I arrive into Kargil late in the evening. The place is busy and a hive of activity. My mobile phone doesn’t work. It appears that Vodafone doesn’t have a tower in these parts and neither does it have a roaming agreement in place. I make a quick call home from an STD booth, take a decent room and walk around town.
Coming from the east, Kargil is definitely a place where the Buddhism of Ladakh is replaced with the Islam of Kashmir Valley. My immediate problem is cash. I am running out of cash. I need to find an ATM. Someone points me to an SBI ATM down a narrow side street. When I finally find it, I see that it is closed. Metal shutters are drawn across the doorway. A heavy lock hangs.
‘Why is the ATM closed?’ I ask the shopkeeper next door.
‘ATM closed some weeks ago due to security reasons,’ he replies.
Later, after more enquiries, I find an ATM of Jammu & Kashmir Bank. There is really no queue here. A crowd of four guys is inside the room, completely ignoring a notice that says only one person at a time. I get my turn. Thankfully my card works. I get the cash I need.
I have dinner at a decent restaurant. In fact, I am put up in a room across the road run by the restaurant owner. Dinner is rice, daal and sabji. It is a little oily; otherwise it is tasty and well-cooked. It is plain to see everywhere in Kargil that food is mostly meat and Muslims are in the majority. If you are looking for vegetarian restaurants you will not find any.
Apricots are in season and plenty of vendors offer it. I buy some pears for the evening and walk around the private taxi stand. Buses are rare to come by these days, what with the ongoing problems in the Kashmir Valley. The restaurants around this taxi stand are unimaginably unclean. I can’t even conceive of drinking a cup of tea in a place as this.
‘What’s that?’ I ask a vendor frying sausages in an open pan.
‘Antari,’ he replies. ‘It is made out of wheat.’
It would be a nice thing to try but I am not going to take any risk. I know the tantrums and sensitivities of my system.
Frankly I hate Kargil. It is a dirty place. The mountains, stunning as they may be, seem to enclose the town to claustrophoic effect. A river rushes past in a downsloping valley. I don’t know its name. I ask someone about it this morning. He has no idea either.
I learn about a museum in town. It is on a higher end of town. It is bit of a walk. I get stares from people as I pass them. When I arrive at the museum at half nine in the morning, it is still closed. I had expected something grand but it is really a family run private museum. I am asked to come back at 11 am. Lazy buggers! The only thing that is probably interesting at Kargil slips away from my hands. I cross the river by a bridge and do some walking on the river’s left bank. When I return into town an hour later, I see a long queue of men and women waiting behind a lorry stacked with cylinders of cooking fuel. At a place as remote as Kargil, this is not in easy supply. These are things taken for granted in cities such as Bangalore or Chennai.
I return to my room quite bored of Kargil. There are no monuments to look at. There are no good restaurants. The ordinary scenes on the streets are interesting but I was hoping for something more. Kargil is really a stopover, and nothing more, on the long road between Srinagar and Leh.