Profile: Passing the ball: polo carried forward on Pamir Plateau

by Xinhua writers Zhang Zhongkai and Hu Huhu

URUMQI, July 9 (Xinhua) — Amid loud cheers from spectators, 33-year-old Jumebay Milzmemet, with his head held high and a big smile, waved a club on a galloping horse. With a score of four to three, his team once again won a county-level polo game held to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival in late June.

Jumebay plays advance and is the captain of his team that consists of locals from the Daftar Township in Taxkorgan Tajik Autonomous County, northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

Located on the Pamir Plateau, Taxkorgan is the country’s only Tajik autonomous county, with about 81 percent of its roughly 41,000 residents belonging to the Tajik ethnic group.

The recent championship has added to Jumebay’s long winning streak. Their team has claimed almost all the top prizes in polo games in the county on the Pamir Plateau, where polo is a long-standing tradition for local ethnic Tajiks.

Jumebay learned the skills from his father and started playing polo when he was 14 years old. “It’s full of fun and thrill, and takes a lot of horse-riding skills and teamwork.”

Polo is like field hockey on horseback, during which two teams use clubs to drive a ball down into each other’s goals. It is a popular sport among Taxkorgan’s Tajik people and is usually played to celebrate weddings and other festive occasions.

The unique equestrian sport was challenged in the 1990s when fewer villagers raised horses as local transport conditions improved. “Motorbikes and cars replaced many families’ horses,” Jumebay said.

New life was breathed into polo in 2008 when the unique Tajik sport was named a national intangible cultural heritage. The local government started organizing county-level polo games in 2009 as part of its efforts to revive the tradition.

Polo games are held regularly in Taxkorgan, with at least one game each month. Polo is also played on special occasions such as traditional festivals and tourism promotion events.

These games, usually with prizes awarded to top performers, have drawn many local villagers to join. Jumebay’s team now has 18 members, with the youngest being 20 and the oldest being 44.

“The contests have made the sport more exciting, and we undergo targeted training before each event,” said Xianbi Ghulam, 20, the youngest teammate.

Taxkorgan shook off poverty and made it onto the top national tourist destination list in 2019. More than 1.1 million tour trips were seen in Taxkorgan in 2019. The bourgeoning tourism market is expected to boost polo’s preservation and promotion.

Jumebay became a prefecture-level inheritor of polo in 2014. Working as a taxi driver, he has made playing and promoting polo a long-term goal.

“I bought two horses earlier this year. As tourism grows, horses will be of greater use in performances like polo,” said Jumebay.

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