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-time 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.

While Kargil has no attractions, it is an atmospheric place to pass a day or more while waiting for a bus to Zanskar. 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; those walking around alone will probably encounter both giggling teenage boys and curious elderly Kargili gentlemen.

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. Indeed, had it not been for the daring Indian reconquest of the region during the 1948 Indo-Pak War, Kargil would today be part of Baltistan, the region across the Ceasefire Line which it closely resembles. Indeed, Kargil is so close to the Ceasefire Line and Pakistani positions that it served as the logistics centre in the 1999 war (see The road to peace?) and was repeatedly targeted by Pakistani artillery. Aside from the odd building destroyed, however, much of the town escaped unscathed as the army bases and airport lie on the outskirts
of town. Since further conflict in the summer of 2002 the dust has settled markedly and, as dialogue continues between India
and Pakistan on Kashmir, tourist numbers have been
steadily increasing.