After the Indo-pak war in 1971, India triumphantly seized control over some territories in the north-eastern side of Ladakh. One such village is Turtuk which is now a tourist destination that is gaining popularity. The people of this village are traditionally from the Gilgit-Baltistan province of Pakistan and are significantly different in their physical appearances as compared to those of the rest of Ladakh.
For tourists or travellers, the first thing that they would want to do when they’re visiting Ladakh is, get to Leh, ride/drive down to Nubra Valley via the famed Khardungla Pass, then stop at the Pangong Lake of Indian movie ‘3 idiots’ and return to Leh via the Chang La Pass. What many people don’t know is that there is are many lesser known places around like Tso Moriri, two Kar, Hanley and even Turtuk which they miss to visit. I too didn’t know of the remote village of Turtuk until my ground handler in Leh recommended I visit the village as well. It was my first time in Ladakh and I welcomed the suggestion.
Between Hunder in Nubra Valley and Turtuk Village
Landing in Leh in the last week of august, this flight was probably one of the most scenic ones I had been on. Leaving early morning from Delhi, the best is to sit on the left side of the aircraft to get the best views of the mountains, the passes and snow capped peaks. The pilot made a few quick turns as headed down to the Kushok Bakula Rimpoche Airport in Leh. I spent 2 days acclimatising before we headed up the Khardung La Pass and down on the other side into the Nubra Valley. Crossed Nubra and continued for another 80 odd km. when we arrived at the beautiful village of Turtuk after a good 11 hour drive and multiple stops photographing the spectacular scenery all throughout.
Turtuk was under the control Pakistan until 1971. During the Indo-pak war, Indian armed forces seized the village along with some other territories and since then, it has been a part of the Republic of India. Enroute to Turtuk, there were multiple bunkers used by the Indian Army and there’s also a place where the earlier border between the two countries existed in 1971. That was the earlier Line-of-control. Photography in many parts of Ladakh are prohibited for military concerns and this place was an area where taking photos was prohibited. The tented accommodation in Turtuk was the most luxurious stay I had throughout my 10 days in Ladakh, after Leh. The hot rotis and sabji was a welcome delight after 11 hours on the road.
The village of Turtuk is sandwiched between the two majestic mountain ranges of the Himalayas and the Karakoram and situated on the banks of the Shyok River. Since 1971, though Turtuk is politically in Ladakh, it is geographically, linguistically and culturally a part of the Baltistan region and is one among the four such villages, the others being Tyakshi, Chalunka and Thang. It is predominantly and muslim village and the residents here speak the Balti Language. Turtuk is the last outpost in India after which Gilgit-Baltistan begins.
Turtuk used to inhabited by an Aryanic Tribe called Brokpa many centuries ago, whose ruined fort on the hill of the village is still a testimony to their presence. Around 800 years ago, two warriors of supposedly Central Asian origin by the name of Chuli and Yangdrung seized power over Turtuk after the King was killed. But many people from the village fled in fear to the neighbouring hills. the warriors continued to live in Turtuk and it is believed that there are a few families who are their direct descendants. Over time, people from different parts of the Gilgit-Baltistan region as well as from Ladakh came to Turtuk for trade and some even settled in the village. This is one of the primary reasons why it has so many racial variations.
The locals of Turtuk are very different is their style of dressing and the way houses are built as compared to those in the rest of Ladakh. The also appear to look physically different from people of other parts of the Union Territory. Though most people were converted to Islam by a scholar in the 1400s, the Baltis still retain a lot of pre-islamic rituals making them unique. My guide was explaining the scenario soon after the Army had taken control.
Many families got separated as many men worked on either side and soon after the war, there was no way to get back in touch. Even today, phones barely work except for one or two spots with sporadic signal. In the 1970s, getting back in touch with family was near impossible. He says that people however on the Indian side consider themselves lucky for they have access to better facilities, education, health care and career opportunities than their relatives on the other side. The people of that time went through a lot of hardships and getting seperated from your loved ones isn’t the easiest.
Throughout the drive from Nubra Valley to Turtuk, we’re driving all along the river Shyok and its indeed very scenic. For those biking, the straight roads would be very interesting and with less traffic, it is always a pleasure to ride. Standing on top of the hill near the village, I was seeing across the valley and to just remember for a moment that this was once the territory of Pakistan and now it belongs to India. But again, people of this region had suffered a lot as a result of political instability and war between two countries before their lives returned to normalcy. May their tribe survive and flourish.
Author: Gaurav Ramnarayanan