A faraway land, a lost kingdom and a Prince – sounds like the making of a fairy tale, doesn’t it?
Line of Control, army camps, airstrips and helicopter landing – sound like a war zone, doesn’t it?
Extreme rocky terrain, steep mountain ranges, deep turbulent river – sounds like an expedition doesn’t it?
Well, the small village at the far end of India, Turtuk, is all this and much more as I discovered to my surprise and delight.
When my itinerary out of Leh mentioned Turtuk, a lot of people, including locals from Leh, were skeptical of my decision to head there. It was roughly 80 kms beyond the popular sand dunes at Hunder and would mean “2-3 hours of extra driving for a place that had nothing much to offer”, went the rant. It was, however, in my sacrosanct itinerary and therefore simply had to be visited, no matter what anyone said. Against popular opinion, the i20 geared up for a long drive beyond the famous Khardung La Pass (more on that elsewhere), into the depths of the turbulent Shyok River flowing muddily along all the way.
(Somewhere along Shyok)
The small village of Turtuk welcomed us around 4 pm. Completely exhausted after the long winding drive, my eyes threatened to shut any minute as I checked in Turtuk Holiday Camp. Mr. R. Khan, the gracious host, greeted us by saying – you are not in Ladakh any more. Welcome to Baltistan. That woke me up with a start. Although I had planned the long road trip to Leh in great detail, I had not actually read up on any of the places I intended to visit. Hence I was shamefully unaware of Balti region. He was happy to help me out. Baltistan is a part of the Gilgit-Baltistan province now in Pakistan. Wait! Did he just say Pakistan? Where? Well, right over there, the kind Mr. Khan pointed – where Mount K2 is. K2! What! He was throwing one googly after another at me as I tried my best to grapple with this fantastic information. I wanted to scream at all those people who said no to Turtuk …clearly they had no idea what a treasure trove this was.
Per the “itinerary” there was a village walk on the agenda. The only couple of other walks I have undertaken had been short and leisurely so after the refreshments, we headed out all excited to explore this hidden village. Our guide, Ibrahim, was a chatty young fellow some 25 years of age. He was all smiles as we set out hankering him about how much we will need to walk, was it uphill, steep, will it get cold. He patiently heard us out and still smiling, responded that yes we will need to walk a lot and climb but hey it won’t be too cold so that’s good!
We walked 300 meters from our camp to a lovely emerald stream that gushed past and poured itself into the murky Shyok waters below. Ibrahim explained that the stream divided the village into two halves; though still very much part of the same village.
The first thing we noticed was the people. The faces were different from the rest of Ladakh – a certain “Afghani” appearance. Ibrahim clarified, rather mischievously, that they were prettier here. I can’t say I completely disagreed with him. But just as all of Ladakh, the smiles continued to don every face even the ones of small children who were frowning at us but would get all smiles the moment I smiled at them.
Ibrahim gave us the history of the village. Truly there must be a handful of villages in the entire world that will have a history worth talking about. The village along with a couple of others was reclaimed from Pakistan in the war of 1971 and just recently opened for tourists (while 2 other villages further on were still restricted). This had created some havoc in their lives though they were glad to be Indians. They had relatives across the border just a few kms away, but now to visit them one had to go to Delhi, get a visa, fly to Lahore and then drive some more before getting to what was maybe 50 kms across. Earlier marriages between these villages were quite common but now they had to stay on the Indian side of the fence and hence away from rest of Baltistan.
The first stop we accidently made, was at a coppersmith’s. As we passed through the Youl side of the bridge (the other one named Farool), we came across a few men sitting around one coppersmith busy making some spoons. The rest probably engaged in some gupshup gossip while he was busy at work. They gladly allowed us to observe what he did as they continued chatting, posing curious question about us perhaps to Ibrahim. They all spoke good Hindi though and the children were fluent in English. We ended up with some lovely photographs and 2 copper spoons for 400 bucks apiece. He was going to handcraft them that evening and send them to the hotel before our check out the next day.
Once upon a time there was a kingdom and the kingdom had a charming prince and I had the privilege to meet the prince. And what an unlikely prince he was. So grounded and just a tad bit nervous too. I was clicking pictures of some gleeful children posing for me when one of friends called me to join them since the prince was waiting. That is not a nice thing is it! I rushed through the small courtyard and up the wooden staircase to be greeted by a young lad, dressed in denim shorts and white T-shirt. He passionately took us around the wooden palace and living quarters and explained the origins of the Yabgo dynasty. A small museum held the precious few treasures and family heirlooms. No chapters in history books, no grand museums, no other magnificence except the past glory and few wide-eyed tourists during season. The Yabgo dynasty is a forgotten piece of a thriving civilization over a thousand years ago when trade and culture were central to the livelihood here and now this 16 odd year old boy was proudly carrying forth the legacy.
Humbled and somber we came across the Turtuk Youth center and Library. It was locked but Ibrahim called the shots here and soon the president himself came down. He was studying in the Jammu University. He didn’t have the keys with him so we couldn’t see inside the small library. He was glad though that we promised to send some books. Any small help went a long way here. Addresses were exchanged along with promises. We were also taken to the local mosque where women were allowed. The mosque was made of wood entirely and the wooden minarets and pillars were last repaired in 2007 though the mosque dates to years before 1690. Although the village of 4000 has equal Shia and Sunni denizens, there were no rough edges that are often just below the surface in the world outside of Turtuk.
(Ibrahim in the mosque)
We walked through fields of white, so even like a carpet being woven. We asked Ibrahim what crop it was. Buckwheat he said, what we know as kuttu. Another thing I wouldn’t have guessed. It seems the Balti cuisine uses buckwheat primarily and later that day for dinner we tried one such dish – Moskot. To think I thought Balti cuisine was any dish served in a baalti (bucket)!
While we frolicked on the edges of the fields, Ibrahim pointed something out skywards. In the fading evening sky, I could make out the moon clearly and was certain that is what he was showing till I heard the word bunker. He was pointing to the mountain high up at the Indian Army post – Bam post and 5283 post and their bunkers and tents that were white and visible even in this light.
Owing to the darkness he thought it best for us to return since K2 may not be visible. We should head out early morning for that.
Being at a lower altitude than Leh, Turtuk was relatively warmer. Yet it was cold enough the next day at 6 am for us to wear warm caps and jackets. We had a clear goal for the morning. K2 sighting and then departure post breakfast for Hunder sand dunes. As we heaved our way back up from the bridge, Ibrahim informed us that the bridge was last repaired in 1985 and since then the wooden bridge is going strong.
(Me: early morning on the bridge)
Before we could get to the viewpoint, a couple of detours were important. First was the village refrigerator. That spiked our curiosity. We followed Ibrahim like sheep to the far end of the village where tiny low roofed rooms were made. The rooms had a wooden door that was boarded shut and through the crevices we could peer inside. One could have stood in the room only with back well bent. As we stood there peering, we noticed our legs were getting colder than the rest of us. Ibrahim mentioned that the temperature here was lower than the rest of the place and the rooms and alleys were built to maximize that. Each household or a few together had a room where they stored cheese and vegetables to use for the colder winter months when produce was not available. Real cool!
The next detour was bunkers. Having been in wars and of course being in war zone near the LoC, being prepared for every eventuality is a grim reality. The last war seen by the village was the Kargil war. Remnants adorned walls in form of empty shell containers. And the bunkers. The bunkers were sealed off but very much operational if need be. They were sizeable and would fit 40-50 men. The women and children would need to be evacuated. That is why the village was designed in the peculiar fashion it was. All residencies huddles together and all fields lined up at one end. In case of evacuation, one could easily gather folks from the assembled point without going back and forth all over the village collecting people.
Filled with thoughts of times of war, we headed towards the viewpoint. The viewpoint also doubled up as an eatery
By now a couple of hours had passed since we had stirred and hunger pangs were beginning to gnaw. Maggi and chai was ordered and we sat back to marvel at the mountains all around us. Then Ibrahim pointed out K2. It did not tower above the ranges. It was in fact behind one mountain side and just inched above from one side. Really unfair I thought, to be called the second highest because you peaked up from one end! Oh well! In the range in front, Ibrahim pointed out two army posts that were on the Indian side. Beyond the top of the mountain as the slope fell, was the Pakistan camp.
Through binoculars kept with the eatery, we could see the boundary wall of the Pakistan camp. We were curious to know if any firing happened once in a while. It was all peaceful is what we were told. Still, it must be disconcerting living so close to the border as it must be all over the LoC region and otherwise in Punjab and Rajatshan border as well. We sat there, thankful for the peace, thankful for the efforts made by our Army and thankful for warm maggi and hot chai on a cold morning.
We headed down to the sounds of an approaching helicopter. Brigadier saab was on his way to Turtuk for a function for which the entire village had assembled. The ceremony was over and now the chopper had come to pick him up. We saw him go. Then children and elderly coming up the steep path easily as we went down painstakingly greeted us. They were carrying goodies from the ceremony – jalebi and pakodas – which were willingly offered to us, with a smile on their faces of course. As we crossed them going downhill, one wrinkled old gentleman gave us friendly advice to go down carefully and surefooted while he himself almost hopped uphill. Our difficulty to navigate was apparent to him and half the village and perhaps a laughing matter over evening tea!
Our walk, and visit to Turtuk, came to an end as we heaved back into camp. Ibrahim told us that in olden times the village was named Dukduk which in Balti means a place where you desire to continue staying – jehaan rehne ka man karta hai. Truly Turtuk lives up to its name today. In my next visit to Ladakh I am going to have an extended stay at Turtuk. All other places in Ladakh have their charm for sure but it was only here at Turtuk that I truly felt like not ending my stay.
(Observe closely the last 3 villages on this milestone)