Culture History & Culture

Turtuk — gateway to Siachen Glacier

Inside the museum  

A quick pose for the camera and the three little cherubic boys returning from the goodwill school run by the Army, scamper away giggling across the wooden bridge that leads to apricot orchards and green fields sitting snug surrounded by the snow-capped Himalayas. Their high cheek bones and a slight slant of eyes hint at a Turkic-Central-Asian descent.

I am at Turtuk, the last outpost of India till sometime ago, less than 10 km from Line of Control between India and Pakistan. One of the four villages of Baltistan region in India, Turtuk, the gateway to Siachen Glacier, lies on the banks of Shyok River in Nubra, Ladakh. Once part of an independent region with Yagbo dynasty at its helm in a pre-British era, it was only after the Indo-Pak war in 1971 when Indian Army re-captured the area, that Turtuk came to be in the Indian Territory.

Home to Balti people, Turtuk was secluded and inaccessible to outsiders till it opened its hearts and hearths to tourists in 2010. Ali, who works at Turtuk Resort, my abode for two days, had agreed to give me a tour of his tiny and serene village . Turtuk has two parts, Youl and Pharol, connected by a wooden bridge over a gurgling stream.

Ali was not yet born when the war broke. His parents found themselves on the Indian side of the land and chose to stay after war ended. But Ali has grown up hearing the stories of Major Rinchen of the Indian Army, who is remembered for ensuring a safe environment for the people of the area. “People were initially scared to find themselves suddenly on the Indian side in a predominantly Buddhist region and hid in trenches,” recalls Ali.

Inside Turtuk

Inside Turtuk  

Ali guides me through the meandering narrow alleys lined by sturdy stone and wood houses . An open narrow stone channel runs along all the pathways carrying fresh natural water from the stream. Everyone has access to the channel for drinking water. The simplicity of life here remains untouched. But it is tough with power supply limited to only four hours a day and cold weather that freezes the water often which has to be thawed on firewood for usage. And yet harsh living conditions don’t dampen the spirit of Baltis. They indulge in a game of polo once in a while and connect with their roots by celebrating festivals like Navroz.

Heritage House

While Ali acquaints me with everyday life, we cross paths with an old woman who smiles and gestures an ‘adaab.’ Though the people here prefer to speak in Balti language they are also conversant in Hindi, Urdu, Ladakhi and English.

Later I see two little girls — Zeba Noor and Nazia Hasan — with colourful hijabs and shy toothy grin, playing over a pile of logs. The girls wanting to be a doctor and teacher when they grow up curiously tag along to some distance and point towards the apricot orchards. They will have to travel to Diskit or Leh or Srinagar for higher education. Ahead a group of old Balti men in salwar kameez and a round flat cap indulge in banter while a little farther the blacksmiths tinker with brass fashioning spoons and ladles for villagers. A group of Balti women sit chit chatting and immediately cover their faces at the sight of a camera.

A resident of Turtuk village

A resident of Turtuk village  

We arrive at a 150-year-old large house with an underground granary. The Balti Heritage House and Museum is an attempt to preserve and connect with the Balti traditions. The house showcases various tools, weapons, stone cookware and traditional clothing made from yak wool and leather. I marvel at the soft stone hollowed out to make pots and pans and bows made from the horns of mountain goats.

Part of the palace, slightly in ruins, with wood crestings of Yagbo kings, remains. Fifty-year-old Muhammad Khan, the present descendant, strikes a pose with the royal staff in his hand and reiterates Ali’s story about Major Rinchen. Khan has not met his sisters, who got left behind in Pakistan 40 years ago. He welcomes me inside his palace with a customary bowl of apricots and walnuts with paper-thin shells from a tree that his ancestors brought from Turkey. The palace has a small museum with Yagbo dynasty family tree imprinted on a wall beside the royal sword and a few other weapons. The king relies on donations by the tourists for upkeep of the museum and palace. But he has managed to put his eldest son in a college in Srinagar and the daughter from his second wife will finish her school in a few years. She hopes to be in administrative services.

I walk on the stone pathways along the fields and find almost all houses offering the option of home stay. Desirous of promoting their tradition and the village as a quiet getaway, the otherwise shy Balti people are opening up to interact with tourists and offering home-cooked traditional food. Feasting on Ba-Leh, the Balti noodles served with local herbs tumburuk and chuffa, Taachu from fresh apricot juice, Kisirnagrang-thur or pancakes made from buckwheat served with local leafy green vegetable nhuu, chonma gramgrim or the apple, walnut, apricot salad with freshly made Yak cheese, chorbat biryani with rice and saffron and fermented bread of barley, the signboard of a vegan Balti restaurant draws my attention and I indulge on oosaa, a concoction of mulberry juice, lemon, spear-mint and crushed apricots.

A devastating flood of 2010 forced the villagers to seek alternate source of income. Besides opening Turtuk for tourists, they supply apricots, apricot seeds and oil, walnuts and vegetables to nearby areas.

On the way back to the resort, Ali points towards the snow covered peaks across the fields. “That is Pakistan,” he says. I look up and realise how by drawing the line we have divided what could have been a vast paradise.

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Printable version | Jun 16, 2021 1:14:16 PM |

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