Turtuk is a village in the Leh district of Jammu and Kashmir, India. Once part of Baltisthan in Pakistan, it was recaptured during Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. This unruffled village is 235km from Leh, lies at the extreme corner of the Indian border and remains unexplored as it was opened to tourists only in 2010 because of perilous roads and sensitive army base camps surrounding it. It is the last outpost in India after which the Pakistan-controlled Gilgit-Baltistan begins.
I had somehow missed google-ing this village after my friend Greeshma handed over our Leh – ladakh itinerary which she had been planning for over a year. Being unaware of this unheard village I wasn’t sure what to expect.
From Leh we crossed Khardungla and drove ahead of Hunder in Nubra Valley. On our way we came across a few army base camps were photography was strictly prohibited. Grey, ash-like sand and white mountains were our only company. We were greeted by Shyok river which followed us all the way to Turtuk before entering Pakistan.
When we reached Turtuk we had no clue how to get to our guesthouse. Seeing us confused a villager asked if we were the guests for K2 Guesthouse. He also told us that our host was waiting for long and just went up a while ago. “Went Up? So, where is the Guesthouse?” I asked with a jaw dropped. “Uphill, a short climb from here” said the polite villager.
With a heavy backpack I started trekking up the narrow path, usually taken by local villagers with their donkeys carrying heavy bags of supplies. Every step I took, I gasped for breath because of the high altitude. Finally when I reached the top I was left speechless. I was transferred to this fantasy land where friendly girls and children hop around the village, came by to wish us with a curious face. A few even helped my friends carry their luggage. We walked in between the narrow path of barley fields overlooking a huge mountain, greeting every villager we came across “JULEY”. “Juley” in the local language is a polite equivalent to ‘Hello’. As we reached K2 guest house, our host Hussain Baig and his family greeted us with a refreshing cup of hot chai. Inquisitive kids of the village took turns to peep from the gate outside to get a glimpse of their new visitors. We couldn’t resist playing with them and continued to do so until dark.
After dinner, which we thoroughly enjoyed, we sat down as Hussian started to brief us on Turtuk. He described Turtuk as ‘A Muslim village where Balti people live in harmony’. People here mainly depend on agriculture and harvest twice a year. Varieties of fruits and vegetables are grown here. A village which was quite unexplored by tourists is now witnessing visitors who wander into this serene territory. Tourism is slowly picking up here. He went on to say how they store food underground and play on snow covered fields during winters.
When I asked him if the Balti people who were under Pakistan control feared to be part of India after war? Hussain our host says “During war we had our doubts. India being Hindu nation what our fate would be. Overnight we became Indians. We have our relatives in Pakistan. After the war Indian army has supported Turtuk people by building roads to village, introduced many schemes for their welfare, hired them as porters. Whereas Turtuk supplies them with the crop they grow, almost every house has a donkey which they use to supply goods for army. Army & the people of Turtuk are dependent on each other. They go hand in hand”. When I asked him being a Muslim if he regrets being an Indian. Without a slight hesitation he proudly says “he is happy in Hindustan. Pakistan Army wouldn’t have supported, treated & given importance as much as Indian army is doing to us now”.
By then his shy wife walks to the door after putting her kids to sleep & we ask her to join. Hussian tells theirs was a love marriage and they got married at the young age 14 -15 years and are blessed with 4 kids. Hussain’s wife is the only Turtuk women to have traveled out of Leh to Mumbai. She chuckles when we ask her if she liked Mumbai. 7pm-11pm is when the village gets electricity so we rushed to charge our phones. For next 30minutes he spoke about Turtuk & how this village is different from Leh. Hussain feels Turtuk has not got its share of tourisn compared to its neighbours. He had a wealth of knowledge and information to share about his village. He spoke good english and wishes to make Turtuk a popular tourist destination. We were truly delighted to have stayed with such a hospitable Balti family. Hussian told us he would take us around Turtuk in the morning and our faces lit up. Having heard so much about this exceptional village we all were curious to see it.
Day 2: Hussian knocked at our door at 7:30 in the morning. We quickly freshened up and were treated with buckwheat pancakes, fresh butter and Jam for breakfast. He took us to the Buddhist Monastery on top of the village which had a complete view of Turtuk. People of Turtuk embrace peace and to see a small well-kept monastery in a Muslim dominated village took me by surprise. Door was locked and keys to it was kept outside. We went inside and prayed for a while. We could see the graveyard and an abandoned place where Pakistan had made it their camp during war.
As we walked down we couldn’t stop our self from plucking apricots. Hussain told us that they grow 7 varieties of apricots in the village and the best ones you see in market could be from Turtuk. Almost every house has a private garden where they grow different vegetables. Hussain also plucked some white & blue mulberries for us.
We walked towards a school where we came across many chubby and red cheeked shy kids.While the boys played on ground with apricots replacing the tennis ball, Girls giggled peeping from the windows.
Houses here are compact, made mostly of stones and very few lock their homes. They are clustered together & the narrow pathways could be little confusing. What surprised me the most is the 200 years old natural refrigerators that they use. There are as many as 20 such refrigerators shared between families. The temperature inside the fridge is always cool regardless of the temperature outside and the proof to it is the 25-years old butter that still remains fresh inside. We drank cold water from the fridge as the temperature outside was mercilessly hot.
We were taken to a mosque built in 1871. I was amazed when Hussain pointed at few art work inside the mosque of various religions. I only wish this village continue to live in unity and equal respect towards all religions .
As we walked around its many narrow paths around old Turtuk we were accompanied by many small streams where we quenched our thirst.
We sat down to relax for a while at a place in old village where Hussain said at this place, men gather at dusk to chat and whale away time. How nice is that? To have time to talk to people, exchange thoughts and well-being of each other unlike us where the only ones we talk to are our phones and laptops.
Next we were taken to Royal Palace. We were honored to meet Yagbo Modh Khan, the direct descendant from King of Western Turkistan that ruled over this area (called Baltistan Chorbat) for over 1000years. Turtuk was a central village and place for the king, today Yagbo Modh Khan lives in the palace and has his own private museum of family artifacts over the ages. He briefed us on the artifacts and we were lucky to have met him. He is married to a young woman from the same village and they live in the same royal palace while his son studies in a city.
As we strolled further down the village we came across an old shawl maker who dint wanted to be clicked, beautiful bridges where water came gushing fiercely and few guesthouses. We could see K2 mountain peak from Turtuk. K2 is the 2nd highest mountain in the world, after Mount Everest.
We finally stopped at Friend’s Café for lunch where we met few travelers who had ventured out of Hunder on a day trip to Turtuk.
I would recommend to everyone going to Turtuk to stay at K2 guesthoue owned by Hussain Baig .Phone : 09419510276. Hussain goes extra mile to make your stay comfortable and doubles up as your guide.
Turtuk is a beautiful village for people who uphold simplicity , want to live and interact with local Balti people. It retains its old world charm as development is not at par with Leh. It was a blessing to have visited this picturesque village. Never thought a place like this could exist.