Kargil (2704 m), 204 kms from Srinagar in the west and 234 kms from Leh in the east, is the second largest urban centre of Ladakh and headquarters of the district of same name. A quiet town now, Kargil once served as an important trade and transit centre in the Pan-Asian trade network. Numerous caravans carrying exotic merchandise comprising silk, brocade, carpets, felts, tea, poppy, ivory etc. transited in the town on their way to and from China, Tibet, Yarkand and Kashmir. The old Bazar displayed a variety of Central Asian and Tibetan commodities even after the cessation of the Central Asian trade in 1949 till these were exhausted about two decades back. Similarly the ancient trade route passing through the township was lined with several caravanserais. Now, since 1975, travellers of numerous nationalities have replaced traders of the past and Kargil has regained its importance as a centre of travel-related activities. Being located in the centre of a Himalayan region with tremendous potentials for adventure activities, Kargil serves as an important base for adventure tours in the heart of the Himalayas. It is also the take-off station for visitors to the exotic Zanskar Valley. Tourists travelling between Srinagar and Leh have to make a night halt here before starting the second leg of their journey.
The town lies nestling along the rising hillsides of the lower Suru basin. Two tributaries of the Suru river that meet here are the Drass and the Wakha.
The land available along the narrow valley as also the rising hillsides are intensively cultivated in neat terraces to grow barley, wheat, peas, a variety of vegetables and other cereals. Thick plantations of poplars and willows besides apricot, apple and mulbery trees adorn the valley bottom and the hills alike. The town alongwith the adjoining villages form a rich oasis against the backdrop of the undulating lunar mountainscape. Kargil is famous for the fine apricots grown here. In May the entire countryside becomes awash with fragrant white apricot blossoms while in August, the ripening fruit lends it an orange hue.
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Drass Suru Valley
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What to see and do:
Kargil mainly serves as an ideal base station for adventure activities like trekking, mountaineering, camping, river rafting etc. in the high Himalayan Valleys. It is also a base for taking shorter excursions to Mulbek where the chief attraction is a 9 metre high rock sculpture depicting the future Buddha. Similarly, day-long excursions can be taken to the Suru Valley to behold the gradually unfolding panorama of the Great Himalayan Range. Enroute falls the picturesque Imambara of Trespone (25 km) perched atop a hillock and reflecting a unique mix of Saracenic and Tibetan elements in its architecture and positioning. Kargil also offers some interesting walks along the river bank and up the hillside. The best among these is the one leading to Goma Kargil along a 2-km long winding road which, passing through some of the most picturesque parts of the town, presents breathtaking views of the mountainscape that unfolds as one ascends alongside and across a tumbling mountian stream. It is best taken in the afternoon as the setting sun plays its magic with the different hues and shades of the hills in view. A shorter walk involves crossing the Suru River over an old wooden bridge to reach the ancient village of Poyen and then following the banks of the Wakha upstream. A very good view of the tiered and terraced township, sweeping down the hillside across, can be had from here.
A stroll in the bazaar might lead to a shop selling flint and tobacco pouches, travelling hookahs and brass kettles - handcrafted items of everyday use which find their way into the mart as curios. Most shops deal in common consumer goods, but some specialize in trekking provisions. The showroom of the Government Industries Centre near the river bank displays and sells Pashmina shawls, local carpets and other woollen handicrafts. The apricot jam produced here serves as a rare delicacy. Kargil's dry apricot has now become a souvenir item which can be purchased freely in the bazaar.
The best time to stroll in the bazaar is the late afternoon when there is less traffic and people of all types throng it. You may even brush shoulders with one of the `Minaros' (or Brokpas), a tribe that is said to be descended from the army of Alexander of Macedonia. A strictly endogamous tribe that still practises its own ancient rites and rituals, the Brokpas are recognizable by their dress of un-dyed woollen tunic with the edge adorned with geometric designs and a hat heavily bedecked with dry flowers, rows of needles, ribbons etc.
Mulbek Chamba: The chief attraction of Mulbek is a 9-metre high rock sculpture in deep relief of Maitreya, the Future Budha. Its execution combines esoteric Shaivite symbolism with early Budhist art. Situated right on the highway, it dates back to the period when Budhist missionaries came travelling east of the Himalayas.
Mulbek Gompa: Perched atop a rocky cliff, the Mulbek Gompa (monastery) dominates the valley. It is easy to see why in bygone times this site served as an outpost to guard the caravan route. Like all Budhist monasteries it is adorned by frescoes and statues.
Shergol: Another picturesque village of the Wakha River valley, Shergol is situated across the river, right of the Kargil-Leh road. The main attraction is a cave monastery which is visible from afar as a white speck against the vertically rising ochre hill from which it appears to hang out. Below this small monastery is a larger Budhist nunnery with about a dozen incumbents. The village is accessible by a motorable road that branches off from the Kargil-Leh road, about 5 km short of Mulbek. Shergol is a convenient base for an exciting 4-day trek across the mountain range into the Suru Valley. It is also the approach base for visiting Urgyan-Dzong, a meditation retreat lying deep inside the mountains surrounding the Wakha River valley.
Urgyan Dzong: This meditation retreat lies tucked away in an amazing natural mountain fortress high up in the Zanskar Range. Concealed within is a circular table land with a small monastic establishment at its centre. The surrounding hillsides reveal several caves where high ranking Budhist saints meditated in seclusion. At least one such cave is associated with the visit of Padmasambhava, the patron saint of Tibetan Budhism. The main approach is a foot path laid through the only gap available in the rocky ramparts.
Wakha Rgyal: Tucked away inside the picturesque upper part of the Wakha Valley, upstream of Mulbek, Rgyal gives the appearance of a medieval settlement of cave dwellings transported into the modern times with some improvements and extensions. The houses, neatly white-washed and closely stacked, are dug into the sheer face of a vertical cliff that rises high above the green valley bottom. From a far the village looks like a colony of beehives hanging from the ochre granite of the cliffside. A small monastery, similarly constructed into the granite cliffside. A small monastery, similarly constructed into the granite cliffside, occupies the top of this exclusively Budhist village. Breathtaking views of undulating ochre hills crowned by rocky peaks can be had from the plateau above the village which is the terminal point of a 5-km long rough road linking Rgyal with the highway near Mulbek.
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Information: Courtesy Govt of India
Editor: Romola Butalia   (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.