Travel and backpack through Kargil and Suru valley

What do you do when you are told deep stuff like, “Oh, that place had no soul”? You dig deeper. This is how we can sum up our visit to Kargil.

Was Kargil the most beautiful place we have traveled to? Of course not! It is a street with a noisy, busy (no negative points if you even add dirty) market. But this is where the real essence of Kargil lies. Between the high altitude mountain passes of Zoji la and Fotu la, Kargil is the only “city”. Zoji la itself is operational for only a few months in a year.

A relatively short mountain pass of 13 km that starts right after Baltal, the first and dangerous pass on the Srinagar Leh highway, NH-1 D, the shortest access to Ladakh sees a lot of bikers when it opens up in the summer months.

This essentially means Kargil is isolated from the rest of the world for most parts of year. And yet, it is the only place for thousands of people to access “modern amenities” like television and refrigerators!

This paradox about Kargil intrigued us enough to stay on and explore more. And ended up visiting some little known gems! These are our recommendations for things to do in Kargil and around (based on our experiences of Kargil).

Walk up to the rural part of Kargil

The market street of Kargil will not hold your interest for long (if at all). Turn towards the street that has the Kargil post office. (Remember the status of Kargil as a “big city”. This means the post office in Kargil is among the bigger ones in this region.)

Up this street, at the top of the hillock, is a village called Goma Kargil. Summer is the time to make arrangements for survival for the rest of the year. The entire village is in a high action mood.

It was mid-July when we visited. Barley, their main crop had beenΒ harvested and dried. We walked towards a house where we saw some frenzied activity. Everyone in the family was either gathering or sorting the dried crop. It had to be kept ready for husking.

Getting the crops ready for husking in Goma Kargil, a village near Kargil in India

They had called for a husking machine. A tractor would be needed to get it to Goma Kargil, since it was on top of a hill. They would be charged by the hour for this tractor. Which meant everybody had to perform their tasks at top efficiency. And finish the husking in the least possible time.

The husked barley grains would first be roasted, then ground into a powder. This powder, called sattu makes for a healthy and staple meal. It comes handy for the winter months, when the region is covered in snow and fresh food is almost impossible to get.

Getting the crops ready for husking in Goma Kargil, a village near Kargil in India

The head of the family was standing on top of the heap of this dried barley, managing the heap and supervising the entire activity.

“Sure, being a farmer in the hills is tough”, he told us. “But look at our rewards – this clean air and pure organic food.” We didn’t miss the glint of pride in his eyes as he said this!

For a few days at least, all of this was going to be our privilege too!

Along this road, at the beginning of the climb is the Munshi Aziz Bhat Museum. It is a must-visit during your stay in Kargil.

Stay in Kargil to explore the Suru valley

We are ashamed to admit that we had no idea about the existence of Suru valley or any of its villages before our stay in Kargil. It was in Kargil that our journey into some of the most remote and unknown parts of India began.

A 250 km road (okay, for long stretches, there is no road!) to the south of Kargil leads to the Zanskar valley. The Zanskar valley is remote and worthy enough to warrant a trip of its own.

Trek to Phuktal monastery in Zanskar valley, India Monastery festival in the Zanskar valley, India

However, Kargil is a convenient base for exploring the Suru valley.

Suru what? A valley? Where? In India?

That was our reaction when we heard of Suru valley from the guy at our guest house in Kargil!

Around 40km after Kargil, Sankoo is a stepping stone to head deep in the Suru valley. It is surprisingly green for its altitude, of over 3000 mt, thanks to the Suru river that flows through it. A zig zag road follows this river, crossing several bridges, as seen above, to cross the Suru valley through villages like Sankoo, Panikhar, Tangole and Parkachik, where suddenly, civilisation comes to a halt!

The Suru valley separates Kargil from the Zanskar valley. The Suru river, flowing through the valley, keeps it surprisingly green for its altitude of over 3000 meters. It is the greenest valley of the Greater Himalayas.

If heading towards Zanskar, cherish the greenery. It’ll be the last bit of green you’ll see for days!

How to travel from Kargil to Suru valley?

Sankoo, Panikhar, Tangole and Parkachik are the major villages of the Suru valley. There are buses which leave from Kargil every morning towards these villages.

There is a “teacher’s bus” which leaves at around 7 AM. This time makes it perfect for the teachers who live in Kargil, to reach the schools in the Suru valley on time. Hence the name! This goes to the Sankoo village.

Getting the crops ready for husking in Goma Kargil, a village near Kargil in India

An hour later, is the “labourer’s bus”. Summer is the only time of the year to get any construction done in the Himalayas. Specially so in these Greater Himalayas. There is an influx of labourers, mainly from the state of Jharkhand, into Kargil and beyond, during these months. This bus generally goes up to Panikhar.

Buses leave for Sankoo and Panikhar in the middle of the day as well.

There is one bus that leaves daily from Kargil to Parkachik. It reaches Parkachik only late in the evening. Parkachik is the last village of the Suru valley. To travel beyond Parkachik, you have to have your own vehicle or have patience and show your thumb.

Sankoo, an easy day trip from Kargil

40 km away from Kargil is the Sankoo village. It is a typical mountain village – a small market, primary school, people busy with farming and houses with views better than five star accommodation.

House in Sankoo near Kargil in the Suru valley, India

It was the peak of summer and the days would get quite warm. It was funny seeing the locals still dressed in sweaters and shawls. When we asked them about it, they all replied, “Yes, we do feel hot. But what to do? We do not feel normal if we don’t wear our warm wear!”

A shop in Sankoo, a village in Suru valley near Kargil, India

People of Sankoo, a village in Suru valley, near Kargil, at work in the summer months

Us humans really are creatures of habit! Being in the remote Himalayas doesn’t change that!

The reason to travel to Sankoo was the visit a small village near it called Kartse Khar (also Karche Khar or Karshe Khar, no one knows for sure). Claim to fame for Karche Khar is a 7 meter rock carved statue of the Maitreya Buddhha. The locals claim that after the Bamiyan in Afghanistan, this is now the tallest such statue of the Buddha.

Tallest rock cut statue of the Maitreya Buddha in Karste Khar near Kargil in Suru valley, India

The people of Kartse Khar were quite excited to see us. They were probably also amused by our keen interest in their giant poultry!

Poultry in the Sankoo village of Suru valley, Kargil, India

They took us around in the village and had us climb this rock. They said it was the remains of the palace of some king. The palatial ruins looked a bit far fetched to be believed.

But the enthusiasm with which we were shown around was genuine. They are keen on having Kartse Khar being developed as a tourist attraction. They want more people to know about this wonder that exists in their village. More time spent with the locals means more conversations. And some photo requests. We were only glad to oblige.

Friends from the village of Kartse Khar in Suru valley near Kargil, India

Maqsuma and Fatima are two friends living in Kartse Khar. Fatima, on the right, was in class 4 and went to the local school. Maqsuma was in class 5 and attended the army school. Clearly smarter than her peers who went to the local schools, her confidence could be seen in the way she posed for the photographs.

After Sankoo comes Panikhar…and Nun Kun views

Every village in the Suru valley takes pride in the view it affords of the Nun and the Kun peaks. They are the mainstay of the tourism in the Suru valley.

Another couple of hours down the road from Sankoo is Panikhar. The hillocks around the village are a short climb of a couple of hours. These are one of the best places to get a view of the entire Nun Kun massif.

View of Nun peak from Panikhar in Suru valley, India

Apart from this, there are plenty of walks around Panikhar. Just choose a path and explore ahead. You are assured to find something interesting.

Himalayan Agama in Panikhar in Suru valley near Kargil, India

Himalayan Agama in Panikhar in Suru valley near Kargil, India

We had halted at Panikhar for a couple of hours on our way to Parkachik. There is a tourist bungalow here, run by the Jammu and Kashmir tourism department. We hadn’t intimated them or anything. We just showed up. But the care taker there was equipped and willing to make us a fresh lunch in the two hours we spent there.

Parkachik, the last village of the Suru valley

Parkachik was where we stayed for a couple of nights in the Suru valley. We took the bus in Panikhar at around 2 PM and reached Parkachik by sunset. The journey from Kargil to Panikhar had been along well paved almost flat roads. On the way to Parkachik we gained most of the elevation in the Suru valley. It was a rickety road and our bus rattled as it negotiated the sharp turns. We were getting higher and higher with each turn, the Suru river seeming to slim down rapidly!

Along the Suru river in Suru valley near Kargil, India

Parkachik is also a popular night halt for trucks and cars on their way from Kargil to the Zanskar valley.

Trucks halting at the village Parkachik in Suru valley near Kargil on their way to Zanskar valley, India

The Jammu and Kashmir tourism department has a tourist bungalow here as well. The one at Parkachik seems more popular than the one at Panikhar. We had several other travelers for company. This came in quite handy when we traveled to the Zanskar valley in Indian Oil trucks.

We trekked up the Parkachik la, at a height of around 3800m. It was our first taste of high altitude walking. Our first encounter with “rarified air”. This is where the sound of our hearts beating in our ears became our constant musical companion.

Farms and solar panels in the village of Parkachik in Suru valley, India

As we climbed up, we could see the entire Parkachik village under us. Like in Kargil, barley is the most commonly cultivated plant here. The crop had been harvested and we could see the empty barley farms. Each farm was “protected” by a stone wall constructed around the farms to keep the animals out.

People were still working on secondary crops like peas and carrots.

Summer farming in Zanskar, India

Making the entire village of Parkachik solar powered was a major project underway. We could see soalr farms built on one side of the village. It generates power for one part of Parkachik. The other still gets diesel generated power. So power supply is highly staggered, from 8 PM to midnight! This makes collection of firewood an important activity for the women in Parkachik.

Mother daughter duo collecting firewood in the morning in the village of Parkachik in Suru valley, India

The top of this hill presented us with views of both the Nun-Kun peaks and the entire Nun-Kun massif. Nun (7135m), perennially snow covered and its contrasting twin, the always barren Kun (7087m). The biggest and the highest attractions in the Suru valley. It was a worthy prize for the effort!

The peaks on Nun Kun seen from Parkachik la, India

On the other side, we could see the entire route we had criss crossed the previous day. Seeing the route from high up made the few hours of journey easily doable on foot!

Suru valley spread out on one side of the Parkachik la, India

Another must-see in Parkachik is the Parkachik glacier. It is 1km away from the village of Parkachik.

Suru valley spread out on one side of the Parkachik la, India

Much of the snow had melted when we saw it in the month of July, but it sill made for an interesting look especially with the mighty Himalayas surrounding it.

Life in Suru valley

As you go deeper into the Suru valley, you are gripped with a sense of remoteness. You see the paradox of life getting tougher, and simpler.

In the buses that we traveled, we saw people carrying television sets that they had bought in the markets in Kargil. We would ask the youngsters in the Suru valley, where they got their clothes from. They would generally reply, “For the more stylish clothes, we go to the big Kargil market.” That is when we realised the importance of Kargil, which we generally dismiss as “dirty little road”.

Sankoo, being close to the main district place of Kargil had its advantages. The affluence of the people here, as against the rest of the valley is reflected in their houses.

A posh house in Sankoo village of Suru valley near Kargil, India

The houses are made of local bricks and have highly stylised textures. They even have tin roofs and proper wooden doors. Bright coloured window and door frames are a part of every house! And they all have cute little flower pots on their windows.

Further down the Suru valley, houses become simpler. The well to do families build more robust structures, out of local bricks. These bricks are made from a mixture of the locally sourced mud, stones and hay. Tin roofs and actual doors vanish a little further into the valley. However, they do maintain the bright windows and some pretty flowering plants on the window sills.

Stone houses in Parkachik village of Suru valley, India

This architectural style is common in the valleys in the Greater Himalayas, as well as some regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan in the North West Frontier Province.

Even simpler houses are mostly built of stones, literally just stacked one over the other.

Stone houses in Parkachik village of Suru valley, India

More reasons to visit Suru valley?

Trekking and backpacking. For us, Suru valley was among the best places in the Himalayas for some backpacking. Distances between places are not much as in Ladakh. Villages are connected by public transport. This makes travel cheap.

People are friendly, eager to welcome tourists. They generally do speak some Hindi.

Weather in the summer months, is perfect to stay out in the open all day long. Even the nights are tolerable with a good sweater and jacket.

And most importantly, the mountains are everywhere!

After traveling through the Suru valley, you can travel to the Zanskar valley, or head back to Kargil. We did go ahead to Zanskar. We must have returned back to Kargil after around 15 days of travel through the Suru valley and Zanskar.

Probably as our reward for giving Kargil a chance, we were gifted these glorious views, as our bus moved ahead towards Ladakh.

Stone houses in Parkachik village of Suru valley, India

Top tips for traveling in Kargil and Suru valley

  • There is no denying that Kargil’s claim to fame is as an altitude acclimatisation night halt on the way to Ladakh. If you insist on not staying in Kargil, consider a stay in Drass. DO NOT travel directly to Leh from the lower valleys.
  • Places ahead of Kargil, all the villages of the Suru valley are remote places, without many opportunities for the locals. Do not expect lavish stay arrangements here, like the hotels in Srinagar.
  • The only lavish thing here, is the beauty of nature. Air you breathe here will be cleaner than most of your lives.
  • Sadly, some young children here have got into the habit of asking money from the tourists. Please DO NOT encourage this habit. It might be just a few rupees/cents for you, but it sets very bad examples for these children.
  • For stay arrangements at the tourist bungalows, you can call the related numbers given at the Official Website of Jammu & Kashmir Tourism.
  • You can camp for a nominal fee on the grounds of these tourist bungalows if you have your own sleeping arrangements like a tent and a sleeping bag. This is of course at the discretion of the caretaker of the tourist bungalow.
  • All the places ahead of Kargil and in the Suru valley are high altitude. Give your body enough time to adjust to this high altitude atmosphere. Stay hydrated and go easy on the alcohol.
  • Map for the journey from Kargil to Suru valley

These blogs will help you plan your travel to Zanskar valley

Monastery festival in Sani, a village 6 k m before Padum, the headquarters of  Zanskar valley, the most remote valley in India

how to reach Zanskar valley

Trek to Phuktal monastery, the most remote monastery in Zanskar valley, the most remote valley in India

Simple life of the people of Sani, a village 6 k m before Padum, the headquarters of  <a href=

Tso Moriri the high altitude mountain lake in Ladakh, at a distance of 250 km from Leh

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Sandeepa and Chetan. Married. Indians. Exploring Travel as Lifestyle. Featured by National Geographic, Yahoo. We hope that through our travel stories we inspire others to make their dream into a reality.

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Comments

34 thoughts on “Travel and backpack through Kargil and Suru valley

  1. Amar

    Hi Chetan/Sandeepa, Can We visit Suru Valley in April ? Pls lemme know, I have plans to visit Suru Valley after Nubra this Mid April, 2017.

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      To travel to Suru valley from Leh, you will need to cross Fotu la and then head towards Zanskar from Kargil. Fotu la is kept open through the year, even in the winters. So it should be possible to get to Suru once you are in Ladakh.

  2. travelwithrohit

    Thanks for writing such a good article, I like your style of writing and knowledge. I also want to introduce one more travel blog know as travelwithrohit, a personal collection of my best experiences, favourite places in India and around the world, along with random thoughts and opinions.. Kindly give us your valuable feedback & Idea

  3. Shreyans

    Amazing pictures and beautifully written. One question, how many days would be enough to travel from Kargil through Suru Valley all the way to Zanskar?

  4. Sayani De

    Amazing place and pictures! Looks like some adventure you had! I am planing to go to Suru valley with my partner. While returning to Srinagar from Panikhar, can I easily get shared jeep/ bus from Panikhar to Kargil and then Kargil to Srinagar/Sonamarg? Is Panikhar to Srinagar doable in one day by public transport?
    Also, for onward journey from Srinagar to Kargil, how long does the journey take? Can I get public transport from Sonamarg to Kargil easily? Your inputs will be of great help to us

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      Hello Sayani, shared taxis usually leave full from Srinagar to Kargil. Sonmarg is on the way, but you will have to take your chances. Local shared Tata Sumos take passengers to a point beyond the Zoji la, but they do not go all the way to Kargil.
      There are a few buses which leave from Panikhar to Kargil, you will need to enquire locally for the timings. Hotel contacts in Kargil should be able to give you the present timings. If you are able to manage the logistics, Panikhar-Sonmarg in a day is possible, distance wise.

  5. Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay

    Superb post with some amazing pictures. The scenery is simply breath-taking and as you rightly said the remoteness is obvious from the pictures. The Buddha statue was an amazing revelation …

    Thanks!

  6. dNambiar

    You travelled in an Indian Oil Truck? That must have been a one of a kind of experience, especially because you were in those parts.
    Thank you telling us about life in Kargil and Suru Valley. And thank you so much for the awesome pictures. Thank you for the trip. πŸ™‚

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      It was fantastic! We are now trying to take more photos f the food we eat, so we can write about it! Sometimes it’s tough because you are so tired that all you care about is polishing off the plate πŸ™‚

  7. Priyanka

    And I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t even heard of this place before I read this.. We noticed the ‘bakshis’ bit in Sonmarg too, and it’s so off-putting!

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      Yes, it is quite common. But I guess it’s the outsiders like us who are responsible for this. For some strange reason, some people seem to believe giving away money like that is a noble thing! We actually spent an hour explaining to the Gujjar kids in Sonmarg how “bakshish” didn’t mean money but a reward. We missed out on reaching the Thajiwas glacier in the process. But it turned out to be one of our best interactions in Kashmir!

  8. themoonstone

    Such beautiful pictures and narration. And what an amazing place !!
    Really envy you ! Dont know whether such pristine places should become tourist attractions.. better to leave them alone I guess.

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      Our fear every time we write about an unknown place…that the place will be ruined by tourism. We sincerely hope this doesn’t happen to Suru valley. Its remoteness is likely to make only genuine travelers visit there, though! Thank you so much for your comment!

  9. indrani

    Wow! What an amazing journey! Never knew of the incredible statue of Buddha.
    People around seem to be friendly too. The place needs to be promoted well.