An oasis in the cold desert

Print edition : August 04, 2017

The journey between Turtuk and Leh on a good day in summer, but such days are few. Photo: ANSH RANVIR VOHRA

A view of the road to Turtuk from Leh. Until 1971, the village was in Pakistani territory. Now Turtuk is the last village on the Indian side that civilians are allowed to visit after procuring an inner line permit. Photo: ANSH RANVIR VOHRA

The journey from Leh to Turtuk can be tedious and treacherous, but the breathtaking beauty of the landscape makes it a rewarding experience. Photo: ANSH RANVIR VOHRA

A panoramic view of the landscape around Turtuk. Photo: ANSH RANVIR VOHRA

There are no vehicles in Turtuk, and residents walk through the narrow lanes. Photo: ANSH RANVIR VOHRA

A child leaning out of a window. Turtuk has only one school. Photo: ANSH RANVIR VOHRA

Haji Mohammed Issu of Turtuk, who worked as a porter for the Pakistan Army and continued to do the same job for the Indian Army after 1971. His uncle and his cousins live across the Line of Control in Pakistani-held territory. Photo: ANSH RANVIR VOHRA

Mohammed Ali, aka Goba Ali, from Thang village with his parents in Fraono, across the LoC, in 2014. In 1971, Goba Ali, then a child of five, got separated from his parents. He was brought up by the Indian Army regiments based in Thang. This photograph is from his personal collection.

A young Haji Abdul Quadir (wearing glasses) along with soldiers of the Indian Army after "Operation Turtuk" in 1971. This photograph is from his personal collection.

A scanned copy of a note from 1972 appreciating the role of Rehmatulla, father of Haji Abdul Quadir and former numberdar (village head) of Tyakshi village, during “Operation Turtuk”. From Haji Abdul Quadir's personal collection.

The entrance to Tyakshi village. The check post is manned by the Indian Army. Currently the Maratha Light Infantry does this job. Photo: ANSH RANVIR VOHRA

A new guest house being constructed in Turtuk. With increasing numbers of tourists coming to the village, there is a demand for guest houses. Photo: ANSH RANVIR VOHRA

Donkeys are hired out to the Army in winter. Photo: ANSH RANVIR VOHRA

Magpies are a common sight in the village. Photo: ANSH RANVIR VOHRA

Yabgo Mohammed Khan Kacho, the "king" of Turtuk. Photo: ANSH RANVIR VOHRA

A view of the palace of Yabgo Mohammed Khan Kacho, the king of Turtuk. Photo: ANSH RANVIR VOHRA

A trophy of an ibex adorns the entrance of Yabgo Mohammed Khan Kacho's palace. Photo: ANSH RANVIR VOHRA

An eagle adorns the entrance of the palace. Photo: ANSH RANVIR VOHRA

The natural freezers of Turtuk. Here, yak cheese is stored for several years and is used during the long winter. Photo: ANSH RANVIR VOHRA

Jamia Masjid, the oldest mosque in Turtuk. While the main building has been rebuilt, the wooden minaret dates back to the sixteenth century. Photo: ANSH RANVIR VOHRA

The graveyard of Turtuk by the Shyok river.

The town of Leh as seen from the Royal Palace. Photo: ANSH RANVIR VOHRA

The bridge on the Shyok that connects the two parts of Turtuk. Photo: ANSH RANVIR VOHRA

A memorial to Sapper Satish Kumar who lost his life during the Kargil war. Turtuk saw a lot of bombardment during the Kargil war. Photo: ANSH RANVIR VOHRA

A pre-1971 Pakistani Army bunker that can still be seen outside Turtuk village. Photo: ANSH RANVIR VOHRA

The Royal Palace of Leh. Photo: ANSH RANVIR VOHRA

Life in the last villages close to the LoC in Ladakh, which were in Pakistan's control till 1971, seems caught in a time warp, though tourism is slowly ushering in deeper integration of these areas with the rest of the country.

ON December 15, 1971, Haji Mohammed Issu of Turtuk went to bed on one of the coldest days of a harsh winter as a Pakistani citizen. It was an eventful and long night, and he could hear bombardment all around him through the dark hours. When he awoke the next morning from his disturbed sleep, he was an Indian citizen. In a day, all his elementary ideas of the nation, borders and identity had been overturned because of a war that had started almost 3,000 kilometres away for the liberation of Bangladesh, or what was then East Pakistan.

While the Pakistani military was surrendering to an allied Indian-Bangladeshi (the provisional government of Bangladesh) force in Dhaka on December 16, the Indian military had made an advance called “Operation Turtuk” in the northern part of Ladakh along the Cease Fire Line (CFL) as part of the short-lived war with Pakistan. Villages such as Chalunka, Turtuk, Tyakshi and Thang, which lie along hillsides in the Nubra valley along the Shyok river and had remained on the Pakistani side of the CFL after 1947, found themselves in India overnight. On July 2, 1972, this boundary became recognised as the Line of Control (LoC) in the Shimla Agreement signed between Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Indira Gandhi.

“We welcomed the Indian soldiers with walnuts and apricots and there were celebrations in Turtuk for three days,” Issu, now 75, recalled with a broad smile, sitting outside his small house in Turtuk. Behind the house lay a green field of barley, at the end of which a barren mountain rose steeply. The sudden change in the status of his citizenship did not perturb Issu too much. He had worked as a porter for the Pakistan Army and continued to do the same job for the Indian Army. With a limited road network in this high valley between the Karakoram and the Himalayan ranges on the road to Siachen, donkeys owned by the local people are handy for transporting material for the military, and they can be a lucrative source of employment in winter. The only casualty of the 1971 transition for Issu was the sundering of his family—his uncle and his cousins remained on the other side of the LoC. “Their house was right here,” Issu said as he stood on his knees and pointed to a stone house down the lane. He has not seen them since 1971.

Every person residing in these beautiful border villages, where time seems to stand still, has a poignant story about lost family because of the change in the de facto border between India and Pakistan after the 1971 war. Mohammed Ali, also known as Goba Ali, a farmer from Thang, India’s last village in the sector, was five years old in 1971. He was separated from his parents and grew up as an orphan in Thang, though his parents lived in Fraono, a village about a kilometre from Thang, but across the LoC.

Ali cried as he told his story. “Can you imagine the fate of a little child who could not meet his parents because of a border?” He was brought up by Indian Army regiments based at Thang. In 2014, he got a visa to visit Pakistan. He travelled to Leh, then to Delhi, from where he went to the Wagah border. After reaching Islamabad, he had to wait a couple of months to get special permission to visit Skardu, the main town of the federally administered Gilgit-Baltistan region, where he, then in his late 40s, eventually met his parents.

“One day, I got a phone call from my uncle that my brother was getting married. That day I felt like jumping in the Shyok river and going across to Pakistan. You know, I can see my parents through a pair of binoculars from Thang. But I had to wait 43 years and travel almost 3,000 km to meet them. I can’t remember the moment when I finally met them. I was so overwhelmed that I don’t know what happened,” he said, his voice quivering with emotion. Standing in an apricot orchard just outside Turtuk, he pointed to the snow-capped peaks on the horizon and said: “Those mountains you see fall in Pakistan, and just along that lies Fraono, where my parents and five of my brothers live.”

The story of Haji Abdul Quadir, 67, the numberdar (village head) of Tyakshi is similar. He was separated from his brother, who was studying in Skardu. “There was a time when we could reach Skardu after a four-day walk. I have not seen my brother since 1971. I hope that the road to Khaplu and Skardu that we once used is opened so we can see our relatives again,” he said.

Turtuk has a population of around 2,000 and is the last village that civilians are allowed to visit on the Indian side after procuring an Inner Line Permit (ILP) from the District Magistrate’s office in Leh. Tyakshi and Thang lie beyond Turtuk and are forbidden for civilians, except village residents, considering their closeness to the LoC. Until 2010, these isolated villages existed in a kind of time warp.

At around 2,800 metres, Turtuk is located at a much more comfortable height than the rest of Ladakh, most of which is a cold desert plateau. Leh, the main town of the district, stands at a height of 3,500 m and is surrounded by barren mountains. The harsh and cold desert separates Turtuk, a little green oasis, from the rest of the region. The Jammu and Kashmir State Road Transport Corporation (JKSRTC) runs a weekly bus service from Turtuk to Leh. A daily bus runs until Diskit, which is 90 km away and is the main town of Diskit tehsil. While there is a primary health centre and a school in Turtuk, the closest hospital and college are in Leh.

On a good day in summer, it takes a little more than seven hours to cover the distance of 200 km to Turtuk from Leh, but good days are few and far between. On most days it takes more than 10 hours, and on the day this correspondent visited Turtuk, the journey took 14 hours. The return journey was no different. A traveller has to first negotiate the Khardung La pass. A plaque at the base claims that it is the highest motorable road in the world. It is not an uncontested claim, but at over 5,300 m the road is undeniably very high. The air is thin at the top, and visitors are susceptible to altitude sickness. Most of the track forming the pass is an uneven mix of dirt, gravel and melted snow. During summer, there are hundreds of tourists who are keen to cross this high pass, leading to traffic jams on the route. Beyond the pass, the narrow road along the Shyok river is sometimes closed because of flash landslides that may take several days to clear.

Breathtaking scenery

But the treacherous and tedious journey is intensely rewarding as Turtuk is breathtakingly gorgeous. Every vista from the little village surrounded by mountains is like a picture postcard. The residents are friendly, and the women labour industriously in their wheat, buckwheat and barley fields which are interspersed with stone houses. Rosy-cheeked children often approach visitors with a friendly “Hello” in the narrow lanes. There are no vehicles in Turtuk. Water gurgles through a hundred streams in and around the village from the glaciers up above and at any point one can dip into them and have a sip. There is a fragrance in the air of fresh flowers, out of which one, a yellow flower that local residents call sattrin, stands out for its sweet and heady scent.

Magpies flutter about on the willow trees and golden orioles come and knock on windows. Residents tell tales of the elusive snow leopard that slinks into the valley in winter, but for now the most menacing creature is a donkey that brays loudly, shattering the silence, when its path is blocked. Polo is the favourite game here, and young men prefer the horses of Zanskar as they ride furiously winning acclaim for themselves all over Ladakh.

Seventy-six per cent of Turtuk’s population is literate. But opportunities are few and traditional social and economic hierarchies hold good. Most of the people practise agriculture and horticulture. While landholdings are small because of the terrain, the soil is fertile and up to three crops are grown in the six months of spring and summer. Water is plenty and the fields are irrigated through manually operated sluices. The fruits of Turtuk like apricots, pears, walnuts and apples are famous.

Since 2010, when Turtuk was opened to tourists, residents have realised the economic and cultural benefits of opening up their society to outsiders. “There are more than 10 guest houses in Turtuk now,” said Mohammed Sulaiman proudly as he took a sip of his butter tea. He is the owner of Maha Guest House, the most popular residence for tourists in the village and the only one that has attached bathrooms. Considering that the village has electricity only for three hours a day and that mobile phones have no network, Turtuk is not a draw for tourists who cannot do without their comforts. Yet word of its idyllic charm has spread, particularly among foreigners. Young Israelis, for instance, come in droves after completing their years of compulsory military service.

The Shyok river (the name means “River of Death”) bisects Turtuk and eventually joins the Indus in Pakistan. A picturesque bridge that creaks menacingly but is sturdy connects the two parts, Youl and Faroul. A blacksmith and a cafe bookend either end of the bridge. A path through Faroul past a polo ground, a meadow and remnants of pre-1971 Pakistani bunkers takes one to the highest point of Turtuk where at some point visiting Buddhists from other parts of Ladakh built a tiny monastery. The village is green, with poplar, willow, apricot, walnut and cherry trees.

“Historically, before modern borders sealed us off, Turtuk was at the crossroads of four main caravan routes that were part of the Silk Route,” explained Ghulam Hussain Beg, who owns a guest house in the village but also doubles up as a tourist guide. “To the north lies the path to China and Tibet. In the south, we can get to Kargil and then to Kashmir. The path where you came from leads to Ladakh, and to the west, there was a road to modern Pakistan and on to Afghanistan and Iran,” he said, pointing to the tall mountains all around.

The king of Turtuk

Turtuk even has its own king, Yabgo Mohammed Khan Kacho, 59, who belongs to the Yabgo dynasty in the region. For much of its recorded history, the area of Baltistan was ruled by kings who remained independent until the mid 19th century when the Dogra kings of Jammu and Kashmir, led by the dashing Zorawar Singh, defeated them.

During the 15th century, the Yabgo kingship line was trifurcated; the descendant of the Turtuk line continues to reside in the village in a mansion dating back to the 16th century. Kacho owns several kanals (1 kanal is 4,500 square feet) and continues to enjoy a lot of goodwill and has excellent relations with the military.

The largest room in Kacho’s mansion has been given over to display memorabilia that includes assorted tchotchkes and vintage weaponry. Interestingly, a Pakstani court’s decree of 1951 in Urdu—ordering the Pakistani military, which had billeted soldiers in the mansion, to vacate the premises—is also displayed.

Two of the king’s sisters reside in Khaplu across the LoC and a large part of his erstwhile territory also lies across the border. As he left, the king said, “I pray to Allah that this wall between Hindustan and Pakistan is broken and we all live together as brethren again.” With regard to Indian tourists, he added: “Tourism has helped our conservative tribal society open up to the outside world, and there has been 50 times more development since 2010 here.”

Balti outpost

This cluster of villages also exists as an outpost of the Balti language and culture in India as it is cut off from the larger region of Baltistan in Gilgit-Baltistan across the LoC. “Turtuk is the Indian Baltistan,” declared Beg with a flourish. In many ways, the people of these villages are different from other residents of Ladakh and the rest of the State of Jammu and Kashmir. Take their religious beliefs, for instance. All residents of these villages, recognised as a Scheduled Tribe since 1989, are Muslim. But they are doctrinally different from both mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims. Sunnis are the majority in the Valley of Kashmir, while Shias are predominant in the neighbouring district of Kargil. But most of the Muslims in these villages identify themselves as Sufis belonging to the “Nurbakhshiya” order after their 15th century Iranian founder, Muhammad Nurbakhsh (1393-1464), who claimed to be a messiah.

The historian Mohibbul Hasan writes in his book Kashmir Under the Sultans that one of Nurbakhsh’s disciples, Shamsuddin, was responsible for spreading the Nurbakhshiya creed in Kashmir and Baltistan. In the 16th century, the Nurbakhshi Sufis spread out from Iran to Baltistan and Ladakh. The influence of the cult reduced gradually as the Safavid dynasty of Persia adopted mainstream Shia Islam as the state religion and the Sunni Mughals conquered Kashmir, leaving only Baltistan as the bastion of the Nurbakhshis. The Nurbhakshis also freely acknowledge their pre-Islamic Buddhist heritage. They celebrate the Nauroz, or Iranian New Year, in March every year. When Turtuk became a part of India, the Nurbakhshiya creed got added to the country’s multitude of beliefs but left the residents alienated from their theological schools and leaders.

For a lay observer, the beliefs of the Nurbakhshis will appear an even amalgam of both Sunni and Shia practices, which gives them an entirely new exotic character. A visitor staying at Maha Guest House is woken up at the crack of dawn by the powerful zikr, or rhythmic chanting of Allah’s names, from the neighbouring mosque, and this goes on for an hour, adding to the surreality of this land lost in time.

Relations with the Army

The Army, whose presence is pervasive, has been in the area since 1971. Old-timers fondly recall meeting Major Chewang Rinchen as he stormed into Turtuk with his Ladakh Scouts as part of Operation Turtuk. Issu talks about how, when apprehensive residents first encountered the Indian Army, they realised that it also had Muslims in it. “The first thing that they did was to pray in the Jamia Masjid in Youl, making us feel comfortable,” he said. Essential food items were airdropped immediately, while the Army continued to provide rations for three years. The gesture won the Army a lot of goodwill, which it continues to enjoy. The Army runs schools, and as stated earlier, regularly hires local porters. (A few residents complained that Nepalis were being preferred over local people nowadays.) Operation Sadbhavana, the Army’s effort, beginning in 1998, to integrate border populations with the rest of the country, has also helped.

The Kargil war of 1999 affected Turtuk and its neighbouring villages intensely as there was continuous shelling for three months. “During the war, porters from these villages [Turtuk, Tyakshi and Thang] climbed hills with heavy loads on their backs for the Indian Army in the midst of heavy shelling,” said Haji Abdul Quadir. While there has been no separatist activity in the region, 24 young men from the villages were arrested during the war. The area still bears the vestiges of the Kargil war. Just outside the village, an area is demarcated as Sub Sector Haneef, named after Captain Haneefuddin who was killed in it. Another memorial, on the road to Turtuk, stands to Sapper Satish Kumar, who also lost his life at the same time.

There are several older residents of Turtuk, like Issu, who had helped the Pakistan Army, and a few old residents had been regulars in the Pakistan Army. But this has not affected people’s relations with the Indian military in the area.

Younger residents such as Beg, who is 36, emphasise that the residents of Turtuk are patriotic and are proud of people like Paratrooper Abdul Qayum of Turtuk, who was awarded a Shaurya Chakra in April this year. Several people hailing from these border villages are employed in the Army, primarily in Ladakh Scouts, and in paramilitary forces. Older residents such as Issu often state that life in India is much better than it was in Pakistan. However, they say that they have been ignored by the administration of Jammu and Kashmir because they are so few in number.

Across the border in Gilgit-Baltistan, there are periodic demands by the Baltis for greater autonomy and sometimes outright independence from the central government of Pakistan. On the contrary, people on the Indian side say they enjoy better lives than their cultural counterparts in Pakistan. They point to how the Pakistani Baltis are compelled to migrate to the more prosperous parts of Pakistan and to countries around the Persian Gulf, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to make a living. The Indian side of Baltistan, however, has migrant labour coming in during the summer months. Many residents, however, do not have records for the land that they own as their revenue records remained behind in offices that are now on the Pakistani side.

Residents of Tyakshi, Thang and other border villages have also seen the change tourism has brought about in Turtuk. Ali of Thang hoped that Indian tourists would be permitted to visit his village as well and appreciate its beauty. “In this way, even our village will be well integrated with the rest of the country,” he added.

The last village of Pakistan

Atop the monastery, while he lay ruminating on life in Turtuk, Beg said, “For 24 years [between 1947 and 1971], Turtuk was the last village of Pakistan. And since 1971, Turtuk is the last village of India.” He was not completely accurate as the last village of Pakistan was Chalunka before 1971 and the last village of India is Thang now, but it seemed futile to correct him. He was making a larger point about notions of nation-states and citizenship and how the residents of this tiny village of Turtuk had no role to play in this high-stakes game of international borders.

For the residents of Turtuk, who occupy a liminal space on the border, the drawing and redrawing of boundaries has led to the loss of close family members in an area that, until as recently as 1948, had loosely been at a continental crossroads with all kinds of visitors streaming in and out.

But these are larger concerns. For now, Turtuk awaits its harvest of apricots (of which there are seven distinct varieties) in late July and August. For in Turtuk, as in several other parts of Ladakh, the people wait for the bountiful harvest of apricots to herald the best days of the year before the harsh winter brings life to a standstill for six months. There is a popular saying in Ladakh, often heard when times are grim, “Tomorrow, there will be apricots.”