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.
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.
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.
54 thoughts on “Travel and backpack through Kargil and Suru valley”
Nice article with beautiful pictures. Thank you for sharing.
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Nicely written article n great pictures. Kargil is also part of ladakh geographical. The official boundary of ladakh starts from zogila pass and kargil, zanskar, suru Valley, drass etc are all part of ladakh region. You are already in ladakh once you pass zogila pass.Ladakh is the whole geographical area comprising leh and kargil district and some areas under illegal occupation of china and Pakistan.And you don’t need to go further to b in ladakh once you pass zogila or you are in Suru Valley or in Zanskar Valley!!
So this was their palace in Kartse Khar.
Hehe, I will try and look up some old books tomorrow. Meanwhile, this is what I found in one research paper : Over 400 years ago, according to Francke, the “Duke” of Khaplu, Ali Mir, married his daughter Gyal Khatoon, to the Ladakhi (Buddhist) ruler Jamyang Namgyal.
Isn’t this incredibly interesting ! I wish to go on a ‘khar’ seeing spree across the trans Himalayas! There is so much history scattered everywhere.
Yeah, there is so much that we do not know about these regions! ‘Khar’ hopping trip this summer?
Hahhahaa, you know my answer will always be ‘chaloooo!’
Out of this world! What photographs. Literally epic stuff. And I do believe that Kartse Khar does have an ancient fort. ‘Khar’ stands for fort and there’s an interesting legend I’ve heard about this place.
Slow claps. Cant wait to travel with you guys someday.
There was a biggish structure in the village, a little away from the Buddha statue. The locals excitedly took us around to show it to us. They however, were calling it a palace. It was pretty dilapidated. Maybe that was also the fort? Had no idea that “Khar” meant fort!
Palace or Fort. 🙂
Visited Suru Valley last month and experienced the beauty of Nature…… had very close look at Nun Kun. Weather was very pleasant (Trees were still in Autumn mood and Sun was welcoming Winter). Hired a Maruti Omni and started off from Kargil at 9 in the morning and it was 6pm by the time we got back to the hotel. Driver was a very nice gentleman who explained almost everything in detail about the place and invited us to his home for Tea. Thank you again Mr & Mrs. Chetan for the making us explore this beautiful place…. Our Camera was full of smiles and had no words on the beautiful valley…
Hello Mohameed Ateeq, we are trying to imagine the golden colours of fall in the Suru valley and it just wants to make us go there right away! Thank you so much for sharing your experience. We are delighted that your travel to Suru valley turned out great. We were a little unsure about travelling in October. Glad you didn’t face any weather issues! Do share some pictures with us if you can. Happy travels!
Kargil brings so many upsetting memories back. It’s hard to not think of the war when thinking of the city. This reminds me of a residential student from school days who came from Kargil and went back home once in many years. Hearing about their life back home in Kargil was fascinating like nothing else. I can only imagine your experience in this area. Love the pictures!
Great work Mr. Chetan…… your post, supported by your photography is stimulating me and my wife from inside to explore the place….. will be visiting Suru and Zanskar in Mid October… hope good weather welcomes us since we will have 2 kids with us……
Happy travels to you and your family. October will be much colder in Zanskar than when we went in August in the peak of summer. Hope your kids are old enough to recognise and inform the adults of any high altitude uneasiness if they feel any.
Great post! It makes me want to visit and explore Suru Valley. Thank you for all these valuable tips.
Hey Moon, thanks! Suru valley is this beautiful little hidden from the tourist eyes place. And so easy to travel to from Kargil!
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.
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.
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
Hello Rohit, we will have a look. Thanks for sharing.
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?
With public transport, 3 days should be enough and if you are driving then 2 days. You can think of one night halt at Parkachik before heading to Zanskar.
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
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.
good to have in our region sir , hope u ppl come again some time
Of course Mazu, one visit is not enough to see everything 🙂
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 …
Thank you, Subhodeep!
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. 🙂
It was one of our (more towards THE) best travel experiences till date! And thank you for you appreciation 🙂
Must have been a fantastic trek. Loved those houses in Sankoo… You must also write about the yummy food along the way 🙂
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 🙂
amazing pictures !
Thank you, Riccardo!
gorgeous and loved the life in those pictures 🙂
Thank you 🙂
wonderful pictures and narration…
Thank you, Archana!
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!
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!
Wonderfully documented. Superb pics!
Awesome travelogue… clicks are stunning 🙂
Thank you, Bushra! Glad you liked it.
Just read your post. Great.
Thanks for Awesome pics.
Thanks Rupam! The Suru valley is so quiet and untouched, photography is a delight!
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.
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!
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.
Yup, even we had no idea till we went there and suddenly people were telling us to go see the Buddha statue! Promoting “well” is the key word here!