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Drass is greener....


HOPE FLOATS: The second-coldest inhabited place in the world with temperatures plunging to minus 45 degrees in peak winter, Drass is banking on polo (below left) to draw in tourists

More than 10 years after the Kargil conflict, the scars are healing. The battered hill town is now boldly pitching itself as a tourist destination.

I am on National Highway 1D which links Srinagar to Leh and my destination is Drass, infamous for the Pakistani shelling during the 1999 Kargil war. Perched at a height of about 11, 000 feet, it's the second coldest permanently inhabited place in the world after Oymyakon in Russia. Average winter temperatures here come down to -22 degrees;they have been known to plunge to -45 degrees in the height of the cold season, which explains why it finds a mention in the record books.

In summer, though, temperatures are a pleasant 15-20 degrees centigrade. I'm here to witness a traditional polo match - one of Drass's many surprises. The rains give way to a deep blue sky with the landmark Tiger Hill and the Tololing ridge in the background. More than 10 years after the Kargil conflict, the people here seem to have left the scars of the war behind. The memories will never go away but in a sign of how far it has moved from the past, Drass is boldly pitching itself as a tourist destination.

The plan is to attract tourists with the help of polo. What is played here is one of the oldest strands of the game, brought hundreds of years ago by a Muslim princess from Skardu. The rules too are different - the size of the field, the polo ponies and the sticks are smaller, and there are six players in each team instead of four in the modern game.

Traditionally played between village teams as a recreational sport, it has been four years since the game has started getting attention in the region. There are now two polo tournaments the Lalit Suri Polo, whose 2012 edition was held last week, and the Chief Minister's Cup. "Tourism always needs a trigger. For the Kashmir valley it was Bollywood films;we are hoping that for Drass, it will be polo and rafting, " says Talat Parvez, director, tourism, Kashmir region.

Located about 150 km from Srinagar, Drass has till now chiefly been a transit camp for tourists on the Srinagar-Leh highway. Officials estimate that while around 50, 000 people pass through the town during tourist season (May-September ), only a fifth of those - about 10, 000 - come specifically to Drass.

If the polo plans fructify, the Kargil-Drass region could see many more tourists. The first step is organising a two-day tourism festival in the coming months in Kargil, the district headquarters about 60 km away from Drass. "It will have cultural programmes, polo and archery apart from showcasing handicraft like locally made shoes, doormats and blankets, " says Aga Syed Tohwa, assistant director, tourism, Kargil district. "There is also a proposal to build a new tourist reception centre with conveniences like a post office, banks and travel agents. "

Entrepreneurs, too, are excited about Drass. "We want to set up a budget hotel here, " says Jyotsna Suri, chairman and managing director of the Lalit Suri Hospitality Group, adding that the proposal is stuck because of confusion in the existing land records. "With the Pakistan border and the War Memorial there, it could be a great tourist spot. In fact, just the adrenaline rush of being in a region we almost lost could be a big draw. "


Drass is known as the gateway to Ladakh. Tourists can see mountain villages and meadows on a trek to Suru valley. A three-day trek brings one to Sankoo, famous for the Karpo-Khar Shrine dedicated to Sayed Mir Hashim, a Muslim scholar-saint who was called to give lessons on Islam to a Buddhist ruler, Thi-Namgyal, in the 16th century. A trek to the Amarnath cave also takes three days. Draupadi Kund, where the Pandava wife is said to have taken her final bath, is located 18 km away from Drass town. The Puga valley is famous for its hot water springs. The War Memorial is a prime attraction and commemorates the Kargil War martyrs.

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