- Drass (3,230 m), 60 kms west of Kargil on the road to Srinagar, is a small township in the centre of a valley of the same name. Locally called Hembabs ("snow land"), it is renowned as the second coldest inhabited place in the world because of the intensely cold winters and heavy snowfall.
Winter temperatures are known to plummet to 40oCelsius below zero. During the four months of spring and summer, however, the valley turns very picturesque as the gently surrounding hillsides turn into green pastures splashed with a variety of wild flowers. Lately, Drass has become famous all over the world due to the extensive television coverage it received during the 3-month long conflict at the Line of Control (LoC) between India & Pakistan. Its physical landmarks like Mushkoo Valley, Tiger Hill, Tolo-ling, etc., have become part of India's modern national epic.
Drass valley starts from the base of the Zoji-la pass across which the 434 km Srinagar-Leh road passes. For the most part, this road follows the historic trade route, also known as the 'Treaty Road'.
The most dramatic part of the road is the ascent up the Zojila pass (3505 m), the principal gateway to Ladakh. It is a legendary feature through which traders and explorers traversed the Himalayas, the world's greatest mountain range, as it lay on the route to Ladakh, Tibet, Central Asia and China. It has played critical roles in the passage of trade and cultural influences between Kashmir and Ladakh and on to Tibet and Central Asia through the centuries. It also marks the drastic transition between two contrasting environments, those of Kashmir Valley and the Ladakh plateau, within the span of an hour's drive.
As soon as the last turn of the road at 'India Gate' near the top of the pass is crossed, the luxurious forests of Kashmir suddenly disappear and the dramatic bleakness of Ladakh with the ever-changing colours of its brown and ochre mountains suddenly hit the eye.
The population of Drass comprises mainly of Dards, who are descendents of Dard immigrants from the Gilgit valley and other Dard areas from down the Indus. They speak Shina, which unlike the Tibetan-originated dialects spoken elsewhere in Ladakh, belongs to the Indo-European linguistic family. Polo the ancestral sport of the Dards, is played with particular zeal and fervour in Drass. A hardy people enduring with fortitude the harshness of the world’s second coldest place, the people of Drass can well be described as the guardians of Ladakh's gateway.
For centuries they are known to have negotiated the formidable Zoji-la pass, even during the late autumn or early spring when the whole sector remains snow-bound, for transporting across traders’ merchandise and to help stranded travellers to traverse it. By virtue of their mastery over the pass they had established a monopoly on the carrying trade during the heydays of the Central Asian trade. They are also known to have kept the mail running between Kashmir and Ladakh across the Zoji-la, regardless of the season and the climate.