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.
Sunlight is rapidly failing and fresh snow greets us as we enter Turtuk. I have nowhere to go, but local faces and beautiful eyes peer from everywhere to see the "madman who has come in the winter". The town is divided into two parts: Youl and Pharol, separated by a pretty bridge.
The big surprise: Scenic Turtuk is home to shy but warm locals.
The guest houses are closed, so my shelter for the night is the modest home of a young couple, who I later learn had Turtuk’s first love marriage. All I want for dinner is local food, so they make phudinichu, a nourishing stew made with the region’s famed apricots.
Life is hard this far away from the India we know. Electricity is for four hours per day. Cell phone reception is limited to BSNL at the top of the village. In winter, water is bought from the stream. The nearest barber is back in Diskit. The bathroom is nothing more than a hole in the floor, and you share it with the family’s donkey.
The edge of the world
The morning is colder, cloudier. The villagers decide to show me a museum dedicated to the Balti kings. The locals are amazingly artistic: a sculptor fashions a snow leopard pouncing on an ibex, pressure cookers and other shapes out of stone.
Another artisan makes bronze utensils and wonderfully aromatic rose sticks on order. The people are no less of a mystery. They celebrate Navroz (with the village turning out for polo and archery). Buzkashi, an ancient central-Asian sport, is also in living memory, pointing to Turtuk’s connect with northern cultures.
The big surprise in Muslim Turtuk is a Buddhist monastery, with a tall wooden tower that has been closed due to suicide attempts! There is also an undated mosque where swastika patterns mingle freely with Iranian designs.
I leave Turtuk the next morning on the 7am bus, the town’s only way out, as storm clouds gather around Khardung La. I’d long wanted to see a land in the throes of a fierce winter, and with Turtuk, I got my wish. But nature threw in a bonus: we got stuck in a snowstorm on the way back. Perhaps there is a thin line between adventure and death. I should ask the river about it.
Photos by Shubham Mansingka
From HT Brunch, May 10
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