We embarked on an epic drive from Bangalore to the Himalayas for six months in 2019, and one of the destinations we wanted to explore was Kargil. Kargil is generally visited by people only for the Kargil War Memorial, but when we researched, we found out that this destination had more to offer!
Leaving Srinagar under the cloak of darkness
The day we were supposed to leave was the third day of the curfew in Srinagar as a day ago, a tourist lost his life to stone pelting near Gulmarg. We were in that exact spot a day before the incident, and apart from this, Srinagar had been excellent to explore.
Safety hadn’t been an issue, even though we were driving our own out of state car. On 8th May 2018, we bid adieu to Srinagar at 5 am as we had been instructed by our hotel to leave early and cross Sonmarg as soon as possible.
The roads were excellent, and in no time, we had crossed Sonmarg, and by 11 am, we started our ascent to the Zojila pass. The greenery disappeared as the roads were flanked by massive ice walls on each side, and soon we were driving on snow.
The narrow ice-covered roads got challenging to drive on, and after being stuck in a jam for an hour, we crossed the pass, making good time towards the Kargil War Memorial, which was our first stop.
Visiting the Kargil War Memorial
The Kargil War Memorial has been built to honour the soldiers who fought bravely in the Kargil war against Pakistan. At the Kargil War Memorial house, one can see picture descriptions of the significant events that took place during the war and army personnel who lost their lives. Additionally, the memorial has a sandstone wall where the name of all the soldiers who died are inscribed. From the Kargil War Memorial, you can see Tiger Hill, which was one of the most strategic points during the war.
The experience is eerie; there is a sense of pride in reading about the sacrifices our people have made for the country, yet looking at the memorials, you are overwhelmed with feelings of bitterness.
Walking out of the Kargil War Memorial, we approached our car with heavy, slow steps. But the journey ahead was a long one, we had two more months to go, and Kargil was the next stop. Driving into Kargil town was a surreal experience, and we hadn’t expected the city to be lush green with a beautiful river flowing through it.
Kargil is a highly underappreciated destination, and people generally think of it as a stopover on the way to Leh. Sadly, when the tourists arrive in Kargil for the layover, all they get to see is a noisy, narrow street, with crumbling buildings on each side blocking the view to the surrounding mountains.
Our stay at Hotel The Kargil
But this is a good thing as well since when we were there, we didn’t spot a single tourist! In the bustling Main Market Area is the posh Hotel The Kargil, probably the best hotel in the region and home of Bollywood stars when they shoot in the locality. The owner, Mr. Zaheer, was there to greet us; we had been corresponding on emails for a couple of months and were excited to meet each other.
The hotel feels like an oasis in the old, crowded Kargil town, and inside the premises, you experience a different world altogether. With beautifully whitewashed buildings, landscaped gardens, and all modern amenities, it provides for all the creature comforts you look for while traveling to offbeat destinations.
The plush rooms are very comfortable, providing you with gorgeous views of the old town flanked by tall mountains. The service and food is top-notch, and we appreciated the home-cooked taste we experienced in the in-house restaurant.
The next day Mr. Zaheer offered to take us to the village of Hunderman, which was abandoned and is nestled amidst the jagged peaks of Kargil. This village is now home to a unique ‘Museum of Memories’ that documents the life of border families. The town has since been a part of the two countries.
Between 1947 and 1971, it was a part of Pakistan before it was taken into Indian control during the 1971 war in Gilgit-Baltistan. Many villagers of Hunderman’s residents fled to Pakistan, while the ones who chose to stay behind became Indian citizens overnight.
We were amazed looking at the houses which were 100’s of years old and made of stones and mud. The villagers, while evacuating their homes, left their identity cards, their money, utensils, and so many daily needs behind that they now have become a part of the museum.
Watching Pakistani soldiers wave at us!
On the way back to the hotel, Zaheer also made us stop at a point from where you can see the Pakistan border, including their forces and their bunkers with the help of binoculars. We saw the Pakistan forces walking up and down the area and also saw some civilians going into a mosque. The striking thing is that there is no visible border; no fences, no barbed wires. Yet both sides seem to know where the boundary is!
We wanted to take some pictures, but since it’s a sensitive area, photography is not allowed. But through the binoculars, we saw one person from the Pakistani force waving at us; a couple of them were also observing our movements. What a spectacular moment it was. I had never experienced such a thing in my life, and today has been a beautiful day, for I can only Thank God for bringing us here and showing stuff I could never imagine.
Visiting the stone carved Buddha Status
After a quick lunch, we went towards Chamba through some beautiful stretch surrounded by green trees on both sides and a blue river flowing next to it. We were told that we would find an old and large Buddha sculpture on the rocks or Chamba, which people are not aware of.
Since the place is not on maps, we took some local kids with us to help us spot the location. After a 5-minute walk along a small canal, we finally reached a massive stone wall with the buddha statue carved into it. It’s truly a unique spot, and since tourists have no desecrated the place, it’s worth a visit. Oh, and there is another such statue in Lamayuru.
We spent almost an hour in Chamba, and then we drove to Nunkun-a snow-peaked mountain completely covered in snow. It looked like vanilla ice cream without a cherry on top. What a mesmerizing view that was. I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of the day!
The drive to Batalik
The next day we were heading to Batalik to know more about the Kargil War. Driving through rough patches of road and, even no roads, we reached a small village with limited houses. Civilians are not allowed to enter the town after a certain point, but the locals outside are there to tell you a lot about what happened during the war.
We sat there for hours listening to the stories of a few locals who witnessed the war and the destruction that it brought along. Sadly, this was our last day in Kargil, and we spent the evening in Hotel The Kargil, chatting up with Mr. Zaheer, who had more stories to share! Our stay had been memorable. The warm cosy rooms and the delicious food was exactly what we needed to make this trip completed and Hotel The Kargil delivered on all fronts!
Places to visit in Kargil apart from the Kargil War Memorial
This is a village that has truly faced an identity crisis! Since its existence, it has been part of India and then Pakistan several times, and during the Kargil War, it was deserted and now stands as a ghost town. The lifeless village, however, is flanked by lush green vegetable, a small dazzling stream, and a cover of picture-perfect blue skies.
The Hunderman town is now a museum, and you can spend a couple of hours exploring the houses, fields, and remnants of the once, populated place. Apart from the Kargil War Memorial, you will find many interesting artifacts here.
Suru Valley is blessed with grand Rocky Mountains on one side and lustrous green fields on the other. Suru Valley is a must-visit place, and it is stored with major tourist attractions. With two peaks that praise each other’s beauty, Nun peak stands at 7135 metres, and Kun peak stands at 7035 meters, giving it a mighty yet attractive appearance.
Suru Valley occupies Sanku, Panikhar, Rangdum, and all three give an awe-inspiring destination to visit. Sankoo is a small town located 40 km south of Kargil. This place has a mix of Turkish and Tibetan architecture style houses.
Pensi La Lake
At an elevation of 4,400 meters, Pensi La is a mountain pass that’s the gateway to Padum, the headquarters of the Zanskar sub-division of Kargil district. From Pensi La, an individual can catch the stunning view of the glacial lake, the Suru River valley, and the Drang Drung Glacier.
Batalik is a town in Ladakh, India, located on the upper reaches of the Indus river. It has been a focal point in the Kargil War because of its strategic location between Kargil, Leh, and Baltistan. Operation Safed Sagar, 1971 and the Kargil war, 1999 were both fought in this region. You can read more about this in the Kargil War Memorial.
Sani Monastery is situated towards the west of Padum, on the road that leads to Kargil. This monastery is a significant shrine of the Drukpa Kagyupa School of Tibetan Buddhism and belongs to its southern branch. A unique thing about this monastery is that it has been constructed in different parts over several centuries. While the chorten inside this monastery belongs to the 2nd century, its assembly hall is believed to be built during the early years of the 17th century.
Rangdum is in a valley situated 3,657 m (11,998 ft) above the sea level, in an isolated region of the Suru valley in the union territory of Ladakh in Northern India. On one side are the colorful hills while, on the other hand, are rocky mountains and glaciers, notably Drang-drung.
Rangdum, with its gompa and the attendant village of Juliodok, is the last inhabited region in the Suru valley; it is also the destination of the nomadic herds people called Bakarwals, who trek up every year from the Himalayan foothills near Jammu, bringing their flocks of sheep and goats to grow fat on the abundant summer growth of grass.
Dzongkhul Monastery or Zongkhul Gompa is located in the Stod Valley of Zanskar in Jammu and Kashmir in northern India. Like the Sani Monastery, it belongs to the Drukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. Dzongkhul has traditionally been home to famous yogins. It is situated near the foot of a wide valley, which leads to the pass known as the Umasi-la, which joins Zanskar and Kishtwar.
Known for its two Gompas that belong to the Drukpa and Gelugpa sects, respectively, the Mulbekh Monastery is one of the most important places to see near Kargil. The monastery is situated at an elevation of 3,304 meters. It is indeed a remarkable piece of artistry that maintains a carved nine meters tall statue of Maitreya Buddha, which is said to be overlooking the old trade route and the present-day highway. The statue is also called Chamba and is believed to have been built around 8th century AD.
Best time to visit Kargil
The best time to visit Kargil is during the summers when the days are a little warm and nights are pleasant. This is also the time when the highway connecting Kargil, Leh, and Srinagar is open to tourists and traveling by road is fairly comfortable. From March to July the summers bless the destination with clear blue skies, warm sunshine and greenery all over.
Monsoons arrive in July and last till the end of September. This is not a good time to travel through Kargil as there might be instances of landslides and road damage. You will also not be able to spend a good deal of time outdoors due to the rain.
After September, winter starts to creep in but the weather is still fine. After this, the months from October to February are avoided due to the extreme cold weather. The temperature drops down to as low as minus 42-degree Celsius. Moreover, roads are also closed due to snow fall.
How to reach Kargil
The airport in Srinagar is the nearest airport to Kargil (approximately 204 kilometres) that is well-connected to major Indian cities like New Delhi, Jammu, Leh, Chandigarh, Amritsar, Mumbai, Indore and Bangalore. Major airline carriers like Jet Airways, IndiGo, Spice Jet, Air India and GoAir have excellent connectivity and regular flights to Srinagar Airport. Once you reach the airport, you can either hire a cab or a board a bus to reach Kargil.
You can board daily buses from Srinagar and Leh which are 204 and 234 kilometres respectively from Kargil. The bus fare depends upon the type of bus you choose- regular or deluxe but the charge will be quite nominal.
The nearest railway station to Kargil is in Jammu which is approximately 540 kilometres away from the town. You can take private taxi services, jeeps or mini coaches that are available for hire outside the railway station. This station is linked to most of the Indian cities like Delhi, Chennai, Pune, Kolkata, Mumbai and Trivandrum.
Some of the trains that ply from here are New Delhi-Jammu Tawi Rajdhani Express, Uttar S Kranti, Jhelum Express, Mumbai Central-Jammu Tawi Swaraj Express, Himgiri Express, and Himsagar Express.
For adventure lovers around the world, hitting the road to Kargil can be a dream drive. Kargil can be easily reached by roadways via national highway 1D. (Srinagar to Leh route cuts through Kargil and the Kargil military airport). You can get taxi services to reach Kargil from other places in Ladakh, Srinagar and Manali.