Silver coloured sand dunes of Hunder in Nubra valley of Ladakh have gradually become a part of the must-see itinerary for tourists to Ladakh. Its a very unusual landscape, no doubt about it. In a single frame, you can see sand dunes, river, forest as well as snow clad peaks. You even have camels for desert safari, albeit double humped ones. Its a rugged landscape all around, but Hunder seems like out of world for this region. It has got so many colours and textures in one place, that you can’t stop admiring.
Most tourists will come on a day trip here. They will Leh early in the morning and then reach here before lunch. They will leave back by early evening to each back to Leh. But since this place is best enjoyed during sunset, hence it is better to plan a night halt at Hunder. A less than two day’s trip to Nubra can’t do justice to this place. If you keep two days in hand, than besides Hunder sand dunes, you can have sufficient time to see Diskit monastery on the first day and you can even go Turtuk, the next morning. Although, personally I would like to stay a night at Turtuk as well.
You won’t find much of a difference on either sides of Khardungla Pass, until you reach Khalsar. Here the valley widens. But still, it is only until we reach Diskit, that we get to notice the mixed landscape of sand dunes, Shyok river, mountain ranges as well as Karakoram wildlife sanctuary. Since 2010, Diskit pronounces its existence from a fair distance through the large statue of Maitreya Buddha, which is visible from a distance string on a top of a hill. Due to lower elevation and milder climate, this valley has lush vegetation and Diskit has its own healthy share of apricot and apple orchards in this oasis.
Diskit is administrative headquarter of Nubra valley. Diskit monastery is also the biggest in valley on this side of Khardungla. Diskit indeed has a very strategic location. It is on edge of a mountain, so it has a mountain on its back as a wall to protect itself. It is just around 20 kms from Khalsar from where road goes towards Shyok and further to Pangong Tso, i.e. very close to China. Other road from Khalsar goes deep into Nubra valley to Sumur and Panamik. Another 20-23 kms from Khalsar is Khardung from where climb to Khardungla starts, pass which shields Leh valley. Diskit is also at the edge of the desert. Diskit monastery can be reached via Diskit village through a dusty road that crosses a stream in the middle of the village. We can drive upto the base of the monastery, but then you have to walk up the stairs to the temples. Since the whole monastery is built on a hill it is a a bit of climb till the top.
Right in front of the Diskit monastery is the vast expanse or you may call flood plains of the Nubra valley. Right there in this plains Nubra river merges with Shyok river. Both these rivers are said to be originating from different tongues of Siachen glacier. Also famously known as the highest battleground in the world, Siachen glacier is right behind the Karakoram ranges seen from Diskit. Thus, Diskit also keeps an eye on all the travellers coming to Leh from the China or the Pakistan side, i.e. the old trading route of the Silk road.
Therefore the importance of Diskit monastery, located at altitude of 3142 metres, couldn’t have been greater historically. But at the same time, it would also have to face the brunt of all the unwelcoming visitors. Gonkhang or the protector temple at the monastery is testimony to that. Severed head and a hand of a medieval Mongol invader are still said to be kept here, as if the protector deity (Kali) is holding them. It is said that the Mongol resurrected himself, every time he was killed. It stopped only when his severed hand and head were brought to the temple.
There is a large 32 metre (106 foot) statue of Maitreya Buddha at the foothill of the main monastery. This statue is a recent addition to this place and was consecrated in 2010 by Dalai Lama. This statue itself sits on top of a small hillock. There is a temple at the base of this statue. Official residence of the Chief Lama of Nubra, the photong is also said to be located here.
This monastery belongs to different sect than the one which runs the Hemis monastery. This 14th century gompa was actually founded by Changzem Tserab Zangpo, a disciple of Tsong Khapa who founded the Gelugpa (yellow hat) order of Tibetan Buddhism. The cupola of the monastery is said to be similar to Tashi Lhunpo monastery of Tibet. There is also a fresco of the same monastery here. The historic and culturally important Tashi Lhunpo is said to have been founded in 1447 by the first Dalai Lama near Shigatse in Tibet. Monastery has a statue of Cho Rinpoche in the prayer hall. There is a huge drum and several images of fierce guardian deities. Well, Diskit monastery is said to have seen a lot of upheaval in four centuries. Lachung temple is above the Diskit monastery, but not very far. This is one of the oldest temples in Nubra valley. There is a large idol of Tsong Khapa in this temple and a Gelugpa yellow hat crowns the idol.
Finally, in mid 18th century this monastery was given to Rimpoche of Thiksey monastery and hence, since then Diskit is considered as a sub-gompa of Thiksey monastery. Monastery houses almost 100 monks. Diskit Gompa celebrated its annual gustor festival on 7th and 8th October this year. This monastery will again celebrate Dosmoche festival on 2-3 February 2019. Many lamas gather here for the festival which is marked by mask dances depicting victory of good over evil.
Tip: Time your visit to the monastery carefully as some of the temples of the monastery remain closed in the afternoon. To my surprise, while there were a large number of tourists at the Maitreya Buddha statue, which is right on the road, but only a handful of them go up towards the main monastery, as it needs a bit of climb and walk. Whereas, it is worth seeing and devoting some time to understand the culture and the history of the region.
Have you been to the Diskit monastery in Nubra valley of Ladakh? Please share your experiences with us in the comments section below.
Turtuk is a village like no other. Long before we reached the village, occasional villagers coming our way—while working in the fields or returning from nearby villages or grazing their cattle—gave us the clear signs that we have moved miles away from traditional region of Ladakh. The body features were quite distinct and sharp similar to those of people of Gilgit-Baltistan region.
It wasn’t unusual though. Turtuk is said to be the India’s Gilgit-Baltistan. Besides it is quite far from last large habitat of Ladakh in Nubra valley. Hunder is more than 90 kilometres away. Hunder itself does not have any historic habitat before 17th century, when it was said to be the capital of erstwhile Nubra kingdom. Now it is more of a tourist resort meant to serve the tourists coming to experience sand dunes and a ride on double humped Mongolian camels. In that sense Diskit Gompa further seven kilometres towards Leh is the last historic village of Ladakh before Turtuk.
The farther end
There are a few tiny hamlets on the way though. After leaving from Hunder, we pass through Thoise airfield and small villages of Kharu block, Skuru and Yagulung. Before Yagulung is an on-road guest house at Thachung. At Yagulung there is another road that goes to Bikudo, Sunido and Waris across the Shyok river. The whole route from Hunder onwards goes along Shyok river. Shyok river originates from Rimo glacier, which is one of the tongues of Siachen Glacier. In the expanses of Nubra valley right opposite the Diskit village, Nubra river (also known as Siachen river) meets Shyok river. Shyok river than flows through the Gilgit-Baltistan region and meets Indus river at Keris in Pakistan Occupies Kashmir (POK). Road to Turtuk snakes through narrow gorges with turquoise waters of the Shyok River (literally Death River in Uyghur, named so perhaps in the Silk Road-era).
Well, further ahead of Yaglung there are few more tiny hamlets of Chulungkha, Bogdang and Guneshthang. Then we reach Chalunka which is 13 kms before Turtuk. Ahead of Turtuk is Tyakshi almost six kilometres from Turtuk and than Thang another just about six kilometres from Tyakshi. A mountain trail leads up from the main road to Tyakshi village. In between Tyakshi and Thang is also a village named Puchathang. Just two kilometres from Thang is the border to POK. That makes Thang the northernmost village of India.
But, that’s not the story. Had it been just a story of landscapes than, perhaps it wouldn’t have made it that unique. What makes it outstanding is the story of overnight change of nationalities. It is also a human story of catastrophic nature. A cluster of seven villages around Turtuk were captured by India from Pakistan after the 1971 Indo-Pak War. Until December 1971, Turtuk was a part of Gilgit Baltistan area of Pakistan occupied Kashmir but following the 1971 India-Pakistan War, India captured seven villages of Thang, Tyakshi Groung, Tyakshi Pachathang, Turtuk Youl, Turtuk Farool, Garrri, Choulungkha. The people of the captured villages went to sleep in Pakistan but woke up in Indian control next morning.
In some families here, fathers are living on this side and mothers on the other side, children are here and parents on the other side and more than a half of the families of Turtuk are divided across the LoC. Villagers studying or working in Pakistan before 1971 remained stuck there after Turtuk became part of India. While their relatives became Indians, they remained Pakistanis. The Indian government has now made it possible for villagers to visit from Pakistan, but only with a lot of expense and paperwork. Turtuk and all the other villages remained closed to outsiders– even other Indians–until locals, weary of their long isolation, petitioned for the remote, scenic valley to open up. Hence in 2010, tourists were allowed to visit Turtuk but only after obtaining an Inner Line Permit (ILP) from Leh. In 2014, even this requirement of ILP was waived off. Now, after better roads and increased facilities, more and more tourists are reaching Turtuk.
At Chalunka, just before the village is a bridge on the Shyok river. Earlier area across the bridge was under Pakistan. There is still an army check post at the bridge. It will check the identities of everybody travelling further towards Turtuk. Then, there is another check post at Tyakshi, where an army unit is stationed.
So, located on banks of Shyok River, Turtuk is 205 kms from Leh. With population of over 3,500, it is also said to be the most populated village of Ladakh. It is a predominantly Muslim area in the Buddhist-dominated cold desert region of Leh, where residents speak Balti, Urdu and Ladakhi.
Turtuk once served as an important gateway to the Silk Road, the ancient trading route that connected India with China, Persia and Rome. Once a part of the Yabgo dynasty that ruled Baltistan, Turtuk served an active trade route to Ladakh connecting it to Yarkand and Kashgar in present day China and up till Samarkand in present day Uzbekistan on the Silk Route. To the north lies the path to China and Tibet. In the south, we can get to Kargil and then to Kashmir, and to the west, there was a road to modern Pakistan and on to Afghanistan and Iran. But if we try to locate, all we see is tall mountains everywhere around. Before modern borders, Baltistan was a separate kingdom. Until the 16th Century, monarchs from Turkistan ruled over the united province under the Yagbo dynasty, a Central Asian empire whose reign, lasting from 800 to 1800, saw a flourishing of poetry and arts. Their former summer home now serves as Turtuk’s only museum
“Turtuk is home to a population of Nurkbakhshis, a Sufi order with similarities to both Shias and Sunnis, as well as Sunnis and Twelver Shias. The historian Mohibbul Hasan writes in his book Kashmir Under the Sultans that one of Nurbakhsh’s disciples, Shamsuddin, was responsible for spreading the Nurbakhshiya creed in Kashmir and Baltistan. In the 16th century, the Nurbakhshi Sufis spread out from Iran to Baltistan and Ladakh. The influence of the cult reduced gradually as the Safavid dynasty of Persia adopted mainstream Shia Islam as the state religion and the Sunni Mughals conquered Kashmir, leaving only Baltistan as the bastion of the Nurbakhshis. The Nurbhakshis also freely acknowledge their pre-Islamic Buddhist heritage. They celebrate the Nauroz, or Iranian New Year, in March every year. When Turtuk became a part of India, the Nurbakhshiya creed got added to the country’s multitude of beliefs but left the residents alienated from their theological schools and leaders.”
An oasis in cold desert
Turtuk is located at a much more comfortable height than the rest of Ladakh, most of which is a cold desert plateau. Turtuk is instead a little green oasis unlike rest of the region. The tedious journey to reach here becomes rewarding upon seeing the picture postcard beauty of Turtuk. Its green all around with numerous glacial streams gushing down to meet Shyok river. It might at some points remind you the beauty of Pahalgam in Kashmir.
Famous for its apricots, tomatoes and walnuts, Turtuk is divided into two parts – Youl and Pharol, separated by a hump-shaped bridge. Phudinichu, a nourishing stew made with region’s famed apricots, is the local food. Electricity runs only for a few hours a day while cell phone reception is limited to BSNL. People are fair and rosy-cheeked with aquiline features and claim to be Aryans having Central Asian and Tibetan roots. Locals are very friendly and hospitable.
What to do? How to reach?
There are a few places to see around Turtuk which reflect the collective heritage of this place. There are some natural wonders as well such as natural freezers (used mostly to preserve food items like cheese), a water mill and a waterfall. There is a historic polo ground. Yes, the younger generation loves its Polo too much, they even get horses from Zanskar for this. There are ruins of Brokpa’s fort, Balti Heritage house & museum and royal house and museum belonging to the Yagbo dynasty clan. You can also see the historic mosque and a Buddhist monastery.
Taxis or private vehicles are the only means to reach Turtuk from Leh. It may take anything between seven to ten hours to reach Turtuk from Leh. It all depends on weather as well as road conditions. Most crucial in this respect is the time taken on both sides of Khardungla pass. The Jammu and Kashmir State Road Transport Corporation (JKSRTC) runs a weekly bus service from Turtuk to Leh. A daily bus runs until Diskit, which is 90 km away and is the main town of Diskit tehsil. While there is a primary health centre and a school in Turtuk, the closest hospital and college are in Leh. There are more than 10 guest houses in Turtuk now. As of now the number of tourists coming here is not that thick. Hence staying is not of a problem. You can also look for a stay with some family to know them closer.
Turtuk region has over 75 percent literacy rate. Don’t get surprised! Locals are very keen to get their kids to school. Ahmad Shah, a resident of Bogdang village, 25 km from LoC encouraged his daughter, Fatima Balti to take singing as a profession. She is said to be the first female Balti singer from this side and her Balti songs have become viral on social media after a fan put them on YouTube. Even a Pakistani newspaper carried a news story on Fatima referring to her as Balti Bulbul (see one of her recent videos on YouTube below).
Have you ever been to Turtuk? Share your experiences with us in the comments section below.
Reflecting the Himalayas in the Nubra valley of Ladakh. Ladakh is actually lot more than just Leh. The last permissible point in Nubra valley is Turtuk which is more than 200 kms away from Leh. But the highlight of the Nubra valley is Hunder sand dunes near Deskit. People go there for riding the double humped camels. Right close to dunes is the section of Karakoram wildlife sanctuary where you can see scenes like this. Marvellous. Isn’t it!
The dunes, the pool, the forest and the Himalayas! The stillness of water can make or break your photo!