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.
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.
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!
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Amazing Turtuk . Thanks for the beautiful post.
Thanks a lot Rupam.