Though it is surrounded by awesome scenery, most travellers don’t spend more than a few hours in KARGIL, capital of the area dubbed “Little Baltistan”, which rises in a clutter of corrugated-iron rooftops from the confluence of the Suru and Drass rivers. As a halfway point between Leh and Srinagar, its grubby hotels fill up at night with weary bus passengers, who then get up at 4am and career off under cover of darkness. Although the town has expanded several kilometres along and above the riverside, the central area around the main bazaar, which loops round into a northerly orientation, is very compact and walkable. Woolly-hatted and bearded old men and slick youngsters stroll the streets past old-fashioned wholesalers with their sacks of grains, spices and tins of ghee, Tibetans selling Panasonic electricals and butchers displaying severed goats’ heads on dusty bookshelves. The town feels more Pakistani than Indian, and the faces (nearly all male) and food derive from Kashmir and Central Asia. Western women should keep their arms and legs covered and may arouse mild curiosity.
The majority of Kargil’s eighty thousand inhabitants, known as Purki, are strict Muslims. Unlike their Sunni cousins in Kashmir, however, the locals here are orthodox Shias, which not only explains the ubiquitous Ayatollah photographs, but also the conspicuous absence of women from the bazaar. You might even spot the odd black turban of an Agha, one of Kargil’s spiritual leaders, who still go on pilgrimage to holy sites in Iran and have outlawed male-female social practices such as dancing. Descendants of settlers and Muslim merchants from Kashmir and Yarkhand, Purkis speak a dialect called Purig – a mixture of Ladakhi and Balti.