Turtuk (India-Pakistan border): One night in December 1971, the residents of this village went to sleep as Pakistan citizens. They awoke next morning as Indians. Turtuk, along with three other villages in the vicinity – Tyakshi, Chalunka and Thang – were reoccupied by advancing Indian armed forces during the 1971 war of liberation of Bangladesh.
When I started my cycle journey through all the states of India, Nepal and Bhutan, I never knew that I will be exploring some unheard stories from the unexplored lands. But as the miles kept increasing and new people kept meeting me, they told me about the places where I should go and visit. This is how I got to know about Turtuk, the last or the northernmost village of India.
This village is located 215 kilometres in the North of Leh city. And to reach there you have to cross “Khardung la” which is one of the highest motorable passes in the world at the height of 18,380 ft and Nubra Valley.
In 1948, the entire Baltistan, including the Turtuk area was merged with Pakistan. While Bangladesh was being carved out of Pakistan during the 1971 war, Indian troops took back Turtuk and three more villages – Dhothang, Tyakshi (earlier called Tiaqsi) and Chalunkha – from the Pakistani territory, 23 years after it went to Pakistan.
The countenance and dressing pattern of the locals changes significantly from Leh. In Leh city you will find the countenance and dress similar to Buddhism but in Turtuk it starts to change into Muhamaddin dress and balti language but the attitude of people is pure pahadi. I mean to say that they are adventure and nature lover. People live with a common bonding of love and care. If something good or bad happens in a home then the whole village reaches there in large groups to see them. Everyone knows each other and greets on his way to home or work.
Tour of Turtuk
I met a local guy here who was introduced to me by Major Nathani of Gorkha Regiment. His name is Mir and he serves in army as a helper in mountaineering. He helped me with the stay and food for two days and also took me to the tour of Turtuk. The tour of Turtuk includes many fascinating stories that convey how the people live despite of so many adversities regarding weather and food. The villagers have innovated so many ingenious ways of survival.
There are some old structures in Turtuk which are called as Natural fridge. It means they preserve your food without any electrical or mechanical element. They are actually low rise structures which are more like hutments. They all are locked. Mir asked me to put my hands in the structure through the crevices in the door and structure. It’s icy cold! He explains that this is their natural refrigerator! This has been created through channelization of the glacial waters and has been in use since hundreds of years to store meat, veggies and pashmina. The channelization of the glacial water generate the icy cold airs which keeps them child. The water seems to come from the Turtuk Lungpa (a river). The lungpa flows across the valley and underneath the homes through drainages. This stream separates the village in two. What ingeniousness!!
Watermill for flour grinding
You can see one more attraction in Turtuk which is a flour grinding mill being powered by stream water. Mir bhai took me to capture this mill. The grinder is rotated by the power of the rapid flow of water streams flowing underneath the houses and through the drainages. Villagers use this power of water to grind the flour from their home-grown wheat.
The shawl maker
Some more walking through the narrow lanes of village take you to another house where lives a 80 years old aged man who makes some superb shawls. He is known for his hand machine that he himself built way back in his young age and has been using to make a very fine quality of shawls in the valley. He also makes shawls in front the tourists and sell them on the spot for an handsome amount of Rs 4 to 5 thousands. He very fondly welcomed me into his home and should me all the nuances of his wooden machine and displayed some of his creations in shawls and woolen caps.
We proceeded further and reached the top. The view on the other side is lush green.. and orange! Agriculture wise, this area grows at least two crops of wheat in an year. So while one crop of wheat has been recently cut and stacked, another crop is already growing. Apart from apricots, mulberry, almonds and walnuts are also grown in Turtuk. You will find the whole village abundant with the trees of apricot, grapes and orchards laden with apples. The season of these fruits falls in the months of August, September and October. You can also see villagers and labourers engaged in the trade of supply carrying a basket on their back fully loaded with the rich apples. And if you want to have a once-in-a-life-time moment then try carrying that basket and pluck some apples on your own.
The trees of Safeda tree, willow and poplar are used for wooden logs which are used in house building and the especially the ceiling in Kashmiri houses.
Narrow allys and waterstreams flows with clean water which is quite amazing. Every moment of the whole day, your ears will hear the voice of small streams and drainages.
Old polo ground
An old polo ground is seen forlorn now as it is now used by the kids to play or by the people to roam in. Earlier the emperors used to play Polo which was told to me by the present king. He also showed me the polo sticks that were used by his forefathers.
The whole village follows the balti culture and you can notice a touch of old balti language in their accent. They respect every outsider and keep them with a great care as they kept me.
Museum of the king of Baltistan
After a long walk down the narrow and undulating lanes, shepherded by Mir bhai, I arrived at what was supposed to be the highlight of my excursion. At first glance, it was slightly underwhelming – the house is larger than its neighbours, but little else set it apart. This is not just a house, it’s a museum which is being taken care of the present king of Turtuk. His name is Yabgo Muhammad Khan Kacho. Yabgo is the name of the dynasty which existed in 12th century and has its roots in Mangolia.
The Yabgo dynasty ruled the Chorbat-Khaplu region of Baltistan for a millennium, expanding it over time to Ladakh’s frontiers on one side and to Ghizer district on the western edge of Gilgit-Baltistan. The dynasty ended in the first half of the 19th century when the Dogra empire, which had, in 1846 taken control of Kashmir, forming the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, expanded its kingdom North and East.
Kacho, Turtuk’s king, also has some family on the other side. He traces his lineage to the Ghaz tribe from West Turkestan, a region today known as Central Asia. His ancestor, Beg Manthal, came to Baltistan in 800 AD from Yarkhand (which is part of modern-day China’s Xinjiang region) via the Saltoro ridge (which is to the west of the Siachen glacier) and conquered Khaplu, in modern-day Gilgit-Baltistan.
A wall at one end of the room has the family tree painted on it, going back centuries. The king said that an artist from Indian army helped him document this. The Indian army means many things to most Baltistan residents – employer; buyer of locally-produced vegetables, milk, fruits and meat; provider of healthcare and education, employer to many youngesters as well as occasional source of telecom network and other basic infrastructure.
He himself always takes every visitor to the tour of his museum and describes every detail of his forefathers and the collection of polo sticks, utensils, Sabres, arrows, sherwanis of old kings.
The king describes himself as a writer and said his father didn’t want him to work but just spread the word about their family. He decided to tell his people what they were all about. But, the Indian government banned his book based on complaints from a sect that saw blasphemy in his account of how their religious order was established, he said. He contested the ban in Indian courts and eventually won after years of litigation. He very sadly shared the fact with me that he didn’t retain a single copy of the book – he doesn’t even remember the name of the Delhi-based publisher.
Sheyok river is the main river here which flows into India from China and flows out to Pakistan. No amount of water is being used in India to date but now probably a Hydro power project is being worked upon here.
On your way from Leh to Turtuk you will also cross the Nubra valley and Hunder. In Nubra Valley you will see a recently installed 106 feet high statue of Maitreya Buddha and a 14th century old monastery. The Maitreya Buddha is called the future Buddha which means if Buddha ever comes again to Earth then his Avatar will be like this. This statue is facing towards the Indo Pak border, if you are coming from Leh then you will first see its back. Hunder is famous for its double humped camels which I had to miss as I crossed that part in the afternoon and camles can be seen in the evening.
A cafe by Army
The battalion of 1st Maratha post is taking care of the last barrier in the village and is also running a cafe which serves some really tasty momos. It’s altogether a different experience to have the momos in a roadside cafe which is being run by an army post. The Indo Pak border is just 8 kms away from the point by which a civilian can go. The mountains in the Pakistan land can be spotted easily. On 14th of August which is the independence day of Pakistan, those mountains are lit up by the earthen lamps and lights and it illuminate the whole big Mountain.
Tyakshi village also has a school which was built by Pakistan and is now being run by India. Many teachers from West Bengal and the north east region of India come here to stay here for 3-4 months in a year and teach the children of the village.
I didn’t see any beggar in Leh Ladakh and in villages. People have farms of Apricot, Apple and wheat that they grow to sell and to use for themselves. Everyone is now having a home stay or guesthouse for the tourists. They have small gardens where vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower, potatoes and wheat are grown and used for their own food and to serve the tourists.
What I found the most intriguing is that the people are simple and big hearted like the mountains. They have adapted to live in the mountains and it has made them more welcoming. Visitors and travellers are welcomed with great warmth and a smile on face.