TURTUK!, they said.
The sound is still quite fresh in my ears. When in 2009, i was exploring the Nubra valley in Ladakh, spending time in Hunder, a high altitude desert, i met a few school girls, so beautiful, with eyes of unthinkable colours and smiles so beautiful you can only smile more looking at them.
We are from Turtuk! Its the last big village on this road till where a vehicle can go. But you are not from here, so you can’t go there. “permission nahin hai. Army rok dega”. (its restricted area. Army wont allow). I think every word as they were saying was getting etched into my system.
“Turtuk! i must visit you someday!”
And 1st September, 2014, after years of chanting the name, i was finally on my way!
Turtuk, a picturesque village, near the Line Of Control ( about 7 kms from Pakistan occupied Kashmir) tucked right in between Skardu in POK (182 kms) and Leh (ladakh) in India (210 kms) is the only Balti village (accessible to tourists) in India that was won back by the Indian Army during 1971 Indo- Pak war.
An independent territory before Pakistan occupation, this place speaks of many stories of living as 2 countries- Turtuk of Pakistan and Turtuk of India! Restricted to tourists till 2010, this place is now open to all.
This story starts at Leh, the centre of Ladakh region from where you drive through Nubra valley into Shayok valley through the highest motorable pass in the world, called Khardung la leading into the beautiful Khardong village, then Diskhit where a 32- metres tall Maitreya Buddha sitting between the moonscape mountains welcomes you, (When i had gone in 2009, the Buddha feet were getting made so to experience the beauty of a complete piece of art felt phenomenal! i dont have photos because i always forget to pull out the camera) and that is when the familiar sand dunes of Hunder started peeping! One look at them and the many tourist camps there, and i was ready to go further!
a memory lived in 2009
As you pass Hunder, the landscape as well as constant army check points start to give you a feeling of going beyond, or it was just me because I was finally heading into a place i had imagined for so long. The place turns into many army camps, Partapur, Thiose- the highest air strip in the world, and few more small camps tucked parallel to a very important name in the story of Indian army, The Siachen Glacier. As you move further, you enter a strange place with strange people and a very strange vibe, Bokdang. Locals call it a messed up place where people are extremely unruly and you often see kids pelting stones, so it is strictly advised to bypass this place since you wont even get a cup of tea here! From here on starts the region that came to India after the re-occupation.
Though Bokdang takes you back a few steps in your imagination of Turtuk, the gorgeous landscape just takes your breath away both with its beauty as well as the fragility of the mountains and the talks of frequent land-slides on these roads. A sudden “TEA stall 400 metres ahead” sign board takes you by surprise at Garadi and that is also a sign we are nearing our destination.
96 Kms ahead of Hunder, lives as poetry and art and everything beautiful, this place of imagination, Turtuk!
While everyone was suggesting to stay by the road at a guest house to avoid the hike up to the village, my heart was pounding to be in the village and not the road! I was relentless! Village it is!
The Experience begins only once you leave your vehicle, carry your bags, look up to sort of create another image in your head and then get yourself to walk up the incline that takes you to Farol part of Turtuk.
Turtuk is divided into 2 parts- Farol which is perched as a plateau higher up and Youl, which is settled near the stream below. Both have their own mosques and both sides quite distinct in their own way.
In Farol, live the wafi Baltis and in Youl live the Nurbak or Sunni Baltis, primarily. In both live only Muslims. Farol has a Gompa (Buddhist monastery). Youl has one old mosque dated, 1690. And both sides keep asking, which one you like better- Youl or Farol?
My journey into the world of Turtuk started with Farol.
The walk up and i saw everything that poetry is made of… open fields of gyas (buck wheat) and narrow lanes, small pretty houses made of stones and mud, summer streams, hospitable welcoming smiles, kids running around, women finishing their daily chores, donkeys… so many of them, magpies fluttering everywhere, apricot and walnut trees, the view of river shayok, the barrenness of the mountains contrasting with the fields charged with fertile energy… everything about this place is balm(ing).
I also went to Tyakshi, the last point after which the restricted area begins. Just to be so close to Pakistan and realising K2 (karakoram) is not too far away and unnecessary border has blocked the traveler’s passage into a beautiful region, set out a dream. That was the spot where i thought, if the border wasn’t there, i would walk all across and touch those stunning mountains. This is slowly becoming a window to set my heart on a new exploration… to visit Pakistan someday… where the children play the same game as we who have grown up in Punjab, India do…
“akkad bakkad bambe bo… assi nabbe poore sau”! my heart rejoiced when i heard my Balti “kho bhuget” gang (the children i used to go roaming around with) playing the same game!
i was so full of dreams in that moment. I think i would have been like a thousand fireflies myself… each one spoke with a happy smile and thats where i learnt to greet Baltis , the Balti way!
Wa alaikumu s- salam!
Just when i was soaking in the beautiful sun, it started to drizzle! It looked like a painting and it felt like i was living in one. Happy smiles greeted me and some of them accompanied me in my walk over the many pagdandis (lanes to walk in the fields) enquiring about where i am from. Sometimes i say Punjab, sometimes i say Nagaland. I don’t know what to say, now that there is no permanent place i am from. They giggle at everything and i giggle too as i always do. i hear sounds of azaan from the two mosques… beautiful… with this sound of rain and shimmering wet lanes of Farol… my heart is feeling drenched and soaked with Turtuk.
Api is so beautiful in this old age too and is believed to be one of the most beautiful Balti lady of her times.
She is wearing the traditional Nama- Chane-tu. a head gear made with silver, turqoise (hue), old coins and a fabric that is mandatory for all married women. nowadays, only older women wear it under their rumaal/ shawl.
many donkeys of Turtuk and the man guiding them…
Beautiful magpies with their blue- green tail all over Turtuk! These birds make their nests in summers to breed and roam around freely in winters with no nests to protect them.
Mohammed Bhai wearing the Balti- Baal-e- kaar (sheep wool shawl) and sheep wool cap. He is someone who started my journey of Turtuk at such a loving note, it set the tone right for all the days to come. “Mohammed Bhai is priceless!” (please stay at his guest house, Shayok in Farol when you come here. I will really like it and so will you)
Turtuk cannot be experienced in two days. The decision was made. I am staying back!
That day saw the first drizzle of the epic rains Turtuk was going to experience for the next one week. With each day, it became a new challenge for the people of Turtuk who had only experienced such rains twice before. They say, when it rained in September 1988 so much, it also started snowing and the leafy trees got so heavy with snow, they started to fall under weight. After that it only rained a little like this in 1998.
Of those days my notebook is only full of stories on how the rain was slowing building up and how each day the challenges grew bigger for Turtuk people.
the rains were just not stopping.
3/09/2014: “I just heard a thunder so loud, like a mountain cracking and many rocks falling. It just went on…phone lines are cut off… Most of the people are in their homes… just a few loners outside either covering their grains and whatever that is left of the cattle food they were saving for winters or were bringing kids back from school. School was shut for the day. No one was prepared, neither them, nor me.Uncertainty!
4/09/2014:”I hear all the houses are dripping. The houses are made of mud and stones and just a wooden stick layer for the ceiling below the mud pack.
These houses are not meant for rain. Even ours is dripping. We are putting bottles, vessels everything we can find. “They say, times are changing and they will have to get tin sheets for the next season!
Some, who had large plastic sheets said if plastic wasn’t there, our homes/ grains would have been completely spoilt. “Snow was never a problem, rain is.”
5/09/2014: “The words i heard the most today: dhwa– stone, chaapa– rain, thalba– mud, brak– mountains. I cant understand what everyone is talking but i know its all about these.”
“They say it might snow tonight, temperature is apparently sub- zero and all the roads to Leh are blocked for another week. I am not complaining. I am loving it here. But there are some other tourists i hear who are quite stuck with their tickets and further journey in a fix.”
“Some people are beginning to get very worried.
Birds of the rains have showed up.
We hear a ceiling in Youl is already down and stones have been falling continuously from the mountains.
What i had heard earlier as a thunder got confirmed as many stones falling right next to Youl.I can say nothing to balm them.“Chaapa aling tang”– its raining quite a lot is all i hear and all i say.”
Mohammed bhai is becoming like a family in these days. Teaching me how to talk in Balti and making food for me. He insists on making me feel comfortable and i insist on telling him, “phikir maves”(don’t worry). ”
The whole day was spent doing patching up of the dripping ceilings, rolling up beds and securing furniture, changing filled up vessels of water making sure there is minimum damage. I helped with whatever i could and the minimum i could do was to not be a further problem.
“Its chilly cold and everything is wet. I am going to sleep with a blanket under, a shawl and 2 quilts on top. This is how Mohammed Bhai and his nephew Abideen Bhai are making sure i stay warm.”
Abideen Bhai after repairing the ceiling, yet another time.
On 6th September, mohammed bhai and i somehow made it to Youl in the middle of rains.
I stepped into Youl and i was bowled over. It was so different from Farol and yet a part of Turtuk. Thankfully, the rains stopped for a bit so i could see Youl as i would remember it forever.
Small lanes, women washing clothes at the streams, so many children, a junction where old and young men sit and spend time together, houses sharing walls, windows where you stretch your hand and reach the window of the other house, kids jumping into various houses through the terraces, an unbelievably beautiful maze of community life. I saw also Balti textiles and the skill that goes into crafting them. A new love was born.
the apricots drying on top and the chakki below.
Ismail home-stay was going to be my home for the next few days. I loved the space the moment i entered. i was taken to the kitchen and bukhaari directly! The house was dripping here too but Ismail Bhai’s family is quite amazing.
Apo Ali, the grandfather Ali. he is the man i had been waiting to meet. The Ustad (artisan). His complete name, Ali. Ismail bhai says all his life, for all official work everyone asked him twice for his father’s full name. But it was always Ali, only! He weaves, farms, makes homes, constructs necessary tools for the villagers and reads namaaz 5 times a day.
He is the most important man in my story of Turtuk and a lot of what i learned is from the many hours we spent together in a day.
Ismail Bhai, the soul of Ismail home stay, Youl. He is always willing to help and always full of stories, Ismail bhai showed me Turtuk like i will always remember. He loves his place and he made me see it every day
Ashe, Ismail bhai’s wife and lifeline of the house.
Anyone i ever met who knew Ashe would say, Shukre khuda (thank god), she is in our life. Always full of love and always taking care of your little things. She was the one working non- stop making sure everyone is fed properly and never once she would ask, “how is the meal?”, it was always perfectly good.
this girl, Mubeena, the youngest of the four, carries a mysteriously energy around her. i can watch her all day and she will have something to entertain me. i am her ritika machong now (maashi)
Ruksana, the second born. Quiet and shy and a very hard working girl. She asked me questions of life in the cities and she told me how the family system works in Turtuk.
the responsible and hard working Irfan, always shying away from camera too. He is always helping in house chores and here is helping Apo Ali repair the leaking ceiling.
Armaan Ali, the naughty one always spinning my poi!
In no time, i was at home!
you can see the effect of rain at Apo Ali’s house too… everyone is saying, rain should stop now.
Apo ali tries to protect the loom and weaves as much as he can.
Yesterday was a crazy day and stones have fallen all over the place and all the road are blocked. The tourists who have been here are trying to get their tickets cancelled or postponed. Few are panicking because you still hear and see rocks falling. I hope whoever has to get somewhere can get there soon. So many people out on the road trying to get the roads cleared.
After i spend some time with my new friends trying to figure out the situation, I find Sagar Bhai and go for a beautiful walk to OL while the rain is not coming down. Ol was full of old apricot and walnut trees, turnips, gyas- buck wheat, potatoes and many herbs like samik. It was like a garden! I loved every bit of this walk and it was such a welcome break from the constant rains. I am learning Balti little little and the people have already by now started calling me their own. They are discussing the tourist problems and how to bail them out with me. May be I AM their own!
everyone is loving a bit of sun after days!
I have also connected with some other tourists from various countries and each one fascinated by the road and the movement. I have made many kid friends by now.
I have also spent a lovely morning chatting with Apo ali. He is fascinated by the stories of hollow Bamboo and how it is used for almost everything in the North East. I have promised to share stories and bring photos of the north east with me the next time and i can’t wait for that opportunity.
Just as much as i am full of stories for them, they are full of stories for me over the endless conversations we share in the evenings.
And while some tourists are bent on leaving, few of us are feeling a bit settled. Geert has been teaching me some poi skills!and an evening was squeezed in to create a beautiful evening of poi spinning with Turtuk kids at Shing-e-Zaaba- the wooden bridge, the bridge that connects Youl and Farol.
We often talk of the meaning of “being stuck” and how it is a state of mind. About how we always keep thinking of the future and that there is a sense or need to get to another place, a better place, a better situation, a more needed environment. But actually if you stop feeling stuck, then you are not stuck at all, and the experience evolves right from then on.
I am very happy about the life i have chosen to live. And i am very happy i bond with kids fabulously! And i am very happy i am now becoming part of one more beautiful family.
In the midst of the people in panic to leave, i decide when the roads clear and all the people in emergency are already on their way home, i will figure how and when to leave. Right now there is no hurry to get anywhere.
A strange thing happened from the walk to OL. There i was mesmerized by the sight of some old and new trees and brought with me some photographs of those. in just one night of more rains, that whole stretch got flattened. A big boulder like rock rolled through that land taking the landscape and the trees with it. These trees were very special to Ismail bhai and his brothers. Ashe who is always calm and happy looked a little not herself. When they shared this episode with me, I tried to understand what trees they are talking of, i showed them pictures that i took yesterday. Their trees were all there! They were still alive in my pictures and Ismail bhai said, “those are my trees. I want these photos.”
I am happy i can share the memory of the trees and the way they looked till yesterday. But i am more amazed at the ability of the people of the mountains/ hills to move on with life and carry on. If nature is harsh on these people, they have the ability to respect nature’s decision and start all over again.
This is what makes them what they are… the happiest people i have met so far!
And i am just very happy i can spend my time in this unadulterated formula of happiness and of living.
September 8th, 2014:
“Khudaale Shukr chaapa chaachik!”
Thank god! It stopped raining!
Happy days are back here again. The sun is balming! birds have all spread their wings and are now doing rounds of the mountains, the flies are giving birth to new flies creating a halo like light effect everywhere. The wet roads full of many puddles are now drying up. The skies are alive with the colour blue again. The mountains chirpy with all the new layers of snow… the travellers who spent an unforgettable one week are all heading home through the roads Indian army and GREF are clearing. Elders, men, women and children are all doing their versions of surveys and then the tale- telling of the days gone by.
From here on i had no time to sit with my notebook, my days were packed with activity and i was soaking in Turtuk in its every element.
The journey continued into some beautiful experiences and stories of love and adventure life is.
the joy lies in the acceptance!
Two more posts named Turtuk… maala gashinang II & III, will tell you some of my favourite chapters of the journey!
see you there!