Before I visited the Kargil War Memorial at Drass, Tiger Hill, Tololing Hill were mere names for me associated with the 1999 Kargil War. Only when I stood in the shadow of Tololing Hill I realized how close it is to the road. Hell, it is right across the Srinagar Leh Highway NH 1D! The battle was fought that close to the city!
Pause for a moment and think about the altitude at which the war was fought. Tiger Hill at its peak is 5307 meters high. If you watch the documentary screened in the audio visual room at the war memorial, you can see at what great heights the entire battle was fought. I have been above 5000 meters only once in my life, when I was trekking to the Everest Base Camp. And I know what it feels like, just to walk at that altitude!
Kargil War Memorial is situated on the Srinagar Leh Highway. Kargil was my base where I was staying with the Axis Dil Se team. The War Memorial is about 60 Kilometers from Kargil, and 8 km from Drass. At the entrance you are required to show an ID proof. For us, they let us go in with one ID in the group. There is no entry fee to visit the memorial.
The War Memorial is right below the Tololing Hill. At its heart are the Amar Jawan Jyoti and the Wall of Heroes. When I looked at the size of the wall and the names inscribed, the enormity of the war dawned upon me. Such a staggering number of young lives were lost … It is not that I was not aware of it before, but at Drass it was staring me right in my face. I am not prone to goosebumps easily, nor do I like to put on sunglasses on my eyes.
But at the Kargil War Memorial, I was wearing my shades inside the Manoj Pandey Gallery too. The Gallery depicts the story of young people, people mostly in their twenties, who lost their life in the war. It is that age when the rest of the world posts weird photos on Facebook and tells the world they are trying to find their true calling. At that age people passionately debate the meaning of ‘freedom’ from their comfortable living rooms. It was that age these young people in uniform were defending the nation with their lives!
While walking out I read the words of John Maxwell Edmonds itched on the gate “When you go home, tell them of us and say, for their tomorrow we gave our today.” What it doesn’t say is how young they were when they died!
My taxi driver Ahmed mentioned, “madam when you go back, do write about us, about Kargil and tell them it is a safe place. People think of Kargil only in relation to the war. It is not true.” And yet war, in some sense, is Kargil’s identity too.
Talk to the locals and they will tell you that army and civilians have cordial relationship in Kargil. Another taxi driver told me, “People of Kargil serve the army, they work with the army”. It is said that the locals informed the army of infiltration in 1999 as they saw strangers buying rations in the local markets. The people of Kargil proudly tell you, “you cross the Zojila Pass and it is different world out here.” I agree with them! I wonder what it is about Kargil that is so different from Kashmir!
Even though this was my first fourth visit to Ladakh, it was my first trip to Kargil. I was traveling with the Axis Dil Se team. Axis Bank along with 17 Thousand ft Foundation provided playground and library to more than 100 government schools in the Ladakh. The region has two districts Leh and Kargil. I travelled to the Kargil District. While my primary task was to experience the inaugurations at the schools, a travel blogger finds a way to explore the region. So here is an account of my sightseeing at Kargil.
Let me start at the video first! I think I can try making more videos of my travels!
The Kargil War Memorial at Drass
Visiting the Kargil War Memorial was a moving experience. Before standing in the shadow of it, Tololing Hill was just another name for me. We stopped at the memorial on our way to Drass Government Middle School.
The Manoj Pandey War Gallery is full of the photographs of the young martyrs. At the age when people post selfies on Facebook along with messages of ‘trying to find my true self’ these heroes had made the supreme sacrifice for the nation. While walking out I read the words of John Maxwell Edmonds itched on the gate “When you go home, tell them of us and say, for their tomorrow we gave our today” I am not prone to goosebumps easily but the Kargil War Memorial was one such experience.
They screen a movie on the Kargil War in the auditorium. If you can, do watch it. I would say also as a measure of respect do stay till the last names of the martyrs goes off the screen.
Walk through the Main Market at Kargil
The locals feel that Kargil saw development only after the Kargil War in 1999. They have cordial relationship with the army. They also feel that due to the war, Kargil has earned a reputation of being unsafe. They asked me to tell my friends that Kargil is safe and tourists are welcome. There are many places to explore in the vicinity.
While walking the local market alone, I did feel that people were curious about me. But no one, absolutely no one, bothered me in any which way. I walked for a while and then came a fork in the road.
A group of kids were sitting there. I asked them for the way to the river. One thing led to another and soon I was walking with them in their lane. And what fun we had. I find handing over my SLR to them a great ice breaker! My only instruction is to put the strap around their neck. That way if they accidently drop the camera, it will not fall. As the kids were playing with me, adults would join in too! I knew then that I was in a friendly place.
While going back I went inside a shop and asked for a biscuit. They told me it was local stuff, and I need not pay for it, I could taste it. They warned me it was savoury, not sweet. I insisted that I would pay and then eat. I prevailed in the end!
Soon I was heading back to my hotel, The Kargil, for dinner and an early night!
About 11 kilometres away from Kargil is the ghost town of Hundarman. It came into India’s possession post 1972 war. There is a museum nearby but we reached a little before 5.00 in the evening, which is the closing time. We could not find it. Mr. Anup Kalsy from Axis Bank is an avid motorcyclist and I was lucky to go pillion with him to the village.
The road leading to the village is narrow but there was no traffic. There is an army check post a little above the road and a habited village above it. Beyond it lies the high watch towers of the Indian Army.
On our way back, we stopped at the tea shop, where you can rent binoculars and take a look into the neighbouring Pakistani Village. I used my zoom lens instead.
Kargil is on the way to Zanskar Valley. The landscapes of the surrounding villages are stunning. We went to Namsuru Valley for a school inauguration for Axis Dil Se. On the way I could see the Nun Peak of the famous Nun and Kun Twin Peaks of Kashmir. Nun and Kun are the highest peaks of Kashmir. I could not explore the village much due to lack of time but I am glad I caught a glimpse at least.
Maiterya Buddha at the Mulbek Monastery
Maiterya Buddha at the Mulbek Monastery is located on the Kargil Leh Road. The giant rock statue of Maiterya Buddha is said to carved in 1st century BC, during the Kushan period. There is a small monastery next to the statue. I strongly recommend that you stop here on the way.
There are a few dhabas on the opposite side of the road. We sat for lunch in one of them. The young man who runs it speaks impeccable English and holds a degree in Tourism Management! They made scrunchy pyaz paratha too!
I got only fleeting glimpses of Kargil this time. But I surely wish to go back to the region and explore more. I definitely wish to go beyond to the Zanskar Valley too.
I have a personal bond with Ladakh, this blog came into being because of our trip to Ladakh, way back in 2005. Little did I know that one day I would quit my full time job as a professor and do full time blogging. I traveled for the fourth time to Ladakh for the Axis Dil Se project.
Axis Bank along with 17 Thousand ft Foundation funded more than 100 government schools under the Axis Dil Se project. The endeavour was to bring a playground and a reading room for the kids for selected schools. I attended the inauguration function at two schools at Drass and Namsuru in the Kargil District. It was my pleasure to be a part of the excitement generated by the kids for this unique project. Axis Bank had a team on the ground which consisted of business leaders and young management trainees.
But let me start at the beginning and for Leh, it has to be the landing at the Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport.
The Landing at Leh
If you are flying into Leh, chances are you already know that the best views are on the A side windows and while coming back, it is the F side window you clamor for! Flying over the Karakoram Range is an experience you never get tired of. This was my third landing at Leh, the first visit being a road trip, and I was still glued to the window!
Beautiful Roads in Ladakh
In Ladakh the journey is the destination. I visited various tourist attractions, like the confluence, Spituk Monastery, Hundarman etc. but it is the scenery along the road that holds me in thrall! If I could have it my way, I would stop the vehicle every few meters to click a picture. But as I could not have it my way, I could click nonstop from the moving vehicle.
Axis Dil Se is a Fabulous Project
The Axis Dil Se is a fabulous project as it aimed to provide much needed recreation and learning to young minds. I gathered from various discussions that people who can afford, send their kids to private schools in faraway places. So, any attempt to raise the standard of the village schools is to be appreciated as the kids don’t need to get separated from their family at a young age. Axis Dil Se along with 17 Thousand ft Foundation has tried to raise the standards throughout the Ladakh region.
Axis Bank’s business leaders along with young management trainees participated in the program. 17 Thousand ft Foundation also had a big team of local experts on the ground to support the project.
The Kids are Awesome
For me the biggest joy was interacting with the kids in their schools. The first school that I visited was the Government Middle School in Drass. The kids presented a fabulous cultural show. I could see the involvement of their teachers too! But what impressed me most was their laughter, they would roar in unison at the smallest thing, like a scuffle during the musical chair!
At the end of the program at Drass, the kids went to the playground! And their joy was obvious! Do watch the video to catch a glimpse of it.
Namsuru is a beautiful village where I attended the second inauguration. Here too the kids put on a wonderful show. What impressed me most that the girls had already taken out the books from the library and reading it while watching the cultural show.
Going Home with Gratitude
Now that I am firmly back to my city life, I am reminded of how much I take for granted in this life. I, for sure, all my life took playgrounds and libraries for granted. I never thought of them as anything extra special. My daughter does the same. And then I remember the look on the face of kids while they came down a slide, or went up the swing, and I think how blessed are they who laugh readily, who do not really understand pollution or daily traffic jams.
The kids from Kargil reminded me to feel grateful at what I have, rather than constantly crib!