There is something about the borders that has always fascinated me. A desire to see beyond the invisible lines, a curiosity to discover the difference between us and them and to witness how people live in these areas, especially the one which The Economist has branded the most dangerous border of the world. On that border, in the lap of the Karakoram, sits Turtuk, a hamlet overlooking the river Shyok that flows into Pakistan-administered Baltistan.
In winter, the evening drops early on Turtuk. The temperature is well below the sub-zero mark; we make our way in the dark to the guesthouse through a maze of lanes. Faizullah Khan, our host and the Balti Guesthouse caretaker opens the door to us. He runs this establishment alongwith his uncle, Abdullah. The small guesthouse overlooks farmlands and has a distant view of the Shyok, the river of sorrow.
Over the years the village was kept under the protected area, with little access to the outside world. This has changed for Turtuk but other villages on the border still remain off-limits.
Settling in, we struggle with the bukhari, a local heating system found in Balti homes. This is the first time visitors have come to the village in winters, says Faizullah. He talks of the legends and the culture of the Balti people, of how people get married or how they survived during the Kargil war when a few shells fell in their village. One of his favourites is a story of a yak that stepped on a land mine and was blown up when it tried to cross the border. Borders are for people, he says, not animals.
The village that remained closed to outsiders till late 2010, now has tourists frequenting the village during summers. For the first time this year tourists have reached Turtuk in winter, claim locals.
What were we doing here so far from home? A bike trip in August last year had brought me to Turtuk, when we had stayed in the same guest house. We could spend only a day in the village last time and had decided to come back again. But I didn't know it would be this soon.
The Balti Hamlet
Around 200 km from Leh, the Turtuk sector - as the army calls the region - is considered a 'sensitive zone.' It was opened for outsiders only in 2010. It remained cut off from the rest of the country for decades after it was 'reclaimed' by the Indian military during the 1971 war. While India was fighting on its eastern border, locals from nearby villages of Chalungkha fled to Khaplu and Skardu, towns in Baltistan (Pakistan). But the people of Turtuk decided to stay, says Abdul Karim, an elder who takes care of the village mosque. When asked what happened after that, he said, "We are where we have been for ages, our country changed but we remained the same. Earlier, we used to obey the Pakistani army, now it is the Indian army." On December 13, 1971, the Indian army launched an operation in the Turtuk sector and advanced 25 km extending its domain to a cluster of four villages - Dhothang, Tyakshi, Turtuk and Chalungkha.
Turtuk is famous for its apricots, tomatoes and walnuts. The village even has a small cooperative that bottles apricot juice which is sold in Leh later.
In between Leh and Turtuk, is Hunder, a village where tourists flock to see the sand dunes of the cold desert and the two-humped Bactrian camels. There is an end-of-the-world feel beyond that, as one takes the road that snakes through the Nubra valley along the turquoise-blue Shyok river and towering Karakoram range on the side. Turtuk is a place for those who have had their fill of monasteries, glacial lakes and rafting and looking for something fresh and enchanting.
In between Leh and Trutuk lies a village called Hunder, known for the sand dunes of the Ladakh's cold desert and the two-humped Bactrian camels living there.
As you leave behind the monasteries, prayer flags and enter the village of Bogdang, the change is striking. The villagers here are fair and rosy-cheeked with aquiline features.
Locals claim that they are Aryan with Central Asian and Tibetan roots. While Ladakh is essentially a Buddhist-dominated area, Turtuk follows Islam. The area is home to a population of Noorbakshias, the followers of the Sufi order of Islam, as well as Sunnis and Shias.
While Ladakh is essentially a Buddhist-dominated area, Turtuk and other Balti villages follow Islam. The twin villages of Turtuk, Youl and Faroul, have beautiful wooden mosques. The one in Youl, as mentioned in their records, was first restored in 1690.
To trace the culture and tradition of Turtuk one only needs to visit the house of the Khan of Turtuk, Mohammad Khan Kacho, a descendant of the Yabgo dynasty that ruled the region well before the 16th century. Once the second-largest kingdom in the region, the Yabgo dynasty monitored an active trade route to Ladakh connecting it to Yarkand and Kashgar (China) and Samarkand (Uzbekistan) on the Silk Route.
Once a part of the Yabgo dynasty that ruled Baltistan, Turtuk served to an active trade route to Ladakh, connecting it to Yarkand and Kashgar (China) and Samarkand (Uzbekistan) on the Silk Route.
The twin villages of Turtuk, Youl and Faroul, are divided by a mountain stream. They are home to around 500 families mostly reliant upon agriculture, mules that are rented to the army and now increasingly, tourism.
The villagers here are fair and rosy-cheeked with aquiline features. Locals claim that they are Aryan with Central Asian and Tibetan roots.
With lush green fields of buckwheat and barley, Turtuk looks like an oasis of green amidst all the barrenness and roaring torrent of river Shyok as it rushes to converge with the mighty Indus in Pakistan. In summer, locals can be seen carting huge bundles of barley on their backs or drying apricots on roofs.
During winters nothing grows on the farmlands that dot the village. It depends entirely on the barley and buckwheat crops grown during the summer season.
For decades, village elders didn't allow young men to join the Indian army or police forces fearing their fate should Pakistan take over the control of the village again. The women seem to take care of everything - from household chores to working in the field with the men idling around, perhaps getting up only after the muezzin's call from the mosque. Both villages have beautiful wooden mosques. The one in Youl (it was first restored in 1690), boasts a minar built entirely of latticed wood and exquisitely carved ceiling panels. Then there is the monastery on the hill top that serves as a viewpoint for K2 or Mount Godwin-Austen which is visible when the skies are clear.
Located in the laps of the mighty Karakoram range, the road snaking through the Nubra valley to Turtuk has an edge-of-the-world feel to it.
It is difficult to imagine how life changes every time when the border does. The village elders we met said that hundreds were left behind in Pakistan that winter night when the village was won over by Indian forces. Children were separated from parents, siblings from one another and wives from husbands; their return would be impossible. Even if anyone is lucky enough to get a temporary visa, one has to travel hundreds of miles to reach the village just a few kilometres away. Listening to the stories of partition, it strikes me that the borders I was so fascinated with, is exaggerated, precisely because then they might just cease to exist.