Winter in Ladakh : Revisiting Turtuk from Leh

Yesterday was a crazy day of hitchhiking that included visiting Saspol, Alchi, Likir, Basgo and finally reaching Leh to stay for the night. On the next leg of our journey we want to first head to Turtuk from Leh. Since this is winter time in Ladakh we don’t want to make too many fixed plans and just aim to keep things flexible and travel as things conspire.

Leh Market
Lamas at the swanky mall road in Leh.

Excerpts from the diary : 20 December 2016

Wake up at 9. Feeling very week and feverish. Eat nuts and apricots. Have a vertin for headache. Very hungry. Direct sunshine in the room. Very warm and pleasant. Nourish my body with apricot oil for some moisture for the body. Change clothes to feel fresh. Feeling much better, so decide to leave for Leh market.

Check : In Search of Wine in Ladakh -Hitchhiking from Wanla to Garkon in Winter

Leh Market
The bakers of Leh – from old times on the Silk Route.

Spot brand new Tourist Reception Centre (TIC) near the Mall Road in Leh, go inside and get oxygen levels checked. Fancy, polished English speaking and helpful Ladakhi women at the reception. Very hungry, so head to Sonu Sardarji on the mall road for chole bhature as recommended by locals. Mall road swanky and now Leh market looks like a hill station of North India. Chole bhature is very tasty and hot and we really relish it.

Leh Market
Munchkin in Leh market.

After that we head straight to DC office near the Polo Ground to procure the permits for the next leg of our journey. Start the official procedure for the permits and pay 880 for 2 people. The DC is in a meeting so we don’t have the signed document yet. Staff asks us to come back at 2 pm.

Almost around noon so we walk to the taxi stand to find out about the shared taxi from Leh to Diskit. Taxi guys ask us to come later so that we can be given proper information and our seats can be booked. The path passes through the local market which looks like a tea lane filled with locals. Go to Hanuwala (the guy from Hanu) to check if he has the grape wine (gunchhang) by any chance!

Leh Market
Selling dry-fruits on the pavement.

Wok Tibetan Restaurant on mall road for lunch – Timokh, Tenthuk and Kothay (half fried and half steamed momo). Super yummy, very very happy! See socks in Nowshera market, decide to buy when we come back before our return flight from Leh to Delhi. Go back to DC office. Drama, no signature as yet. Somehow get the needful done from the ADC, he enquires why we want to go to these remote places in the winter etc etc.

Leh Market

We go back to the taxi stand and are able to book 2 front seats for the shared taxi from Leh to Diskit. 400 per person. Time given to us is 8 am. Walk around market and stupid decision to eat ice cream at Barista, especially after the feverish state today morning. Sit in the open and marvel at the locals walking past. Kashmir emporium, super expensive. Visit local dry fruit sellers, mostly old people sitting on pavements. Withdraw cash from SBI atm. Go back to homestay at around 5 pm.

Leh Market
A wealth of culture – the Tea lane near Polo Ground.

Ask for early dinner at homestay and tell them I am not feeling well, so request them to make rotis. Wifi works at homestay in Leh after 2 days. Use to update social media. Go to downstairs hall at 7 pm for dinner. Dall, roti and vegetable, very tasty – so eat well and thank the family.

Pack bags accordingly for next part of journey. Nubra Valley + Changthang. Inform homestay guys that we will come back to Leh directly in the end. Charge all power banks + dslr batteries. Warm room because of direct sunlight. Sleep in peace. Feel much much better and the headache is gone too. Hopefully I should be back in perfect shape the next day.

Leh Market
At Wok Tibetan Restaurant, authentic Ladakhi cuisine in Leh.

21 December 2016

Wake up early morning at 530 am. As a professional travel blogger, have an urgent assignment to submit before leaving so work on the same. Ask for warm water from the homestay guy – Ishey (son of Jamspal uncle). Have a tea and a biscuit before leaving the homestay at around 715 am.

Leh Market
I wonder how many of them are actually made locally and how much is ‘made in China’.

Very cold morning as we walk on the street towards Polo Ground Taxi Stand. Leh city cleaning in progress by sweepers. Wonder if the cold doesn’t affect them. Reach the shared taxi stand and there is a delay in the departure time (as usual). Have chai and naan bread with butter (like the locals) at a nearby open eatery for breakfast.

Leh Market
A poignant sight at the homestay, withering roses.

The taxi number has been changed and we are advised to keep an eye out for the same. Finally leave at 9 am. There is a lama in our shared cab, from far off Lingshed monastery and is accompanied by a middle-aged French lady. It is a fascinating conversation with the lady who has been to Iran and has conducted business in carpets earlier. She is visiting these regions in the winter with her acquaintance – the Lama from Lingshed.

Leh Market
The giant poplars in Leh with that gorgeous blue sky in the background.

Pass through Khardung La and although it is quite cold on the top, there is hardly any ice on the road. The mountains are all visible though and are laden with snow. Beautiful landscape. Stop at South Pullu and North Pullu Check Post and show our ID’s. Breakfast at Khardung Village – surprising since almost all shared cabs prefer stopping at Khalsar which is at a much lower altitude. We are surprised to see the locals in discomfort when 2-3 of them show signs of AMS (Altitude Mountain Sickness).

Leh Market
A beautiful message by Dalai Lama written near Fort Road in Leh.

After sharing a barely edible aloo parantha and dal washed down with salt tea, we start on our journey again. The weather is a mix of sunny and clouds right now and we reach Diskit in good time, at 120 pm. Generally the bus from Diskit to Turtuk leaves at 2 pm. Today there is no bus though as the 20-20 cricket tournament of Nubra Valley is being played and it is the final. We are confused about the next course of action but decide to first eat a proper lunch at the only open Nepali dhaba near the bus stand in Diskit.

Leh Market
Lama Ji from Lingshed Monastery at Khardung La.

Dall, roti, sabji, and chai. Earlier this same dhaba was run by a Punjabi owner but he is not operating this year and a Nepali is running this dhaba in Diskit now. The food is excellent and we pay and start asking around if there are other people heading to Turtuk. Since the bus isn’t running today, there is every likelihood of a shared taxi from Diskit to Turtuk. A shared taxi does come, but is filled with 15-20 people and we have no chance.

Leh Market
At the breakfast stop in the shared taxi from Leh to Diskit.

Get lucky when kids of a police officer are going to Turtuk in a car and agree to take us for 150 Rupees per person. They also have some acquaintances to be dropped to Hunder and thus we are now 6 people crammed in the tiny maruti car right now! 2 people get down at the army camp at Thoise (Acronym : Transit Halt Of Indian Soldiers Enroute.)

Leh Market
A dash of colour in the landscape on the descent from Khardung La.

Ladakhi songs are being played in the car. Local conversations about Baltistan, 1971, Gilgit. We are carrying dairy milk chocolates with us and share them with the locals. Show ID at Chalunka Check Post. Around 430-5 pm reach Turtuk, we drive straight into the Youl part of Turtuk where the car is parked. It is dull and gloomy here in Turtuk as the clouds have ensured the sun has stayed away after we left Diskit.

Diskit
The sun shone briefly through the clouds on the poplars as we neared Diskit.

Even the Shyok river doesn’t welcome us with the usual green turquoise colour. We ask the kids if they can recommend us a homestay and they show us the way to Ismail Homestay located in Youl. He shows us a cozy and spacious room with fluffy blankets and we are immediately sold when we are served 2 cups of nicely made kehwa.

Nubra Valley
Somebody has won the cricket 20-20 tournament!

It is delicious and we thank Ismail bhai for the generosity. He is very friendly and seems to be quite used to having travellers over at his homestay. I tell him I have been to Turtuk earlier in the winter in 2015 and mention some of the Balti dishes I tried then. At this mention, he agrees the price for the homestay at only 300 Rs per person (including food) and announces that the ultimate Balti delicacy – Zabkhoor will be made for dinner specially for us! We dance and rejoice!

Turtuk
A memorable frame with the bridge separating Youl and Pharol parts of Turtuk.

We sit for a while in our room and then go to the kitchen when Ismail bhai asks if we would like to sit with the family. We are always keen to sit in the kitchen, especially in the cold winters when the entire family is huddled there and conversations flow.

Turtuk
Streets of Turtuk.

Ismail’s father is there too and tells us about a case of a local who could come to visit her family only after 45 years. She was originally from here but was in Hunza at the time of the 1971-72 war and could not return. He is reading the Quran in very dim light and asks the kids to offer us some dried apricots. We acknowledge it and relish the soft and tasty apricots.

Turtuk
Stunning colours of Turtuk.

Ismail’s family is shy, 2 daughters and 2 sons in the medium sized kitchen space. We ask them their names. Zabkhoor is being made on the inverted tawa; they are round cakes made from a mixture of some flour and grains. Ismail remarks that it will warm us up from the inside. Zabkhoor is served with home made ghee (clarified butter) and is incredibly tasty for such a simple looking dish.

Turtuk
The light was poor as we reached Turtuk in the evening.

We eat to our hearts content and are happy to report that we are able to come out of our jackets and sleep under the blankets in Turtuk. Wonders of zabkhoor and traditional recipes. Thank the family and kids over conversations about Baltistan and the rich art and crafts of the region.

Turtuk
Ismail bhai’s father.

An interesting anecdote over dinner : 

I mention to Ismail bhai that when I came in January 2015, I had stayed at a local guy Obaidullah’s home and since he did not have an extra blanket and mattress he had to borrow it from someone. At this Ismail asked me ‘Do you know who lent Obaidullah the mattress and blanket?’ It was procured from Ismail itself! What a small world, I wondered. It brought tears of happiness to my eyes. Maybe Ismail, Obaidullah and I had a long connection even before I came to Turtuk!

Turtuk
A bunch of shy people in the kitchen at the homestay.

We sleep cosily in the spacious room given to us. Turtuk is definitely less colder than other parts of Ladakh or perhaps I am getting back to normal after a brief bout of fever.

Turtuk
Balti family jewellery shown at Ismail Homestay.

22 December 2016

Wake up at around 7 am. Chai and breakfast. Zabkhoor with ghee and Khambir bread with butter tea. Delicious. Go for a village walk around Youl first, then to the bridge and Pharol. It is a cloudy day so the starkly beautiful colours of winter usually seen in Turtuk are a bit muted.

Turtuk

Ismail takes us to the new Polo ground which is located near the road. He tells us that the Navroz Celebrations are held from 21 March to 15 April. Archery and polo competitions are organised and everyone participates. He invites me to come and stay for the Navroz Celebrations to truly see what Turtuk and Baltistan culture is all about.

Turtuk
Magic landscape view of Turtuk with the Shyok river flowing into Pakistan.

Go back to the homestay at around 11 am and pay. Thank the entire family and pay our regards. We want to stand on the road and see if there is a shared taxi or hitched ride available to take us to Diskit today itself. Go and meet Obaidullah first. He runs a small eatery near the main road and has a newer and better home!

Turtuk
The bridge separating Turtuk’s two parts, Youl and Pharol.

We embrace and he remembers me. I thank him for the earlier time, buy the finest quality Halman apricots from him @300 per kg and giri badam @400 per kg. He also advises us to wait on the main road for a ride. He also tells us the rate for buying apricot oil, and that we can get good quality apricot oil in Sumur for around 600 Rupees per litre.

Turtuk

Wait on the main road. Hardly any vehicles. 2 pm already now. Dusty road. Locals walking around and wonder how can we be so hopeful when there is almost no chance of finding a vehicle in the last town of India! Someone is heading to Tyakshi and offers to show us around but we have to decline their generous offer lest a ride for Diskit comes!

Turtuk
The Gompa of Turtuk built on a hillock.

One car is going to Chalunka and we jump at the opportunity of seeing a new place. It is not to be as the car’s tyre is found punctured before we begin! We have kept a deadline of 2:30 pm by which if we don’t find a vehicle we will head back to the homestay and stay another night in Turtuk. According to the locals, the 7 am bus to Diskit will be functional tomorrow. In the nick of time, at 2:26 pm a PWD jeep ferrying officers appears. I stand on the road and make sure they can’t avoid us.

Turtuk
Framed photograph with Shyok river in the background.

There is ample space in the jeep and we are overjoyed when they confirm their end destination as Diskit. The PWD officers have some work in Bogdang and make a stop at PHC (Primary Health Centre). It gives us the chance to see some parts of Bogdang. The houses in the village itself are located a bit away from the road but there are a few structures on this side too. Click some photographs and talk to the locals. They are curious about the benefits of tourism and ask us about the possibility of a homestay in Bogdang.

Turtuk
Surreal array of colours during the winter months.

Very comfortable drive till Diskit. Dropped at the taxi stand at 515 pm. Thank the officers and tell them if it weren’t for them, it would have been very difficult for us to reach Diskit. There are 3-4 vehicles at the taxi stand and it is nearing darkness. For the next leg of our journey we are keen on visiting the region beyond Panamik – Stongstet Gompa and Ensa Gompa etc. Hence, in the best case scenario we are keen on reaching Sumur village. After all, the distance between Diskit and Sumur is hardly 30 kms.

Turtuk

We enquire with locals and find no shared cabs heading to Sumur. One cab offers to drop us to a guesthouse in Diskit market. With no other option, we thank him and sit to be dropped at Zambala Hotel. Hotel uncle isn’t very keen on us staying and as a last resort says 1000 Rupees for the room and food will be extra. We don’t like the unfriendly nature of the reply and ask the cab guy if he can drop us to the Olthang and Lhasthang homestay located on the outskirts of Diskit town.

Turtuk
Goats grazing on the remains of grass with that incredible background.

To our chagrin, both the homestays are closed. Now the cab guy already knows we are keen on making it to Sumur and decides to help us out. He asks for 1000 Rupees for a drop to Sumur and in semi-darkness we say yes and thank him for the help. Have hardly gone a few kilometres when we see another cab on the road. Driver stops him; they are a family going to Panamik and are happy to drop us to Sumur.

Turtuk

We try to pay the driver the agreed sum of money but he doesn’t take it and asks us to pay 200 Rupees to the other car guy. We thank him immensely and just tell him to tell the other guy to drop us at a homestay. We have no idea about a functioning homestay in Sumur and since it is already dark we wonder how to find one!

Turtuk
Meeting point for the locals of Turtuk.

Request the family and driver bhaiya to help. Reach Sumur (Sumoor) by 618 pm. Pitch dark. Feels like 8-9 pm. Enquire at a house where the lights are visible. Guest house is next door. Owner says no, that the rooms are not made. He is expecting visitors to come from Siachen Base Camp for a stay today.

We tell him that we are only 2 people and plead with him. The driver also requests and the kind owner agrees to let us stay! He says he will make the room in a few minutes and asks us to take our bags and first order dinner at the only functioning dhaba in Sumur located nearby.

Turtuk
Reminds me of ‘The Afghan Girl.’

We keep our bags and rush to the dhaba restaurant to ask for an early dinner. It is unbelievable how the day has panned out; from not being able to get a ride out of Turtuk to be able to reach Sumur and find a homestay in the dark. We are very hungry and excited with the circumstances. Have a chai at the restaurant; dall, vegetable and rotis are being made for dinner. Santosh (from Nepal) and Mingma (from Sikkim) are running the show at the restaurant in Sumur.

Incredibly tasty dinner. Very very yummy and we eat a lot and make up for our lack of lunch today. Thank Santosh and Mingma and tell them we will be back for breakfast the next day. Also meet people from Himachal Pradesh who have come from Siachen base camp from a contract work for hoisting the Indian flag.

Turtuk
Zabkhoor being made.

Even more happiness awaits us as we return to the guest house. Fabulous room and very spacious too. Warm setting and the bathroom is clean and nice with a bucket of hot water. The owner is a really kind person and has given us a great room. The windows have views of the landscape and mountains. Open space in the courtyard.

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It is the best room of our entire Ladakh winter trip. We joyously go to the owner and thank him profusely. In the excitement, we haven’t even bothered to ask the price of the room but its ok. Snow clad peaks can be seen in the darkness and the skies show a million twinkling stars whenever the clouds part.

Turtuk
Obaid’s son posing for the camera.

Electricity is also present at the Sumur Guest House – we only notice next morning its called AO Guest House Homestay. Ladakh winter – 6 pm to 11 pm electricity. The bed in the room is huge and the blanket is very fluffy and warm! We snuggle in and sleep without any onward plan and have decided to enjoy the present moment in Sumur!!

Turtuk
Balti people have different features than Ladakhi Tibetans – Ladakh, as always is a great cultural delight.

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. arv! says:

    Lovely picture postcards from Ladakh.

    1. shubhammansingka says:

      Many thanks sirjee !!!

  2. Just Teri says:

    Once again enjoyed being transported to parts unknown. Amazed at you and your travel partner’s travel savvy in such remote places as these. Can’t imagine doing it sick!

    LOVE, love, love the photos – landscape but particularly the locals – great job capturing their expressions. They are so thoughtful and peaceful. Touching.

    1. shubhammansingka says:

      Thanks Teri! That makes my day.

  3. How did you manage Ladakh in December??? I was there in September & had to cut short the trip because I couldn’t handle to altitude + cold combination of Tso Moriri. Hats off to you!

    1. shubhammansingka says:

      Haha, it was cold but I guess we all manage it when the situation demands! Thanks for reading 🙂

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