For residents of the twin villages of Yul & Pharol in Turtuk, the last outpost of India on the northwestern border life & country has changed more than once. The hamlet was part of undivided India during the British Raj but was occupied by Pakistan after Raj packed in 1947. Then during the 1971 war, while all eyes were on the eastern front that led to the formation of Bangladesh, here sky-high Karakoram range the Indian army marched towards the border & took back Turtuk from Pakistan forces. The villagers who slept as Pakistanis woke up to be told that now they are Indians.
Most were scared & decided to hide in the high Karakoram Mountains that surround the villages. But the Indian Army not only won the area but also launched a mission to win the hearts of locals who soon realized that the Indian army is not only a great ally but also a well-paying customer & employer.
While the people slowly realized the advantages of being part of India, they still have families on another side of the border that has become a distant memory. The shifting borders while united Turtuk with India it split many families on both sides. Till 2010 Turtuk remained mostly isolated from mainstream India but then tourism was opened & some enterprising locals started ecofriendly camping sites, & homestays to welcome the odd traveler with whom they proudly shared their unique Balti Cusine & talked about how there life has changed in the years.
Turtuk at a height of 3100 meters is surrounded by mighty Karakoram range is not your everyday touristy destination. About 200 KM from Ladakh, Turtuk though well connected via a well-maintained Highway is still as remote as it gets & you will get to pass Khardung La ( La = Mountain pass), one of the highest motorable mountain pass in the world.
After Khardung La, the aquamarine waters of Shyok River & the barren Karakorum Mountains, punctuating azure skies are your constant companions. On the way, you pass the famed Nubra valley, home to a domesticated population of double-humped camels that reminds you that this area was once one of the feeder routes of the old silk route. You will also pass the Diskit monastery en route & see many army convoys on the way to Siachin Glacier the highest battleground in the world.
Once in Turtuk the scenery totally changes, from barren mountains to green fields, & fruit orchards welcome you. Over generations, Turtuk residents have converted the land into an oasis that boasts of one of the best Buckwheat & the juiciest apricots.
Once part of the Gilgit Baltistan Empire that prospered due to its strategic location on the ancient Silk Route, the area developed its own unique language, cuisine, & culture that has influences of Buddhism, Islamic & Central Asian culture.
In Turtuk the melting glaciers provide water to keep the fields productive & agriculture is still the main occupation of the residents. Besides Buck Wheat & Apricots they also grow Walnuts, with the shell so soft that you can crack open them like a peanut. “My ancestors brought these trees from Turkmenistan”, I am proudly informed by His Highness Yabgo Mohammad Khan Kacho, former King of Turtuk. Though a ceremonial King, he is well respected in the community & still lives in his ancestral palace that once had sure seen much better days. The palace made from wood about 300 years ago also houses a small museum that showcases the lineage & history of the Gilgit Baltistan Empire. The King proud of his lineage underst&s the changing times & hopes his son becomes an officer in Indian Civil Services, while his younger daughter who goes to the local school still is undecided about what she wants to do when grown up.
As we pass through the narrow lanes of the village, kids wave at us like anywhere else, some even follow us for a distance. As we cross the bridge that divides the twin villages of Pharol & Yul, which are now united by the bridge built by the Indian Army. On the high peaks around you, there are outposts of Indian as well as Pakistan army who constantly keep an eye on each other, but for the locals, it is life as usual & many of them are involved as support staff/contractors with army work.
The good thing is that the villagers are aware of the perils of excessive tourism & are taking it slowly by only offering homestays & eco-friendly camping. It is a good thing that Turtuk is far from everywhere else & may be able to retain its old-world charm longer than most places I have been.
- Prasad Np
- : Prasad is a former corporate type who once sold his soul for the perceived security of a salary check He now travels & photographs collecting stories of people from places he visits & celebrates wanderlust on his blog - desi Traveler
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- : I try to connect the dots by searching for stories of people that make the places I visit. For what is a place if it does not have stories that are waiting to be told?
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- : This is the first time this story has been published.