Chukka for love
With historical evidence that the ancient Persians and Chinese played versions of the sport centuries ago, there are competing claims for the title of cradle of polo. One compelling theory traces its origins to the nomads of Central Asia who spread it from the Mongolian steppes in the east to the shores of the Caspian Sea in the west. Yet it wasn't until recently that polo found a footing in modern-day Mongolia.
In a country where few had seen a game being played, the Genghis Khan Polo Club recently played host to the fourth international competition at its base in the Orkhon Valley, about 389 kilometres from the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator.
Billing the event as the 'renaissance of polo in Mongolia', the hosts organised several days of friendly matches between mixed teams of Mongolians and players from Britain, France, the Netherlands and Singapore before the locals were pitted against the visitors. Villagers sat under an open-walled tent to watch the fast-paced games, the crowd breaking into laughter when a foreign player lost his seat and his horse attempted a fast getaway into the hills.
At the final match for the Shanghai Tang Cup, a team of players from 12 countries faced off against the home side. It wasn't much of a contest: although most of the Mongolians had not picked up a polo stick until about six years ago, they trounced the visitors 8-2.
There were some home-ground advantages: the teams played on scrubby turf and rode smaller - and more inflexible - Mongolian steeds.
'The horses here are incredibly sturdy but not responsive in the way you train an international polo horse to be,' says Steve Wyatt, chairman of the Nine Dragons Hill Polo Club in Shanghai, who took part. He and his friends are more accustomed to manicured greens and bigger, faster horses groomed for the sport at top polo clubs. 'Here, you pull hard and the horse won't respond.'
The president of the Mongolian Polo Federation, Jumdaan Choimbol, isn't surprised by their victory. 'Mongolia is a horse country and everyone from little children to old men can ride,' he says.
Seeds for the revival (or birth) of polo in the country were sown in 1998, when German filmmaker Christopher Giercke flew over the Orkhon Valley while scouting for locations and fell in love with its stark beauty. He invited a few friends for a visit, including Jim Edwards, who runs a polo lodge in Nepal, and Colonel Rajinder Kumar Singh Kalaan, a well-known Indian polo player and army veteran.
To amuse themselves, the group organised an informal game using tree branches as sticks. It struck them that the spot was ideal for polo. Banding together to promote the sport, they opened the Genghis Khan Polo Club the following year. Giercke, who married a Mongolian woman, divided his time between Orkhon, which served as his summer base; Nepal, where he runs a cashmere business; and Europe.
Later, Raj and other players came to teach the sport, bringing with them smaller saddles and shorter polo sticks for the local horses; and polo gradually began to take off.
'It was quite difficult at the start,' says Raj. 'Everyone thought if they had the ball they were Genghis Khan. We had to teach them that it was a team sport.'
Polo may be a pursuit for the well-heeled elsewhere, but Giercke reckons it is relevant in Mongolia as a way to build team spirit among a people better known for their rugged individualism. 'The last time the Mongolians were a team was when Genghis Khan was here, and there was a cavalry.'
What's more, it may save an equestrian tradition in danger of fading away as young Mongol herders increasingly trade horses for wheels, he says.
There are more than five million horses roaming around the country and every nomadic Mongol is a rider. 'Every day there are 600,000 people on horses - they're not just weekend riders,' Giercke says. 'Mongolia is the last great riding nation in the world, and horses are part of daily life.'
But this is changing rapidly. About a third of the population is involved in herding, but Giercke reckons this number will fall to 20 per cent or less in the coming decades. Nomadic children who go to Ulan Bator today often get pushed around, he says. 'I want them to be proud of the skills they gained as young horsemen.
'Half the population of Mongolia is under 25. They have to wake up and do something for these kids,' Giercke says. 'We have to bring dignity to the herders and their children, otherwise they'll feel like second-class citizens compared to people in the cities and those working in the mines.'
Polo and other equestrian sports such as horse racing and mountain trekking can address the problem, and to the growing industrial encroachment of the land, he says.
'We're taking a great riding nation by its tail and saying there are things you can still do with a horse,' Giercke says.
Raphael le Masne de Chermont, executive chairman of the Shanghai Tang fashion house and a keen polo player since childhood, takes great personal interest in reviving the game in Mongolia.
The sport has come a long way in the five years since Le Masne has been involved: on his first visit to Orkhon in 2005, the play was chaotic, he says. 'We were galloping like crazy but none of the Mongolians knew the polo rules at the time. We did not keep score as it looked more like an Uzbekistan buskachi match than a polo game.'
With sponsorship from Shanghai Tang, the Genghis Khan Polo Club has been grooming world-class polo players through a youth training programme. Each summer the club runs training camps for between 50 and 70 talented children from nomadic areas across the mainland. Many are Mongolia's top child jockeys, whose racing careers typically end at around the age of 12, says Giercke, and it's then that they take up polo in earnest.
More recently, the club has been collaborating with local schools and hopes to make indoor training part of the sports curriculum during bitter winter months, when temperatures can plunge to minus 30 degrees Celsius.
The sport may help Mongolia break out of its centuries of isolation. 'Polo could be a way to bring Mongolia closer to the world after 80 years of communism and the isolation of the past 500 to 600 years,' Giercke says.
It has already given unprecedented international exposure to young herders such as Chuluunbaatar Urtnasan.
Better known by his nickname Chuka, he is described in his bio as a gifted singer and folk painter, an 'experienced marmot hunter'. Now the 31-year-old can add star polo player to his list of accomplishments.
Since taking up polo seven years ago, he has played in France, Australia and Singapore. He scored four of the goals that beat the international team last month, and in 2002 struck all 12 goals that made the Genghis Khan team the national champions.
As recognition of his fame, fellow villagers now call him 'the wind', he says, smiling broadly. They've even named a horse that won 20 races in the valley after him.
Although polo is still largely played by poor herders, Choimbol predicts it will soon catch on among the wealthy; a polo club is already planned for the capital.
Le Masne takes an even more upbeat of the future of the sport. 'In 10 years, we'll have good Mongolians competing internationally and they'll be the most feared in the world,' he says.