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Turtuk, beauty of the last bastion

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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. 

Turtuk Village

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.

Streams flowing through 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).

We can see peaks from Pakistan occupied Kashmir

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.

Hills surrounding the Turtuk region

Tumultuous past

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.

all surrounding peaks have strategic positions occupied by forces

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.

rugged landscape on the way

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.

bridge on Shyok river

Rich heritage

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 village

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

bridge connecting two parts of Turtuk

“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.”

a local women cooking food at Turtuk

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.

beauty all around in Turtuk

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.

a ‘tourist’ map of Turtuk at Friend’s cafe

Also read: September fun in Leh with Ladakh festival!

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.

driving along the Shyok river towards Turtuk

Balti Bulbul

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.

Also read: Khardungla might have lost the height but not the sheen!

Welcoming roads to a distant land!

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A day searching birds- rare and beautiful

DSC_4698Bird lovers across India including Delhi spent the entire day on Sunday, 16th February trailing birds in different bird-rich locations. As part of the Big Bird Day 2014, 384 birder teams-comprising about 3,000 to 5,000 people-documented the diversity of bird species. In the capital, 27 teams participated. They covered Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary, Okhla Bird Sanctuary, Asola Wildlife Sanctuary, Yamuna Biodiversity Park, Aravalli Biodiversity Park and other sites.

For the first time, six teams from Pakistan joined the bird race. Teams also came from Spain, Dubai and the US. Every state and union territory including Daman and Diu, Pondicherry, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and others participated, organizers said.
“The response has been huge this year. Last year, there were only 160 teams,” said birder and co-organizer Bikram Grewal. He plans to make it an international event starting next year.

DSC_4761The Big Bird Day started from the Delhi Bird group-a team of avid bird-watchers a few years ago. In another first this year, the exercise is being computed on a software called E Bird. “Last year it was slightly ad hoc, so we tried to make it much more organized this time by urging everyone to submit their results on EBird which can compute the results accurately,” added Grewal. The final results of the number of species that were spotted across the country will be declared on Saturday.

Nikhil Devasar, another birder and co-organizer of Bird Day, said that the results will indicate the health of bird diversity in India. “We are not mapping numbers but numbers of species. It’s a huge exercise, so it will take us time to compile the results,” he said. There are no binding rules, participants usually make their own teams , set out at sunrise and come back at sunset. Some teams also do it only for a few hours.

DSC_4808At Aravalli Biodiversity Park, for instance, a seven-member team participated from 7.30am to 1.30pm but 79 species were recorded compared to 84 last year. “This may be due to fog and bad light in morning hours. After it became sunny, more species were encountered,” said M Shah Hussain, scientist in charge at Aravalli Biodiversity Park. Some important species they spotted include Eurasian eagle owl, Orange headed thrush, Rufous fronted prinia, Booted eagle, Grey breasted prinia, Common wood shrike and Oriental honey buzzard.

Teams at Yamuna Biodiversity Park also had a ball spotting 95 species. “The Thick-billed flowerpecker was seen for the first time. It’s a rare bird. We are thrilled with the sighting,” Faiyaz A Khudsar, scientist in charge at Yamuna Biodiversity Park, said.

(source: TOI)

Pakistan to relaunch its tourist train

Steam safari
Gandhara Steam safari

In order to give its tourist sector a boost Pakistan railways have planned to establish a tourist train from Rawalpindi to Khewra and other frivolous areas. According to plan set initially the tourist train will cover routes from Rawalpindi to Taxila, Attock Khurd, Rohtas Fort, Mangla dam and Khewra. Afterwards, the Railways will extend its tourist train operations to other entertaining spots of the country. Railways also plan to offset some of its losses through this. The ‘tourist train’ will be run by Pakistan Railways Advisory and Consultancy Service (PRACS), a subsidiary of Pakistan Railways, on weekly basis.

In the past Railways started such project on October 2010 between  Rawalpindi and Taxila Museum  to attract people to visit the tourist locations, but due to some reasons, the train project could not be continued. According to railways officials the train was suspended on the instructions of the ministry of railways owing to security situation. However, Pakistani media claims that facts speak a different story. According to an official document, aging locomotives, shortage of equipment, over-staffing and large debt continue to take their toll on railways. PRACS had launched Gandhara Steam Safari tourists trains in 2010. Weekend day trip on the train Steam Safari tourists train wasl charged Rs 1,200 per head from Lahore to Changa Manga and from Rawalpindi to Taxla and adjacent historical areas and in the package the return ticket was included.

Crystal Deposits on the Khewra salt mine walls. Photo: Wikipedia
Crystal Deposits on the Khewra salt mine walls. Photo: Wikipedia

Now on the re-launch first of such train will embark on a day’s journey on coming 23rd November to Khewra where the world’s second largest salt mine exists. It is a part of a salt range which stretches over 300 kms. Tourist train will also run between Rawalpindi and Taxila, Attock Khurd, Rohtas Fort and Mangla dam. Later on, the service will be extended to other tourist attractions. Special coaches have been built for the tourist train. With the start of winter season, PRACS had started receiving queries from educational institutions seeking chartered tourist trains for different places of historic importance, PRACS official said.

Jaulian Ancient Buddhist Monastery at Taxila in Pakistan. Photo: Wikipedia
Jaulian Ancient Buddhist Monastery at Taxila in Pakistan. Photo: Wikipedia

All these spots are high on tourist radar.  The ruins of Taxila consist of many different parts of the city buildings and buddhist stupas which are located in a large area. The main ruins of Taxila are divided into three major cities, each belonging to a distinct time period. In addition to the ruins of the city, a number of buddhist monasteries and stupas also belong to the Taxila area. Some of the important ruins of this category include the ruins of the stupa at Dharmarajika, the monastery at Jaulian, the monastery at Mohra Muradu in addition to a number of stupas.

Changa Manga Forest train running on a narrow guage. Photo: Dr. Roland Zeigler
Changa Manga Forest train running on a narrow guage. Photo: Dr. Roland Zeigler/pakistaniat.com

Changa Manga has not been included this time in the itinerary. Hopefullly, it might be done later. Changa Manga is a planted forest and a wildlife center in Lahore District. It covers an area of 4,860 hectares (12,000 acres) and is one of the largest man-made forests on the planet. The planting and irrigation of it took place in the 19th century in the era of the British Raj due to the need for timber for the Indian railway network. The Changa Manga forest is a hot spot concerning wildlife in Punjab. Wildlife within the borders of the plantation include a small remaining population of Nilgai, hog deer, wild boar and possibly axis deer. Jackal and Asiatic wild cat can be found in Changa Manga as well. Changa Manga serves as a wildlife breeding center. Changa Manga plantation is an important place for restocking projects of Asiatic vultures in Pakistan. Parts of the forest have now been developed into a park with a rail road which gives the visitor a 25 km ride on a miniature train through the forest. There is a lake called Lunar Lake where boating is possible. The forest park has good recreational facilities and a good quality hotel.

Magnificent Kabuli Gate of Rohtas Fort
Magnificent Kabuli Gate of Rohtas Fort

Among the places included this time Attock Khurd is a small town located on the River Indus in the Attock District of Punjab, Pakistan. Historically and strategically, Attock Khurd is considered the gateway to Central Asia since it is near Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa border. The old city has a rich history and was of special importance to the entire sub-continent since early civilization days. Rohtas Fort is a  is a historical garrison fort built by king Farid Khan, located near the city of Jhelum Pakistan to subdue the warrior tribes of North Punjab. This fort is about 4 km in circumference. The Rohtas fort was built to crush the local tribes of Potohar who were fiercely independent and loyal to Emperor Humayun. Sher Shah constructed Qila Rohtas to block Emperor Humayun’s return to India after defeating him in the Battle of Kanauj. This fort lies on the old GT road between the North (Afghanistan and western Pakistan today) to the Plains of Punjab. This fort is a UNESCO world heritage site. The Mangla Dam is  a multipurpose dam located on the Jhelum River in the Mirpur District 67 miles (108 km) south-east of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. Mangla Dam is said to be the twelveth largest dam in the world. The main dam is 10,300 feet (3140 m) long and 454 feet (138 m) high (above core trench) with a reservoir of 97.7 square miles (253 km²).