Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh during his recent visit to Kargil disclosed that the Government of India was taking up the opening of Kargil-Skardu route with the Government of Pakistan. Such a step will not only be a revival of the ancient “Silk Route” but would give a tremendous fillip to “Adventure Tourism” in entire Ladakh. From earliest times this route (which was taken to be a branch of famous “Silk Route”) has been one of the most important trade links of this area with Yarqand, Kashgar and other Central Asian Commercial Centres. The route takes off near the junction of Drass and Suru rivers at Kharul in the vicinity of Hardas, about 3 kilometres short of Kargil town by crossing the Harka Bahadur Bridge. It follows the left side of the river and crosses Line of Control at Post 43 near Hundarman and thence goes through Gangani, Belargo up to junction of Suru and Indus rivers at Marol. It further goes along Indus River crossing Bagicha, Tolti, Parkuta, Mehdi Abad and Gol near the junction of Indus and Shyok rivers. From here it goes straight on to Skardu, the capital of Baltistan. The total distance being 155 kilometres which is the shortest distance from Kargil to a major town with a jet airfield (Boeing 737 lands in Skardu). The entire route is at present suitable for 4-wheel drive vehicles and may need some widening for a small stretch of half a kilometre near LOC. The route remains open throughout the year and can be a year round road access for entire Ladakh.
Both the Pakistani side of Ladakh known as Northern Areas as well as the entire Kargil district have extensive potential for development of “Adventure Tourism”, such as Mountaineering, Rock-Climbing, Trekking, Mountain Biking, Rafting, Kayaking and a host of other such activities. In addition, there are numerous routes for high altitude “Jeep Safaris”. The potential is much greater and diverse on the Pakistani side. As the Vice-President of Indian Mountaineering Foundation, I had the privilege of visiting Northern Areas as a guest of the Alpine Club of Pakistan. Having visited entire Ladakh on our side before going to Northern Areas, the contrast to me seemed dramatic in many areas. The average altitude of valleys is much lower, in many instances well within the tree line. Massive glaciers descend to the roadside and where one can see dozens of pine trees around. Situated among barren mountains are some lush green valleys with pine forests. A combination of green Alpine scenery with stark Himalayan landscape. In contrast to this, on our side the average altitude is above tree line and we have mostly willows, poplars and fruit bearing trees along mountain streams in the valleys. The climate is also less harsh in these valleys of Northern Areas. World’s second highest mountain, K-2 (Mount Godwin Austin) and the bloodiest mountain Nanga Parbat are here. There are hundreds of other peaks, glaciers and rock faces. On an average, about 150 foreign mountaineering expeditions and over 10,000 trekkers visit these areas every year. Skardu has a beautiful resort of Shangri La. Recently Shigar Fort has been converted by Aga Khan Foundation into a luxury Hotel of 300 $ a night. During last few years, young Pakistanis have also started visiting the area for taking part in adventure sports like trekking and climbing.
Kargil has similar potential in Suru and Zanskar valleys. The Nun-Kun massif has been a great attraction for foreign mountaineers prior to 1999 conflict when the Ministry of Defence closed the area. Even though the area was again opened a couple of years back, the traffic has yet to pick up. The entire road journey from Kargil to Padam is one of the most dramatic mountain drives. Glaciers of Nun-Kun descend right up to the road near Parkachik and Drang Drung Glacier near Pensi La with Z-8 peak above it is one of the most wonderful sights on the route. However, the number of visitors to these spots has been very limited due to cumbersome and annoying approach. The road journey from Srinagar to Kargil across Zoji La is quite tiring and annoying due to odd convoy timings. The disturbed image of the valley projected by the media to the outside world has also been a serious restraint for foreigners. The journey from Manali is very long and tough, more than 650 kilometres. The nearest approach open throughout the year is from Skardu. With an improved road one can cover the distance in less than 4 hours. One of the most annoying experiences for people visiting remote mountain areas for Adventure Tourism is to retrace their route for going out after finishing their adventure activities. Most of the trekkers prefer to take an open circuit. They would like to have different routes for going in and out from such areas. If the Kargil-Skardu link is opened for two way traffic for tourism, it will straightaway double the figure of tourists on both sides. In addition, the traditional trade and commerce, which had been carried on during the days of famous Silk Route right up to China and beyond, can be revived. This is the only route apart from Leh-Lahasa link across Demchok, which remains open throughout the year and is all through on a much lower altitude.
There is a strong urge on the two sides of the LOC for getting this route opened for both locals as well as foreign tourists. Last December four members of BAATO, the Baltistan Association of Adventure Tour Operators, were invited to the Annual Convention of the Indian Association of Adventure Tour Operators held at New Delhi. They had a very positive interaction and proposed opening of this route as well as a trial Jeep Expedition starting from Leh to Kargil-Skardu-Khaplu-Turtuk-Deskit and thence ending at Leh. This would be a 15-day circular trip. The members of BAATO also met Mr.Thupsten Chewang, MP from Leh and Mr.Rigzin Spalbar, the Chief Executive Councillor of Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Leh. Subsequently, I was invited by BAATO to Islamabad to meet their members as well as some Councillors from Northern Areas. All of them were keen for opening of this route. They submitted a detailed proposal on the subject to President Pervez Musharraf. As per the latest information, the proposal is under active consideration of the Pakistan Ministry of Tourism. On the Indian side, a proposal for the trial expedition was submitted to late Mr.Sunil Dutt, the then Minister of Youth and Sports, who was himself very keen to participate in it. However, his sudden demise gave a set back to the venture.
There is an interesting human angle to this route. The entire belt is populated by Baltis who have strong social and cultural links. It is said that in 1948, the Pakistan Army had penetrated up to Padam in Zanskar Valley where they stayed for about six months. They were popularly called the “Padam Party”. The Indian Army was at Karsha in the same Valley. After the ceasefire, the UN Observers arranged a safe passage for the Pakistan Army to their side of the Line of Control. While departing, the Pak Army took few hundred young men from Padam with them who are now settled in Skardu area. They have all their relations on this side of the border and the only meeting point for them is the holy city of Makkah in Saudi Arabia. The two sides coincide their visits to the holy places for Hajj or Umrah to see each other.
Now that the Prime Minister has taken cognisance of the importance of this link, it is hoped that the same would be thrown open both for locals as well tourists soon. To begin with, both the Governments could give clearance for a joint jeep safari trial expedition by Adventure Tour Operators from Ladakh and Baltistan. This would be a well worth CBM.