The morning came after a well-spent night in the cold desert of Nubra. The bright warm sunlight brought hope and happiness around. The birds were chirping, the flowers were gently waving, and the barren mountains around were keeping a watchful eye on everything below. Serenity and peace prevailed in every corner but we could not stay, we had to move on for the day. We have to explore further north and reach where the Indian territory ends.
After breakfast, we checked out of the hotel and went in search of another one before venturing out of the valley. (Read my previous post to know why we needed to change the hotel.) There was a lot of uncertainty lingering as we entered the hotel that was known to our driver Dorje. We were glad to know that they had a single room for that night and we felt lucky and happy to accept it even before seeing the room. Later an unkempt room was shown to us before it was cleaned and prepared for the next check-in. It looked cosy and decent enough and the added advantage was they had 24 hours electricity and hot water with the help of solar and gen set backup.
Now we started our day’s journey with a relaxed mind as the tension of sleeping in the car and using the public toilet was no more. Leaving behind Nubra valley, a few kilometres ahead we could see some pretty violet flowers in the wild herbs growing in a scattered way. Never before did we see lavender in the field so I was doubtful about the id. These little herbs in full bloom were all around just like weeds. So I decided to do a close inspection of the flowers and confirm our doubts. On close observation, it was presumed to be Lavender and to seal the deal I rubbed a tiny part with my fingers and the smell said it all. It was the pretty aromatic Lavender, I was more than happy with my minuscule exploration.
The green area was soon over and the drive was through extreme barrenness. Even the Shyok river that was flowing through the gorge below blended with the muted colours of the rugged landscape. Every turn of the narrow road brought us to even more rough and rocky topography. At one dreaded turn, we could see the remains of the ill-fated bus that fell off the road into the river below a couple of weeks back killing many of the army personnel on board. We read about this unfortunate incident in the newspaper but seeing this tragic sight was even grimmer.
This area had many weak bridges allowing only one vehicle to pass at a time. It created quite a long queue as there were many tourist vehicles moving towards Turtuk (9846 ft). In this manner, we reached the Shyok Valley museum maintained by the Indian army. It was a short tea break for us followed by the customary picture drill with the frame made for the tourists. Not every vehicle en route took a break here, so it was not much of a fight to get ourselves clicked. 🙂 Then again on the roads to finally reach a village after this long stretch of emptiness.
The village had a touch of green after so much grey, it was a welcome change. The usual village life with the residents busy with their chores. They didn’t seem to bother much with the incoming vehicles but a few curious kids voluntarily waved at the cars with a pretty smile on their faces. Their facial features were different from the people of Ladadakhi ethnicity, probably they look more like the Balti people sighting their proximity to the region.
Baltistan is a mountainous region close to the Karakoram range primarily comprising the bordering region of India and Pakistan. In ancient times this region was known as Little Tibet or Baltiyul and the Ladakh region in the east as Great Tibet while Baltistan and Ladakh together were known as Maryul. The Maqpon dynasty ruled the region for 700 years and Tibetan Buddhism was the primary religion that was practised. During the 14th century, the Muslim religion was introduced in the region and gained prominence holding the hands of the Noorbaksia Sufi order. Gradually, by the end of the 17th century, this region was converted into Muslim territory. By the 19th century, the majority of the population was converted to either Sunni or the Wahhabi Sect.
The region was under the part of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir before the independence of India. After the independence and partition of British India, the last king of Jammu and Kashmir agreed to come under Indian sovereignty. Soon after the India-Pakistan war of 1947-48 followed and the Gilgit scout overpowered the Gilgit governor taking the region under the Pakistan administration. Since then the region is administered by Pakistan with constant unrest prevailing between the two nations.
In the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971, the area of Turtuk Block comprising five villages was recaptured by the Indian force led by Col Udai Singh and his second-in-command Major Chewang Rinchen. This region was opened for tourism in 2010. The residents of the region are majorly Balti people who have been under the administration of both nations and are probably unsure of their loyalty towards any country. With the increase of tourism in the area and subsequent growth in the source of income, they seem happy to welcome the tourists.
It was again a new experience for us to visit a place that had such a tumultuous history. Moving further north of Turtuk we reached the Thang village – the last village on the Indian side. After making individual entries with valid Id proof and vehicle number in the military check post and depositing an id card of a person from the family we moved ahead. There were signboards with the picture of Thang and Pharnu village and the Indian flag above it narrating the story of the twin village – “Thang village on Indian side and Pharnu village on Pakistan side before 1971 these villages were twin village as both share common relationships, all of sudden on the intervening night of 16 and 17 December 1971 these villages were separated by the Loc, thereby affecting the relationship between the two villages and now we can find husband living here and wife on the other side, children living here and parents living on the other side of the LOC and many other stories of separation are very common here. One can see relatives working in their fields even with naked eyes but can not meet each other, This is story of separation and this is true here”.
While we stood at the northernmost village of India, we could see the Pharnu village on the other side below and the Karakoram range above. It was a strange feeling standing here where an imaginary line called the Border is separating the region, separating the nations, separating the people and ultimately separating their emotions. With a mixed feeling of pride and joy perturbed by the pain of separation experienced by these people, we returned back to Turtuk not forgetting to collect the id card that was deposited at the check post.
Turtuk is literally the green zone of the area – “शस्य श्यामला” (lush green and crop-wise rich.) “सुजलां सुफलां मलयजशीतलाम्” (“Rich with thy hurrying streams, bright with orchard gleams,”) To describe the beauty of the tiny hamlet I could not help but quote our national song ‘Vande Mataram’. There were hundreds of tourist vehicles all lined up on either side of the roads but the greenery and the fruit-fullness of the place eased the anxiety that I suffer in the crowd. We entered the super narrow lane to see the village and also to have a traditional Balti lunch at a place recommended by Dorje.
This very narrow path had fruit and crop-filled greens on the small patches of land adjoining the houses on either side. The narrow channel connecting the fast-flowing stream brings water to the village for cultivation. Walking through these super narrow paths felt a little strange as if we were trespassing some private space of the residents. Feeling uncomfortable we walked through these connecting paths to find the ‘Balti Kitchen’ restaurant that was recommended to us. We were hungry so before exploring any further we entered this vegetarian restaurant.
They had an Apricot tree laden with fruits though they were yet to ripen at the entrance shading the stall where they sell local produce. Then there were tiny patches of cultivated herbs and even more greens in the backyard of the restaurant. We were delighted to read the menu saying the food is prepared from fresh garden produce. All the Balti food items on the menu were so new to us but we were there to try new cuisine. With the help and advice from the waiting staff, we decided and placed our order. We also asked for Apricot juice but it was not available as it is not the season so we were suggested to have Mulberry instead which was in the season.
As we waited for the food we watched the green field around and the noisy flock of Eurasian Magpie blabbering around. The staff were swiftly picking up the herbs and rushing back to the kitchen on the chef’s order. Presumably, after every order, the required raw ingredients are plucked fresh from the garden. We were highly excited to watch this drill. Our freshly made Mulberry juice arrived and it was one of the best juice that we have ever had. It was so good that we could not help but repeat the order.
Our food came along with the second serving of juice. We ordered ‘Baleh’ (hand-rolled noodles soup with vegetables, herbs and Churphay the local dried yoghurt) and Grangthur (Buckwheat pancake) served with Kisir (a dip of curd mixed with Himalayan herbs). It may be an acquired taste for many, but it was a super hit item for us as the first-timer. We previously planned to have some dessert after the food but we were so full that there was no space for dessert so we ordered Gur Gur salted white butter tea and Saffron tea instead. The finisher too was a blast and we just cannot get out of the subtle taste of the Gur Gur butter tea and the flavour of the Saffron tea. Among all these the bites of Churphay in the Baleh was the hero. We wanted to get some to carry back home.
We asked for it at the counter at the entrance of the restaurant under the Apricot tree. The staff called the owner of the place as they do not sell Churphay. This gentleman named Rashid Khan introduced himself to us and talked about the process of making this local paneer or what you can call dried cheese. He was humble and very calmly described that the dry weather there facilitates the preservation of the paneer for a very long time which may not be the same in our case because of the humidity. He advised us to consume it within a month to prevent any spoilage. Churphay is not sold by them but on my special request, he got his homemade stuff kept for the restaurant use, packed for me. We also purchased some saffron (which were from Kashmir), local Apricot kernels and Apricot oil that were on display.
After some exchange of pleasantries with Mr Khan and capturing the man with his restaurant and garden on camera we moved on through the same narrow ways to enter further into the village. There were apricots and Apple orchards, and there were small farms of green peas, mustard, lettuce and a variety of other greens. Above all, there were pretty stretches of buckwheat and barley fields full of crops. I watched in amazement how this small village with these narrow paths had so much greenery even after being surrounded by such lofty barren mountains.
With happy and content vibes around we left Turtuk through the same arid landscape to return back to Nubra valley, to our new stay where we booked the sole room remaining. The room was prepared by then and we ended our day resting comfortably in the cosy bed after having a good dinner and preparing ourselves for the next day’s exploration to a new destination.