Frankly, ‘Turtuk’ had a nice ring to it. The Muslim town on the edge of India’s border, sounded exotic, romantic – almost perfect. But in Kashmir, heading to a place seven kilometres from the Line of Control, isn’t like hopping on a train.
For one thing, there are no trains, only shared taxies that ply the 120 kilometres from Leh to Diskit for Rs 400 per person, after which Turtuk is 100 km away. For another, the area wasn’t a part of India until 1971. Until last year, Indians needed a permit to visit.
We set off at 9am, in bright sunshine, and in no time we’ve left Leh behind for a white landscape. The mountains beckoned. And in the distance, cascading through narrow gorges, were the turquoise waters of the Shyok river. The name literally means River Of Death. But in me, it only instilled a sense of life – I was, after all, going off the map in one of the remotest parts of my country in winter.
The first stop is Khardung, a yak-rearing village, where we stop for butter tea. The world seems stark and barren here, not a shrub of grass. The green and yellow of summer feel like a distant memory. I’m beginning to understand why that river had such a morbid name.
The journey on
After rajma and rice at Diskit, I’m lucky to catch the day’s only minibus to Turtuk, and there’s room for one! Most passengers on the ride are Balti people, their high cheekbones, hollowed out eyes and tall, well-built frames a world away from Ladakhis. The bus is run by the Indian army as a gesture of goodwill and employs local youth.
I am the only outsider, so the men clamour to chat. The soundtrack changes from Ladakhi to Balti songs, and to me, they sound almost Arabic. The soulful sounds bring tears to my eyes, even though I haven’t understood a word of the lyrics.
Our bus and the Shyok seem to be the only moving things in the static landscape. We pass the exquisite sand dunes of Hunder. The Shyok glistens in the sunlight, freezing at the edges. Prayer flags flutter furiously, perhaps echoing my heart as it approaches the unknown.