Kargil, the second town of Ladakh, is situated on the Suru River just short of its confluence with the Dras-shingo. Almost equidistant, at a little over 200-km from Leh, Srinagar, Padum in Zanskar and Skardu, the capital of Baltistan, it was in the old days the centre of a network of routes joining these places. Since Partition, Skardu has been lost to Ladakh, but Kargil remains the main staging-point between Srinagar and Leh, and the Gateway to the Suru valley and Zanskar .
The Suru valley, a greatly underrated part of Ladakh, runs for about 140-km from Kargil up to the base of the Penzi-la pass into Zanskar . Although immobilized in winter by heavy snowfall, its fields, watered by streams fro the surrounding mountains, produce rich crops of wheat and barely. Traditionally, it has been an area surplus in foodgrains.
Irrigation water is plentiful enough to allow the plantation of thick stands of willow and poplar, giving the area lushness rare in Ladakh. About halfway along its length, the river loops its way past a huge mound of alluvium, the last gasp of the Zanskar range, to carry on, past the glaciers of the Nun-kun massif to Rangdum, a Gompa on a hillock overlooking a wide marshy plain.
The lower portion of the valley, its immediate charms apart, offers spectacular views of Nun-Kun and its attendant peaks. Expeditions to it mostly take off from Panikhar, the village just short of the valley's right-angled turn, which is also the base for long treks in the direction of Kashmir and Kishtwar. Other trekking bases are Sanku, further down the valley, and Rangdum.
Two rivers, flowing towards each other along the northern flank of the Great Himalayas, meet in the broad plain of Padum . They become the Zanskar River, which flows off northwards through a gorge in the Zanskar range, to meet the Indus at Nimo. This T-Shaped complex of valleys is Zanskar, opened to motor traffic only in 1980 when a road was built via the Suru Valley and Rangdum and over the Penzi-la.
A Trekkers Paradise
Virtually untouched by the winds of change and modernization till then, Zanskar is now a favourite destination for trekkers. Padum is the centre for hard but rewarding treks to Manali via the Shingo-la (16,732 feet/5,100m); Kishtwar via the Umasi-la (17,828 feet/5,434m); and Lamayuru and Leh via difficult routes through the Zanskar range.
Zanskar is also known as a land of religion and has the greatest concentration of Gompas in Ladakh, outside the Indus Valley. The important ones are Sani, Karsha and Stongde in the central plain, Bardan and Phugtal just off the Padum-Manali trail, and the small hermitage of Dzonkhul on the way to the Umasi-la.