The North Indian region of Ladakh is home to the country’s highest mountains, including the magnificent Himalayan Range. With dozens of peaks, it’s a trekker’s paradise and a region I’ve been excited to visit for many years.
After exploring Kashmir for a few weeks, including our wonderful trek in the Great Lakes region, we caught a shared jeep from Sonamarg to Kargil, crossing from Kashmir into Ladakh en route. Just outside Sonamarg the road started climbing over the 3528m Zoji La pass on a windy, often single – lane dirt track that’s been blasted out of the mountain. With a pretty big drop on one side, it’s an equally exhilarating and nerve wracking drive. Thankfully we seemed to have a cautious Ladakhi driver who seemed to be more patient than his Kashmiri neighbours, so it wasn’t quite as frightening as it might have been!
There were a number of marvelous signs en route encouraging responsible driving. From the driving we’ve seen they’re definitely not achieving their desired aim but regardless, they’re great fun and a few of our favourites include:
^ Be soft on my curves
^ Driving risky after whisky
^ Speed is a knife that cuts life
^ Speed thrills but kills
As we crossed from Kashmir into Ladakh the landscape changed from lush and green to desert and rocks. We continued following the Dras river through the Dras Valley and some five hours after leaving Sonamarg we arrived in Kargil – Ladakh’s second largest city. We enjoyed our first cup of Indian coffee at the Roots Cafe and discovered Kargil’s important history as a trading post on the caravan route at the Central Asian Museum.
The following morning we caught our first local bus to the small village of Panikhar, an oasis of green in the rocky Suru Valley. Initially we thought we’d head over the pass in the afternoon but having stumbled on the delightful Hotel Khayoul we decided to stay the night.
Once the afternoon was a little cooler, we went for a walk from behind the hotel through the meadow full of wildflowers and up the hill. We thought it would be an gentle stroll but 90 minutes of uphill later we were finally at the summit (3758 m). The views were wonderful and an ample reward for our efforts; in front of us were a number of beautiful Himalayan peaks, with snowy Nun (7135 m) dominating the landscape, while to our left we looked over lush Panikhar and across the expansive, rocky valley. As the sun was setting we made our way back for a lovely dinner, more delicious chai and a comfy night’s sleep.
We were up early and after a yummy breakfast, we headed over the Panikhar La pass to Parkichek. We eventually found the zig – zagging path and it was a steeper and longer climb than appeared. We enjoyed stunning views from the summit as we were now right in front of the peaks. We took a path of sorts down the mountain to the tiny village and found the very welcoming tourist hut.
We spent the afternoon reading in the sun and enjoying many cups of tea. Dinner was rice and delicious dal and we were in bed very early after a tiring few days.
The bus ride back to Kargil the following morning was fun and games with a sheer drop to one side and recent rock fall on the other. Sitting towards the bank of the bus made for a particularly bumpy ride but thankfully the ceiling was nice and high so we didn’t hit our heads when we were thrown out of our seats!
We arrived back in Kargil rather knackered having probably underestimated the walks a little (and perhaps our legs were still tired from trekking in Kashmir). The views were completely worth the trip and not only is it a magnificent setting, it’s also very accessible and affordable.
How to get there
We headed to the bus station in Sonamarg just before 8 and didn’t have to wait more than 45 minutes for a shared jeep to Kargil (we had breakfast across the road and they gave us a shout when one was going).
There are two government buses a day from Kargil to Panikhar. They currently leave from the four-way junction in town and we caught the morning bus which left around 7.30 (it has filled up by 7) and took four hours.
There is one bus a day from Parkichek to Kargil. It leaves from the bustling main street and we were there for 6.30 (it left a few minutes before 7).
Where we stayed
Panikhar – Hotel Khayoul. I’m not sure there’s too many options and this hotel was really lovely. The family were very friendly and the food was delicious.
Parkichek – J&K Government Tourism Alpine Hut
Costs (£1=INR 90)
- Shared jeep to Kargil – INR 600/person
- Bus to Panikhar – INR 80/person
- Bus from Parkichek – INR 112/person
- Kargil accommodation – INR 700
- Panikhar Accommodation, Lunch, Dinner, Breakfast and Chai – INR 960
- Parkichek Accommodation, Lunch, Dinner and Chai – INR 850