Ben and I arrived to Northern India 7 days ago. Last weekend, we flew from Kathmandu to Delhi where we spent the night in the airport. We spent several hours in an uncomfortable lounge area, awaiting our flight to Leh, with Nepal still fresh in our minds.
We weren’t ready to leave Nepal. Visa permitting, we would have stayed with All Hands a bit longer and continued our relief work. I was upset when we left, but at the same time felt relief. I think we achieved the goals we set for ourselves when we decided to return to Nepal and I left feeling really proud of what we accomplished before our time was up.
We landed in Leh exhausted after a sleepless night, but were surprised to see how remote we suddenly were. Out the window of the plane were the brown, snow-peaked mountains of the Himalayas stretching out in every direction as far as we could see. Leh is located in the far North of India in an area known as Ladakh, but technically in the Kashmir & Jammu district. It sits at an altitude of 11,562ft. It’s only accessible about 3 months out of the year due to extreme snow during the winter and landslides during the monsoons, which block the main roads into Jammu & Kashmir.
Walking off the plane, it looked more like we had landed on Mars than Northern India. The dusty moonscape that surrounded us reminded me of the Northern tip of the Annapurna circuit in Nepal, close to the Tibetan Plateau.
We arrived without much of a plan or idea of exactly what we wanted to do first, but it felt amazing to be out of the city and into the mountains again. We spent our first day drowsily walking around the town square of Leh. We’d expected the people here to be predominately Buddhist, being so close to Tibet, and were surprised to see such a large Muslim population. The two cultures have existed side by side here for centuries with relatively little conflict.
Within one block in Leh you can find a mosque and a Buddhist temple. And, even with so many Tibetans living here, the Muslim call to prayer can be heard blaring every day, starting at 4:30am, from the mosques. The religious tolerance between the people here is really impressive.
Surrounding Leh are beautiful lakes and valleys that have only recently been opened to foreigners. Two days after arriving, before really getting a lay of the land, we found ourselves in a jeep driving through Nubra Valley to the North, with three other travelers we’d met in our hotel. Our plan was to spend 3 days driving through the valley. The first day would entail a 10 hour drive to a village called Turtuk, on the India-Pakistan border.
The drive was incredible. We were once again reminded of the enormity of the Himalayas. An hour outside Leh our jeep climbed the Khardung Pass, the highest motorable road in the world at 18,379 ft. At the top, we stopped and breathlessly hiked a few hundred feet higher to a temple overlooking both sides of the pass. It was the highest point Ben and I had ever been. Several times throughout the rest of the drive we had to stop at army check points to give them a copy of our permit for visiting the area.
After a long, bumpy but beautiful drive, we arrived in Turtuk just before sunset. As we pulled into the village, we were approached by a boy named Fozel who offered us his family’s guesthouse for the night. Turtuk has only been open to foreigners since 2010 but there were several guesthouses to choose from. As we followed him through the village to his home, we seemed to catch the curious eyes of everyone we passed. They only have electricity for 4 hours a day and by the time we settled in and had dinner the village was completely dark.
We woke up the next morning at sunrise and Fozel took us on a tour of his home. Turtuk is comprised of about 500 Balti families that are multi-lingual, speaking Baltistani, Urdu, Ladakhi, Hindi, and some English. (Balti refers to muslims of Ladakhi/Tibetan origin from Baltistan in Pakistan and Ladakh in Kashmir).
Their homes are made of stone or mud which are built closely together forming narrow passageways. A network of waterways has been established through the village, where streams of water are channeled from the raging Shyok River. This is where most people, squatting along the passageways, can be found washing their clothes or dishes. Before breakfast we climbed a hill that overlooked all of Turtuk and provided a view of Pakistan in the distance.
Most families own farmlands of buckwheat, barley and apricot trees. In the warm summer season the village looked like a green oasis in middle of the surrounding barren mountains. Turtuk is beautiful and the people seem, from an outsider’s perspective, to be very satisfied and happy.
But there is a sad history here. The village was considered part of Pakistan until the Indian Army took control of the land in the winter of 1971. In the decades that followed they were left cut off from the rest of the country, until recently. I read that many families became separated when the Indian Army took over. Hundreds of people were left behind in Pakistan, separated from their parents, husbands, wives, or siblings. Crossing the newly-established border just a few kilometers away was impossible.
Fozel seemed insistent that we visit a museum next door to his guesthouse, to learn more about the history of Turtuk. I found it strange that a village this small, and in the middle of nowhere, would have a museum. When we walked in we were greeted by an aging man with an elegant demeanor. He wore traditional Balti clothing and walked with a staff that donned the head of a snake at the handle. His name was Mohammad Khan Kacho. He is of the Yabgo Dynasty, a descendant of the King of Western Turkistan.
The outside of his home looked very similar to those surrounding it, a plainly constructed,traditional mud-brick home. But the interior was strikingly different with brightly colored fine rugs and plush, modern furniture. Inside he displayed the most prized possessions of his lineage. Battle swords, ceremonial headdresses & jewelry, historical documents, and paintings were carefully displayed along the walls, which told the story of the Balti Kingdom.
He waited patiently on a bright red velvet sofa while we looked around. When we sat down on adjacent blue velvet sofas, he proudly began discussing his family history. His ancestors ruled over this area for over 1000 years (800AD – 1800AD). They were able to maintain power by leveraging Turtuk’s strategic location, as it is located on the Silk Road going through to Central Asia. Although he is considered royalty, he lives a poor life in Turtuk with his wife, daughter and son. Before we left, we told him thank you in Urdu, which brought a big smile to his face. He expressed his gratitude and happiness that we there to learn about Turtuk.
Before we left, Fozel gave us a bag of apricots from their trees and a bag of chapati bread for the drive. We got the impression that they don’t receive much business as the tourism in this region is still developing. He seemed really appreciative that we chose to stay with him. We drove a few hours back towards Leh and stopped at a town called Hunder, where the valley changed from rivers and jagged rocks to smooth desert sand dunes. We spent the night and in the morning made our way back to Leh.
Turtuk was an unexpected experience for us. We had the impression that the culture in this area would be mostly Buddhist, but were really happy to visit a Muslim village. This area of India has such an interesting mixture of people and history.
It’s hard to explain the feeling when you arrive to a place this powerful, both in culture and natural beauty. It’s so impressive that it feels strange that before now I didn’t know it was here. These are the moments I love so much when travelling.
We will be in India for a few more weeks with little idea of where we will go next. We aren’t in any hurry to leave this region and excited to see what else lies in the mountains and valleys of Ladakh, Jammu & Kashmir.