Best trips are those which are unplanned and unforeseen. I never thought of exploring Kargil, not even once. Until someone made me aware of the Kargil Festival which was to happen on 21-22nd July 2019. I read a bit about the region and got to know how underrated the destination was. Even Google couldn’t justify the beauty of the Kargil. Now that I have explored it, I understand the level of underestimation.
Ladakh comprises of two districts, Kargil and Leh. Out of these two, Kargil is an upcoming tourism destination with untouched valleys like Suru, Wakha, Zanskar, Drass, Shakar Chiktan and Lower Indus. These valleys are the home to various ethnic and tribal groups like Indo-Aryans, Dards, Mons of Northern India and Tibetans.
The region is fed by various water bodies which are all tributaries of the mighty Indus, a river shared by India and Pakistan. Prominent ones are the Suru, Drass, Zanskar, Kanji and Wakha nallas.
Etymologically, the region was earlier known as Purig because it was inhabited by the people known has Purig-Pa. the ethnic group which originated from the intermixing of Dard colonizers with the Tibetan nomadic tribes.
Road Trip to Kargil – Journey from Delhi to Kargil via Srinagar
Due to Amarnath Yatra, I had to avoid the expensive cabs in Jammu and thus took a direct JKSRTC Volvo from Delhi`s Sarai Kale Khan till Srinagar`s TRC. It took me 24 hours to reach Srinagar where I stayed for a night to catch my 6 am bus to Kargil.
Delhi to Srinagar seater Volvo cost = 2400 INR
Timings = Departs at 2 pm at alternative days from Sarai Kale Khan in Delhi
(Non-AC sleeper cost = 1300 INR)
The highway from Srinagar to Kargil had to be the most interesting road trip of my life. We crossed the beautiful Sonmarg, the Zojila Pass and districts like Drass from where I could see the Tiger Hill, a place where the 1999 Kargil War took place.
Srinagar to Kargil = 600 INR in local bus
Timings = Departs every day at 7:30 am from Srinagar TRC (8-hour journey)
(Srinagar to Leh bus costs 1300 INR)
The Srinagar Leh highway or NH-1D is scenic with the view of Sindh river along.
The first check post comes 25 km before Drass where foreigners have to get their passport stamped. After then, wide valleys, mountains, hills, rivers, little hamlets, shepherds, aridness of the region, all come to welcome you at together.
Don’t miss to spot the highest point on this highway, Fotu La (4,108 m).
At an altitude of 2704 m, Kargil is an important district headquarters in Ladakh, which is now a Union Territory (earlier was a division in Jammu and Kashmir state). It was a halt destination to numerous Caravans passing by and still has their presence in the form Sarais which the main town is still dotted with.
Statistically, the region has Muslims as the major population and the rest are Buddhists. Ethnically, they are the combination of Balti, Dard and Tibetan Mongolian.
Facilities in Kargil Town
Only BSNL, Airtel and Jio 4G work in the Ladakh region. In the town area and most valleys, 4G signals are available. After Trespone, Airtel signals disappear.
The Kargil market has ATMs at various spots with a variety of places to stay, eat and relax.
The market is full of things that you would want to take back as souvenirs. Pashmina shawls, apricot oil, dried apricots, carpets and the jams are some of the many things that you can pick on your way back home.
The people are generally very hospitable and the town is a melting pot of the modern times and the history with a garnishing of culture and war pride.
Every time a local handed me handfuls of fresh apricots, I used to climb on cloud nine in my head.
Sports like Polo and Archery are popular in the region. I even saw some makeshift archery points near the city hospital.
Places to see in Kargil Town
Most of the mosques and Imambaras are constructed in a mix of Persian and Islamic architecture. The mosque that is in Kargil town shares a wall with the Gurudwara of the town.
The views of the Mosque are visible almost from anywhere in the town. Jama Masjid`s blue onion dome is quite distinguishable.
In Kargil town, at various points, you will encounter some various abandoned shack-like structures. Wondering what they were, I was enlightened when someone told me about them. They were the caravan sarais where travellers and merchants used to rest, breaking their long journeys when trade on the Silk Route was flourishing once.
Munshi Aziz Bhat Museum of Central Asian and Kargil Trade Artefacts
It is a family-run museum which has preserved the legacy of Munshi Aziz Bhat who was a silk Route trader. The museum exhibits a rare collection of artefacts and mercantile items, goods that were transported via the Silk route. It also gives a glimpse into the lives of then-nomads, horsemen, merchants, pilgrims, artisans and farmers.
100 plus objects from the history are displayed. Some of them are old trade coins, nomadic clothes, big utensils, dyed and raw silk from Khotan in China, natural dyes, costumes, jewellery, shoes, ammunition and a few photographs.
Timings: 9 am-8 pm
A little ahead from here, lies the village Goma Kargil. One can hike up to the village to see the old houses and know more about some of their harsh-winter survival techniques. From here, go up to a topmost point called Spang which is a great point for astrophotography.
This ancient village lies across the river. From here the whole front of Kargil town which sits by the Suru River is visible.
This is the same point from where I boarded my 3 pm bus to Aryan Valley. (Bus departs every day at 3 pm except Sunday)
Places to see in and around Kargil
Drass War Memorial (Kargil War memorial)
In 1999, Drass had the eyes of whole India. It was the centre of the Kargil War where hills like Tiger and Tololing were captured by the Pakistan Army. The war went on for months and turned out to be victorious for India. People of Kargil had a major role to play in it as the facilitators who often transported daily commodities to our soldiers.
And very interestingly, it is the world’s second coldest inhabited place after a village of Oymyakon in Russia. The lowest that has ever gone here -60 degree Celsius. Most Drass inhabitants either try to stay warm in their old mud houses or migrate from the region to lesser colder places like Kargil, Srinagar, Jammu and even Delhi.
The Kargil or the Drass War Memorial has been a tourist attraction since a few years now.
Every year, from 24th to 26th July, Kargil Vijay Diwas is celebrated to mark the victorious end of the Kargil War. The roads on 26th July remain closed for civilians if the Indian President is expected.
Timings: open on all days (except Sunday)
10 am-12 pm and 2 pm-5 pm
Tip: Don’t forget to have lunch at Ali Dhaba in Drass.
Distance: 56 km from Kargil
It is a picturesque valley which is untouched and pristine. Before the Kargil war of 1999, this valley was considered unsuitable for human habitation. Afterwards the war, from just being a village to now a valley, it has come a little ahead.
A road from this valley leads straight up to the Gurez valley in Kashmir but remains closed due to security reasons. In my mind, I could see the possibility of connecting the two regions via this route but the political situation shunned the thought away. But the trek is for sure possible and it happens too.
The valley is known for brown bear expeditions, mostly during the winter season.
Distance: 8 km from Drass
Located near the LOC (Line of Control), the hundred years old village of Hundarman now stands as the testimony to the division of various families as a result of the war. The village has witnessed four wars.
Before it was re-captured by the Indian Army in 1971, it was a part of Pakistan. Many families got separated under the process of attack, siege, capture and relocation. As the LOC got shifted so the members and houses of the family.
Now the village has been converted into a museum by Roots Ladakh.
One can also see across the border from a view-point. The feeling literally gives you goosebumps, trust me.
Distance: 10 km away from the Kargil town
What lay on the other side of the border? The Brolmo village in Pakistan
Between Kargil and Skardu (Baltistan) there lies another village which has seen some unbearable shelling of the India-Pakistan war. The Bromo village could now just send its water in the form of Shingo river to India`s Hundarman village. There was a free movement but only of water, air and birds and not humans who got separated under the tyranny of war.
This becomes the most fertile region in Ladakh when the Penzella glacier starts to melt.
Turn by turn, when the valley changes its direction to either side of the Suru river, one gets to see little houses, lush green beauty, snow-capped peaks and glaciers at the distance. All the villages are dotted with at least one Imambara and a Mosque.
Valleys and villages like Trespone, Panikhar, Tangole and Parkachik (last village in Suru valley) are worth spending one-one night at. Sankoo is a bowl-shaped region of the valley which comprises of lush green beauty.
The majestic Nun (7135 m) and Kun peaks (7087 m) were visible from the Damsna village.
Shared Taxi till Sankoo Town: 100 INR (shared taxis and buses are available up to Parkachik village)
The most beautiful villages of the Suru Valley are Panikhar and Parkachik.
Statues of the Future Buddha, Maitreya Chamba
Majority of Kargil has a Muslim population which is 52% in the whole Ladakh region. This population, as per history, was once the follower of Buddhism but after Islamic invasion in India, they were converted. The proofs of this are in the form of the three Buddha statues which still stand erect at various places in the Kargil district.
The Buddha statues are located in Khartse Khar, Apati and Mulbekh. I got to visit two of them but not Apati one.
In Mulbekh, there is a 9 m tall idol of Maitreya Buddha which is overlooking the old trade route and the present-day highway. The 6 m tall Apati statue can be covered while going towards the Aryan Valley.
The statues are believed to have been made around 8th century AD.
Khartse Khar (in Suru Valley): 45 Km from Kargil
Mulbekh: 45 Km from Kargil
Apati: 16 km away from Kargil
10 km ahead of Mulbekh, lies the Shargole Monastery in Shargole village. These cave monasteries are such great examples of cave and cantilever architecture. The nerd in me wanted to know every detail about them.
The monastery is Ge-Lugs Pa Buddhist Monastery. The icon of an Avalokitesvara and the three images of Tara Devi carved on wood by Tibetan artists can be seen inside the shrine.
Distance: 33 km from Kargil
To reach Phokar Rizong and Urgyang Dzong, one has to trek till the hilltop. It takes about 40 minutes to an hour to reach the monastery which is further located inside the caves. The way goes through a wide valley, high altitude canyon-like hills, a shallow water stream which is made accessible with metals stairs kept by the villagers and a little steep hike towards the gompa.
The cave route is closed between June and July but extends up to 1 km ahead from the Phokar Rizong that stands on the plane ground just opposite to the cave.
Distance: 38 km from Kargil
Located in the upper part of the Wakha Valley, Royal Wakha is a small village with white Tibetan styled houses against the ochre-coloured mountains. The village also has an inside-the-mountain kind of monastery from where views of the valley are not to be missed.
Distance: 44 km from Kargil
Villages in Aryan Valley
The Aryan valley was an additional and unplanned segment to my Ladakh trip. From Poyen I boarded a bus which took me to an Indo-Aryan village known as Garkone or Garkun.
Before you wonder if it is an Aryan village or not, know that there are 4 Indo-Aryan villages of which 2 are in Kargil and others are in Leh.
The villages are on the route which goes from Kargil to Leh via places like Apati, Batalik, Dha, Khalsi, Nimmu etc.
Garkone village gave me an insight into the life of the Indo-Aryans who also by a theory are the ancestors of Alexander and his army. As per Max Mueller, hundreds of years ago they came to India from the Gilgit and Baltistan area, now in POK (Pakistan occupied Kashmir).
Distance: 65 km from Kargil
Apart from the places listed above, you can extend your visit and always try places like Phuktal Monastery, Mulbekh Monastery, Pashkum, Sapi Glacier, Shashi Lake, Padum, Rungdam, Drang Drung Glacier, Zanskar Valley etc.
The valley also has some amazing offbeat trekking options like Sankoo-Drass/Shargole, Panikhar to Kishtwar/Pahalgam, Rangdum to Hinaskote/Kishtwar/Penzila, Padum to Manali, Padum to Kishtwar, Padum to Mentis via Markha Valley etc and Nun-Kun expedition as well.
Places to stay in Kargil Town
Located in the main market area, it is readily accessible on foot. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful luxury hotels in Kargil with plush rooms and serene lawn areas.
The one thing that I loved about them is that they concentrate on sustainability models like sewage water treatment in areas like Kargil where water shortage becomes a problem sometimes.
Hotel Royal Gasho
It is located on the main road and is thus easy to access if one comes by the highway side. The hotel terrace provides some amazing views of the city front along with the Suru river.
The beautiful property is perched at one of the top most point of the Kargil Town. I was amazed to know that how this old Caravan Sarai was transformed into a luxury hotel. The views from here are breathtaking.
Cho-Ko Inn Homestay
The homestay is accessible from the taxi and bus stand and is the perfect place to soak in those friendly local vibes of the region.
Contact: 9622320024 Sajjad Hussain
Places to eat in Kargil
Tourist Facilitation Centre, Kargil
It is a great place to indulge in some local food as well as north Indian food if craving gets haywire. The place is just on the bridge that is made over the Suru river. Here you can be the closest to the lifeline of the town, its river.
Zomsa Coffee House, Kargil
It is on the premises of tourist facilitation centre and serves the best coffee in Kargil.
Roots Ladakh Café, Kargil
Every evening I used to chill here for hours. Their amazing book collection on the Ladakh region kept me company every time.
Indus Café, Kargil
The place where you can go if you crave for pizzas. A great café which is just on the main road.
The other place where pizzas are a must-try is Milly’s pizzeria.
A must-visit place for rolls and shakes.
In Trespone valley, this is the best place to eat and chill. Here I had a plate of Pakoras and a cup of ginger-honey-lemon tea after spending a whole day in Suru valley.
Ali Dhaba, Drass
Probably they serve the best Rajma Rice which you can find in Drass. A must visit spot for lunch while coming from Drass to Kargil.
Is it Safe to Travel to Kargil?
Kargil remained a hotspot for war during the 1990s for a few years. It has seen a lot of political uprising and also the change in times after the downfall of it. Now Kargil has emerged as a proper town with some hidden gems for travellers.
It has villages whose people are developing taste for the upcoming Indian tourists after already being acquainted with the foreign crowd who used to and still come in abundance here. So much so that, even the local buses also have 4 to 5 foreigners travelling.
More than us Indians, foreigners are better equipped with knowledge about Kargil and as per them, they feel safe here like in any other Trans-Himalayan region.
The market area in town seemed quite safe to me. I realised this while I was going back after having dinner. The starry sky and the closed street complimented each other. The nightlife is nil in Kargil. All the shops close down by 8 to 9 pm. But the people are warm, nice and helpful.
During the day time, there is an equal number of females and males that can be found on the streets.
How to reach Kargil?
Via road, either one can travel via Delhi-Zoji la-Drass-Kargil (Srinagar Leh highway, NH-1D) or if Leh is the starting point then Delhi-Manali-Leh-Kargil-Delhi.
Remember that Zojila route gets closed in winter due to heavy snow.
From Srinagar, buses and personal/shared taxis both ply till Kargil and Leh. There is also a daily bus from Leh which starts at 6.30 am and reaches Kargil by afternoon.
Kargil airport is in the process of getting constructed and will be operational within a few years. Until then, the Leh airport can be utilized. From Leh, a road trip can be undertaken till Kargil.
Nearest railway station to Kargil is Jammu Tawi in Jammu.
Possible Route Options
One can reach Kargil via Zojila Pass or Srinagar Leh highway which remains open for 6-8 months depending on the amount of snow December onwards.
The route that I followed was Delhi-Srinagar-Drass-Kargil-Aryan Valley-Leh. This allowed me to visit the villages in Aryan valley which were a part of Kargil district. Alternatively, one can opt to skip Aryan valley and chose the other direct road which takes you from Kargil to Leh.
While coming from Delhi, I broke my journey at Srinagar by staying there for the night. Thus, I didn’t stay at Drass and skipped the War Memorial for later. Alternatively, once can even break their journey at Drass and stay there for a day.
My route gives an option to visit Fokar Gompa, Shargole Monastery, Mulbekh Chamba and also peak into the changing architecture and lifestyle from Islamic to Buddhist or Tibetan while going towards Leh.
The route that goes via Aryan Valley is less touristy and is dotted with villages like Batalik, Darchik, Garkone, Hanu and Dah. I took a bus from Poyen village to get to this route.
Weather in Kargil
Like Kashmir, even in Kargil, one gets to see all the four seasons quite distinctively.
The spring gets the magic of apricot blossom. (stays for a week only)
Months- April to May
In summer, bright yellow-orange apricots hang widely in the valley to fill your stomach.
Months- May to September
Winters get the layers of sheets of snow to Kargil.
Months- September/October to February
Autumn turns Kargil into this colorful pallet which looks like a painting.
Things to Remember
· Kargil isn’t currently developed as a tourist hotspot like Leh. Respect the people wherever you go, many of them might not like to get clicked.
· There are plenty of stay options available in the town but a few in valleys like Suru. If you don’t find any, try asking a local for accommodation in their homes.
· Purchase minimum plastic packaged items to avoid careless disposal.
· For longer distances, carry your refillable water bottles. You don’t need to buy any plastic bottles because at a lot of places have clean streams.
· There is plenty of local transportation available for a lot of places. Try to travel sustainably with local transportation or do hitch-hiking.
· A lot of monasteries receive very few tourists. Try to maintain the sanctity and silence at such places.
· Currently, the place requires a lower budget from a travellers` side as compared to the budget for Leh. But Kargil will not fail to provide an equal amount of adventure, days worthy of remembering and a huge cultural exchange.
· All the above-mentioned places are on a high altitude. Go easy with the travelling and alcohol. Also, stay hydrated.
· The sun is extremely harsh in the Ladakh region. Thus, it is advisable to keep applying sunblock and use a hat to prevent sunburn and other skin diseases.
· Only BSNL, Airtel postpaid or Jio are recommended for this region.
I can’t be thankful enough to myself for exploring this beautiful place that too for a week where it is considered as a one night or one day halt by most travellers just wanting to go towards Leh.