I was at China’s – maybe Asia’s – poshest polo club lately and from what I saw business seems to be fairly good. A 90 minute drive south of Shanghai, the Nine Dragon Hills (named for the forested hills in which the complex is located) Polo Club is part of a huge gated community a local textiles tycoon is building for uber-rich locals and expatriates with the money to afford the EUR45,000 membership. My taxi driver took 20 minutes to get me from the local town, the manufacturing hamlet of Zhapu, to the club house – so long is the leafy driveway and so thorough the two security checks at Nine Dragon Hills. I was lucky to be there for a polo competition paid for by Mercedes to entertain local car dealers and auto journalists. After a half hour of jousting (lunging for a water melon atop a stake) and bicycle polo (grooms on mountain bikes) we got an hour of the real thing, played by a mix of hired Australian and Argentinean hands and a few of their local students. Both were pretty hand, despite the wet-slippery grounds. I watched from the balcony of the luxurious club houses, roped off from the seafood-fed Mercedes liggers.
The bulk of the traffic seemed to be going to the riding club attached to the facility. A solidly expatriate crew, European families, had driven down from Shanghai for an hour with an excellent English coach, Manuela. This was the first time in several years of riding at Asian clubs that I’ve had someone take a structured, technical approach to a lesson: she spotted a problem and worked on that problem with us for 20 minutes whereas other instructors just do the same trot, canter, jump routine lesson-in-lesson-out without spotting and fixing particular problems. I was asked for RMB1,500 to participate in this 40 minute lesson (with three other riders) but insisted I’d only pay RMB300, the maximum I’ve ever paid for a riding lesson in any country and because I was also partly here on reporting duties. The club had told me the facilities would be worth it. I don’t agree. Manuela was an excellent tutor, but this was a group lesson and I’d been promised private; and I was on a Chinese horse (I’m fine with that, but the club boasts about its imported bloodstock in its promotional material). Worse though was having to wait 30 minutes at reception for Rainbow, the liaison officer who was supposed to take me to the changing rooms and horses. A five star price but hardly five star service. Perhaps it’d be different if I go back for polo lessons.