are decked out in ribbons and pheasant tail-feathers, and snort and scrabble as they battle on the grass. Meanwhile, in the Sisters’ Meal itself, men are handing out a parcel of sticky rice to the girl of their choice: lucky ones get it back with a pair of chopsticks inside; unlucky ones, with a chilli. There’s another big night-time dance, and then the action moves 40km north to the riverside hamlet of Shidong for a day of dragon-boat races, after which rice wine and dancing fever takes over once more, with everyone from toddlers to ancient grandmothers – and foreigners swept up in the rhythms – getting involved.

Songkhran

Where? Thailand

When? Mid-April

How long? 3 days

The start of the Thai New Year gives rise to one of the best festivals in the Thai calendar, when the entire nation wishes for good luck and literally washes away the sins by enthusiastically hurling buckets of water over each other. Everyone on the streets, from beggars to police, innocent bystanders and – especially – tourists give and get a good soaking down, which can be something of a relief in the summer heat. There’s a serious side, too, with Buddhists attending temple services to sprinkle monks’ hands with scented water, wash down statues, build miniature sandcastles in temple grounds, and release cagebirds as an act of charity. The bigger cities, such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai, also hold more commercial events, such as Miss Songkhran beauty pageants, but on the whole it’s just a good excuse to get into the streets and have some fun.

Sumba Pasola

Where? Sumba, Indonesia

When? March

How long? 2 days

The island of Sumba is one of the more remote Indonesian islands, and its pasola is the region’s most authentic festival – a series of battles and jousts between hundreds of fabulously attired horsemen, which is supposed to balance the sphere of the heavens and the sphere of the sea by the spilling of blood. Scary stuff, and this is one event in which outsiders are not allowed to take part, even if they wanted to.

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