A part of Pakistan until 1971, opened to tourists only in 2010, this hidden gem in J&K is a gateway to the formidable Siachen Glacier, offers a view of Pakistan’s army bunkers and the chance for thrill-seekers to unearth forgotten wonders
You won’t find any sari-clad Kajol lookalikes running across the snow-topped mountains, seemingly oblivious to the cold, but in the last few years Leh has made the jump from off-the-radar escape to mainstream holiday destination for even Himachal-bound honeymooners. Whether it’s the capital city that’s now teeming with part-of-a package-tourists in popular months, to the unreal Pangong Lake dotted by too real biscuit-wrappers to enthusiastic camel-riding tourists in the Nubra Valley, Leh’s mass-virginity has been taken.
But the mountains keep some secrets, still. And there remain places hard to reach, and harder to live in… dusty old villages where royalty tells the tale of it’s slow demise in its own tongue, and the number of households are less than 500. The sleepy, near forgotten village of Turtuk is one of them. Here are seven reasons to visit the tourist-light, lesser-known village in the Leh district of Jammu & Kashmir.
- The drive is mind blowing: Located 205kms from Leh city, prepare yourself for an arduous drive 9-hour drive. You’ll witness everything, from mountain terrain to the Nubra valley, from slightly modern villages to those where the entertainment is still playing in haystacks, from views of the Shyok river to the endless blue skies and cotton-candy clouds. Due to treacherous roads and sensitive army base camps, Indian civilians were not issued permits until late 2010 and even today the rickety bridge that ushers you in to Turtukis manned by the Indian army.
- It’s the closest you can get to Pakistan: Turtuk was a part of Baltistan, part of Pakistan – until 1971: making it the last outpost in India where the Pakistan-controlled Northern Areas begin. An area of conflict even in the Kargil War of 1999, the Army influence is evident and with the right guide, ample motivation and strong binoculars you can get close enough to see the Pakistani bunkers used in the war.
- It’s a history lesson in real life: Previously known as Baltistan, the landscape, culture, language, clothing, and the physical features of people change considerably once you cross over to Turtuk. Locals believe they share genes with the Tibetans and their facial features seem to second that notion. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Leh city anymore. A predominantly Muslim village, it’s literacy levels are high and Maha guesthouse owner, Mr Salman proudly shares that the village has produced doctors and engineers – and of course, guest house owners and home stay owners. (The effective literacy rate is alleged to be more than 80 per cent).
- The topography is to die for (literally): On the edge of the Shyok valley, further down from Nubra, Turtuk boasts skies bluer than the Maldives water, sun flowers the size of my face, natural waterfalls and of course, the mountains. A treacherous upward trek with a mild-mannered Turtuk(ian) teenager in chappals, had us fearing for our lives, as each teetering step seemed one step closer to plummeting to death — we did manage to see Pakistani bunkers, so all was well. #win. Make sure to do the trek, no matter how petrified we’ve made you. Thanks to the lower altitude of the village, it’s home to beautiful apricot orchards too.
- An actual Royal gives you a tour of their family home and heirlooms: In a village that time (and the government) seems to have forgotten, the Yakbo (the current Royal) gives us a tour of his family home— from weapons to jewels, he, with his infant granddaughter resting on his hip, gives us a lineage lesson – leaving us in awe of the fact that here, an actual royal plays tour guide. (Imagine Britain’s queen holding up Princess Charlotte as she guides you through her home #mindblown)
- It’s a gateway to the Siachen Glacier: While you won’t find the Night’s watch at guard at a freezing wall, the village is a gateway to the much-disputed glacier. However, its proximity doesn’t make it eternally freezing – classified as ‘desert’ climate, the village doesn’t get much rain but does get temperatures that range from -10c in December to 28c in July. Our August sojourn meant we faced warm days and ‘pleasant’ evenings.
- If offers a view of K2: the second highest mountain in the world. It doesn’t get cooler than this.
We spent two days and nights in the quietude of Turtuk – meandering through it’s tiny, dusty bylanes – exchanging hellos with children playing hooky from school, meeting bright-eyed toddlers requesting us for ‘one photo please’ in perfect English, and teenagers playing guide and confidante to us travellers’ passing through – sharing aspirations of wanting to move to the big city (Leh). Proving that whether it’s the frenzied metro Mumbai or a quiet hovel hidden in J&K, people are bound by the same hopes and desires.
And as we trekked to a Buddhist temple in the village, through the quietly beautiful streets to see the school, a naturally-refrigerated cave where villagers often stock their food, an old mosque, it became clear that Turtuk is both a hidden gem and a forgotten hamlet. Our guesthouse didn’t have a TV, in fact it was one of the few that had electricity a few hours a night – a ‘necessity’ we city dwellers take for granted. Salman, owner of the Maha Guesthouse, with tears in his eyes told us that upon flooding, the village didn’t receive government help for days on end. Being deprived of running water for a few hours can send us in a tizzy, but here at Turtuk, basic amenities can be a struggle – yet its smiling residents solder on. Naturally blessed and fought over, the village still remains like the step child whose custody you fight for, for pride— but aren’t quite sure you are really ready to invest in it. Here’s hoping that an influx of visitors can prevent it from being another statistic, change its quiet fate and ensure it doesn’t deeply disappear in to the cornucopia of India’s colourful chaotic future.
Location –Turtuk, Leh, Jammu & Kashmir
Famous for/as: A few kms from the India –Pakistan LOC
Route: Leh – Nubra Valley – Turtuk
Best season: May to October