I know I will go back to Turtuk one day for sure.
Kashmir & Ladakh

Turtuk, Ladakh: A Village That Taught Me Life Lessons

Back in early October 2015 when I travelled solo to Turtuk, the last Indian village in the Northern most frontier of Jammu & Kashmir (opened to tourists only in 2010), little did I know that this would become my life changing trip. Not only my perception about myself, but also about Kashmir and its people, changed forever.

I couldn't believe this place; it was an oasis in the high altitude dessert.
I couldn’t believe this place; it was an oasis in the high altitude dessert.

Couple’s trip turned to solo trip

Me and my husband had been planning a trip to Ladakh for quite some time. Finally, we managed leaves in October 2015. But as fate would have it, my husband got leave for one week only, whereas, I got for two weeks.

So, instead of going back with him, my husband encouraged me to explore the region alone. Despite having my doubts about doing something so unthinkable like that, I agreed to give it a try!

Me and my hubby somewhere on Srinagar-Leh highway.
Me and my hubby somewhere on Srinagar-Leh highway.

We spent one week together exploring Kargil and Suru Valley. However, during that time, I struggled with acute high-altitude sickness. Although my husband took great care of me, by the time we reached Leh and he was ready to leave, I started second guessing my decision of traveling alone.

My first ever group tour at Pangong Lake.
My first ever group tour at Pangong Lake.

Baby Steps

Taking it slowly, I spent couple of days in Leh exploring the local market, Leh palace, stupa, etc. to acclimatize properly.

Once I got comfortable with the altitude, I visited Pangong Lake with a small group of 5-6 people and had wonderful time there; it boosted my confidence. So, I decided to explore the Nubra Valley on my own.

Being off-season, there was hardly any tourist on Khardung La.
Being off-season, there was hardly any tourist on Khardung La.

Turtuk: What’s that?

Back in 2015, not many people knew about Turtuk village (around 200 kms from Leh, Ladakh); hardly any information was available online. At that time, the famous tourist places in Nubra Valley were Diskit and Hunder.

In fact, when I arrived at Leh, it was the end of tourist season and most of the road-side shops had closed down. On top of that, some local elections were to take place in a couple of days and the local people from nearby villages working in Leh rushed back to their villages before the election day.

It made the town and the route to Turtuk quite deserted; it seemed a bit scary, especially to an outsider like me.

Diskit Gompa - the oldest and the largest Buddhist Monastery in Nubra Valley.
Diskit Gompa – the oldest and the largest Buddhist Monastery in Nubra Valley.

Can someone please take me to Turtuk?

The morning when I was to leave for Diskit, a couple that had agreed to share a cab with me did not turn up. Since, the driver wanted to reach his village before the election, he took me anyway (I was the only passenger) without charging me for private cab.

Crossing the mighty Khardung La, I reached Diskit (around 115 kms from Leh) where I visited the oldest and largest Buddhist monastery in the region. The evening was spent playing with sand dunes beside the double humped camels at Hunder (around 12 kms from Diskit).

The most famous double humped camels and white sand dunes at Hunder, Nubra Valley.
The most famous double humped camels and white sand dunes at Hunder, Nubra Valley.

Next day, due to the upcoming elections, not many people were travelling. Seeing a lone woman struggling to find a public transport, a cab driver at Diskit dropped me at Turtuk (around 90 kms from Diskit) without charging any money.

That's Turtuk. Stunning, isn't it?
That’s Turtuk. Stunning, isn’t it?

Turtuk: A village frozen in time

As I reached Turtuk, I was overwhelmed by its raw beauty; it was so beautiful and quaint that my jaws dropped in awe, quite literally! It looked as if this tiny fertile patch with all shades of green and autumn hues, warm wooden houses nestled between huge barren mountains, surrounded by apricots trees and dissected by the icy blue water of Shyok river, was frozen in time.

Simply walking around in Turtuk with my host, Karim Bhai.
Simply walking around in Turtuk with my host, Karim Bhai.

With time I realized that the real beauty was not just in the landscape, but in the Balti people residing here, who opened up to me like a long lost friend. I was blown away by their incredible hospitality.

The ever courteous Karim Bhai of Bagdour Guest House is standing on the extreme right of this picture.
The ever courteous Karim Bhai of Bagdour Guest House is standing on the extreme right of this picture.

Karim Bhai (locals refer to him as Ranbir Kapoor) of Bagdour Guest House not only made my stay comfortable, but also enthusiastically showed me his little world at Turtuk. Starting from the little conversations with the locals, to playing cheekily with little children, and to watching a real yak fight that suddenly started, everything was surreal.

I witnessed this real Yak fight for almost half an hour.
I witnessed this real Yak fight for almost half an hour.

A peep into the historical palace

As I roamed in Turtuk with Karim, he took me to a quite unexpected place – a real “Palace”. I was shocked; it was totally unexpected. And then he asked, “Do you want to meet the King?” I said, “Who doesn’t?” And we went inside.

The back side of the "Palace" at Turtuk.
The back side of the “Palace” at Turtuk.

Although this little “palace” was not grand in style like the usual palaces; but it was a palace nonetheless. It was an old dilapidated wooden house standing tall in the middle of a fruit orchard. But little things matter and I could notice small details in the door, ceiling, items, windows that took me to the lost grandeur of the palace.

A vibrant and colourful wooden ceiling at the old palace.
A vibrant and colorful wooden ceiling at the old palace.

Then I met Kacho Khan, the King of the Yagbo Dynasty, Chhorbhat Khapulu, Baltistan, that ruled the region for many generations. Interacting with me, he proudly showed me his palace and told me about the glorious past of his dynasty. He told me how his family successfully reclaimed their palace from Pakistan Army after years of legal battle; and how upon losing the legal battle, Pakistan Army gave back the palace after ruining it physically.

The King of the Yagbo Dynasty, Chhorbhat Khapulu, Baltistan.
The King of the Yagbo Dynasty, Chhorbhat Khapulu, Baltistan.

Being a lawyer, I was simply amazed when Kacho Khan showed me a legal decree passed by the Supreme Court of Pakistan giving the title of the palace to his family.

The divided families

As I heard stories after stories about families, who got divided in 1971 when Indian Army took over this village overnight from Pakistan occupied Kashmir; how they struggled initially; and how they came to terms with the circumstances that changed their lives forever; it became very difficult for me to imagine how much these people have endured.

Spending some time with the beautiful young girls of Turtuk.
Spending some time chit-chatting with the beautiful young girls of Turtuk.

Just the thought of not being able to meet your relatives living on the other side of the mountain without having to go through the cumbersome process of visa seems so unfair.

I couldn’t comprehend how, despite facing so much hardships, they still managed to smile at every tourist, irrespective of his/her religion, race and nationality. So much to learn from them!

When time came to leave, I left Karim Bhai with the promise to come back here again.

A beautiful bridge that connects the lower region of Turtuk near the Shyok river with the upper region of the village.
A beautiful bridge that connects the lower region of Turtuk near the Shyok river with the upper region of the village.

Learnt my life lessons

As I boarded my flight back to Mumbai, I knew my life had changed. Never in my dreams had I thought that my husband would become an ardent supporter of my solo travels. This solo trip instilled a firm belief in my own ability to see the travel on my own; it had such a great impact on me that by December 2016 I had quit my regular 9 to 5 job and started travelling full time.

Colourful apricot trees during autumn in Turtuk.
Colorful apricot trees during autumn in Turtuk.

The acts of kindness by complete strangers cemented my belief in humanity and the good remaining in the world. In fact, my visit to Turtuk started my love affair with border villages and its people; so much so, that in June 2018, I did a bike trip to explore the border villages of North-West Kashmir.

Read also: Tangdhar, Karnah: Journey to the Wild (North) West of Kashmir

Teetwal: Exploring the Edge of North-West Kashmir

Local kids in Turtuk are quite open and friendly with tourists.
Local kids in Turtuk are quite open and friendly with tourists.

A tiny village that was under the control of Pakistan until 1971, had embraced India; and its people had opened their homes and hearts to tourists. In a Muslim village, in a Buddhist region, within a Hindu majority country, I learnt so much about living harmoniously, where not any race or religion, but humanity is supreme.

I know I will go back to Turtuk one day for sure.
I know I will go back to Turtuk one day for sure.

If you want to visit Turtuk, do check out Turtuk: A Detailed Travel Guide by Devil on Wheel; it is extremely useful.

Have you been to Ladakh? Do you want to visit Turtuk? Have you visited any border village? What is your experience? Let me know in the comments section below.

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