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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.
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 ahead, 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 been 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.
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.
“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.
There are many other villages near Kargil that you can easily visit, to get your first glimpse at the high altitude Himalayan village life.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
People were still working on secondary crops like peas and carrots.
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 but 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.
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.
Even simpler houses are mostly built of stones, literally just stacked one over the other.
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.
(Visit the website of Backpacks Global to buy the best carry on bags at Backpacks.Global)
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.
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.