Into Unknown Ladakh – Turtuk

My original version of the story which was published in HT Brunch Magazine. Tell me which one’s better?

Turtuk had been planted in my mind on a random conversation at the Spituk Gustor (Annual Masked dance). I toyed with the idea while on a stroll coupled with icy winter winds blowing in the markets of Leh. Khardung La was a blanket of white but was still open for vehicular traffic; even in January.

Do you really need a caption?!
As I look back after climbing the walking path to Turtuk village.

It was a whim which took me across the snowed out Khardung La (5600m) far into Nubra Valley in the unbearable cold of Ladakh. The only mode of transport were the shared taxies that plied from the Polo Ground in Leh to Diskit for four hundred Rupees per person. We set off at 9 in bright sunshine and in no time were amidst a white landscape. It seemed as if the mountains on the other side were beckoning to us. Although I had a faint idea that I wanted to reach Turtuk, I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to get there!

We stop at Khardung – a yak rearing village at 4000m for the ubiquitous butter tea or cha-cha as called locally. There are a two dhabas that are open even in the winters. The landscape is stark and barren with not a shrub of grass growing; the green & yellow of the summers feel like a distant memory.

The turquoise green waters of the Shyok river (literally river of death) are visible in the far distance cascading through narrow gorges and dramatic Grand Canyon type scenery. On the contrary it could only instil life in me, this so called river of death. We reach Diskit, the largest settlement in Nubra Valley and immediately rush to the only functional restaurant, a Dhaba run by a Punjabi family serving basic rice & rajmah.

Read : Practical tips for winter travel in Ladakh

The army is entrusted with the task of taking kids to school in Turtuk
The army is entrusted with the task of taking kids to school in Turtuk and Tyakshi.

‘Turtuk’ has a nice ring to it, an almost perfect, exotic romantic feel. Suddenly I hear the sounds of ‘Turtuk, Tyakshi’ in my tranquil reverie; and as luck would have it I get a seat in the only minibus of the day! The bus will leave at 2 and will reach Turtuk at around 5.
The majority on the bus are Balti people, culturally and physically a far world away from the handful of Ladakhis. The bus is run by the army as a gesture of goodwill and employs local youth as driver and conductor.

The exquisite sand dunes of Hunder pass by and a stray bactrian camel is spotted. Numerous chortens dot the landscape devoid of snow, as the waters of Shyok glisten in the sunlight which has begun freezing at the edges. Prayer flags flutter furiously, perhaps symbolizing the state of my heart going in to the unknown.

Read : Romance of the Manali-Leh Road

Intricately designed vase in the Balti museum in Turtuk
Intricately designed vase in the Balti museum of the Yabgo Dynasty in Turtuk.

Skuru is the last Buddhist settlement amid the wilderness of the landscape.
I am the only outsider in the bus as the menfolk clamour to be with me and share their knowledge. Suddenly the music changes to Balti songs, lending an almost Arabic feel to my unaccustomed mind. Soulful & beautifully woven words bring tears to my eyes, although I know not head or tail of it.

Read : Kids of Markha Valley

Our bus and the Shyok river seem to be the only moving things in the static, almost lifeless surroundings. Bogdang, a village situated on a hillock was the last Indian village till 1971. Talk about being conservative, this town borders on being eccentric with no televisions allowed as decided by the village administration. The violators have to bear a Rs. 5000 fine and also the ignominy of the television set thrown on the road to break it. There are no hotels or restaurants in the village, effectively preventing contact with the outside world.

On the other side of the icy mountains is Pakistan
On the other side of the icy mountains is Pakistan; notice the glorious colours of the landscape.

Sunlight is rapidly failing & fresh snow greets us as we drive into Turtuk (2800m), into the heart of Indian Baltistan. I am nonplussed arriving; with seemingly nowhere to go. As in the bus too, the people of Turtuk strike me as friendly and have a unique mix of Aryan & Mongoloid features. Chiseled faces, beautiful eyes peer from everywhere to see ‘a madman who has come in the winter’.

Archery is his favourite sport
Archery is his favourite sport, most boys in Turtuk can be seen with a bow and arrow.

Turtuk village is a short walk from the main road and is divided into two parts, viz. ‘Youl’ & ‘Pharol’, a pretty bridge separating them. As all the guest houses are closed, a frugal home is my abode for the night. It is the dwelling of a young couple, who I later learn are credited with Turtuk’s first love marriage.

Fashionable haircut from 90 kms away
Fashionable haircut from 90 kms away; the nearest market town with a sizeable is Diskit.

Turtuk, in the ancient times used to serve as a gateway to Gilgit in Baltistan & also to Yarkand via the Karakoram Pass. Apricots & walnuts are spread out before us; happily gorged upon. After being opened for Tourism in 2010, Turtuk has since become famous for the finest quality of Apricots known as ‘Halman’.

I express my desire to have a simple local dish for dinner. A very nourishing apricot stew is made, called ‘phudinichu’. I relish the sweetness, and they sing praises of its anti-oxidant properties. The traditional bathroom (a hole in the floor) is shared by a braying donkey kept by the family for mundane work.

Read : Walking into the past along the frozen Indus in Ladakh

'Zaan", made from buckwheat and eaten with home made butter
‘Zaan”, made from buckwheat and eaten with home made butter. One of the prominent dishes in Balti Cuisine.

My host Obaidullah tells me that Balti Language is unique as it has no script; and that it is similar to Ladakhi in some ways. Life is indeed hard in the winters, where water freezes and has to be brought from the stream that divides Youl & Pharol. A haircut is a luxury few can afford, the nearest barber being a mere 90 Km away in Diskit.

The government provides electricity for four precious hours per day. Cell phone reception in Turtuk is limited to BSNL at the top of the village if the winds blow in your favour.

The morning is colder, with cloudy skies taking over the sunshine. The villagers decide that I be shown a museum showcasing the lineage of the Balti kings. Grapevine scatter in the compound, it is hard to believe grapes grow at such a great height. The climate of Turtuk is milder than the rest of Ladakh enabling many fruits to be grown in the summer. Buckwheat is grown and is of exceptionally good quality. Organic is the only way of cultivation they know here.

Read : Failures on the Road – Stupidity in Changthang, Ladakh

Portrait of locals in Turtuk.

There are people of rare artistic abilities in Turtuk. A stone sculptor draws – Snow leopard pouncing on an ibex; pressure cookers and other things made entirely out of stone. Bronze utensils & wonderfully aromatic rose sticks are made by another man as per order; apparently famous going by the crowd he had attracted.

It is a cultural surprise to find a monastery in 100% Muslim Turtuk; it was apparently made by the Buddhist Ladakh Scouts after 1972. Kids are playing everywhere as it is winter and schools are closed. The boys play cricket & the girls huddle and giggle.

A centuries old stone tower, closed alas due to cases of suicide!
A centuries old stone tower, closed alas due to cases of suicide!

They show me a polo ground on the Pharol side. I’m intrigued to know Turtuk celebrates the festival of ‘Navroz’ on 21 March. Polo and archery are played in the present times as the entire village gears up to celebrate, dressed in their traditional finery. The origins of a mystical past of Turtuk take another interesting turn when ‘Buzkashi’ (Ancient Central Asian sport) is mentioned as having been played on the occasion of Navroz in a distant past. They regale me with stories over cups of endless butter-tea to keep us warm.

A wooden tower stands tall, pretty carvings inside inviting me to come and explore. Alas, it has been closed due to – (hold your breath), some suicide attempts!
There is also a fort, and only its ruins remain. The way is highly unapproachable and as in life, sometimes you just trust your instinct and let go.

Read : Musings from the one home village of Yurutse at 4200m

Maybe she would crumble if I touched her, simply pretty
Maybe she would crumble if I touched her, simply pretty

There is an undated mosque in Turtuk which is an enigma, swastika patterns mingle freely with Iranian designs. It is a huge structure with walnut wood used as pillars and is exquisitely designed.
Balti food is largely based on buckwheat preparations & they oblige with ‘Kissir’ & ‘Zaan’. Delectable flavours of Zaan make it an instant favourite.

‘Prakoo’ has delicious undertones of walnut & almond paste in a momo shaped filling. I am very lucky that the villagers have made these authentic Balti dishes even in the cold of winter.

An animal grazes in the harsh landscape of Khardung
An animal grazes in the harsh landscape of Khardung.

The only bus from Turtuk to Diskit leaves at 7 in the morning, storm clouds are gathering around Khardung La. There was the small matter of an unfulfilled wish to see a land in the throes of a fierce winter, in the middle of a snowfall. As they say the universe has a strange way of acting, my wishes were about to come true. I was given a ride in one car as we were stuck in a snowstorm at some 5300m on the way to Khardung La; fierce winds blew carrying fresh powdered snow with it. Perhaps there is a thin line between adventure and death. And I realised it there at the highest road in the world at -30 degrees Celsius (or lower!)

Read : Khardung La in Winter : Part 1

Visibility at Khardung La (5600m) in the middle of a snowstorm
Visibility at Khardung La (5600m) in the middle of a snowstorm

‘What you seek is seeking you.’ ~ Rumi.

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38 thoughts on “Into Unknown Ladakh – Turtuk”

  1. Fabulous! I felt like I was right there with you. I read the piece in HT Brunch (congrats!) and noticed your name immediately. 🙂 This one has lovely details and seems like an intimate account, while that one had beautiful writing, so I absolutely love both of them. 🙂 And the pictures are so amazing! They capture the people of the place so well.

  2. After reading this all I can say is that I am very eager to be there and experience the same. Very nicely written, makes the reader feel the chill of the weather.

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