Friday, 22 April 2016

Turtuk: A village with equally interesting history and geography

Somewhere btween Hunder and Turtuk
Post my breakfast at Hunder, I started my 77km-ride to Turtuk. Diskit/Hunder-Turutk is one of the most beautiful joiurneys you'll ever undertake. On this route, apart from the army trucks, the only other traffic that you're likely to encounter are the buses and cabs plying between Diskit and Turtuk to ferry the villagers. Tourist cars/bikes are few and far in between. As a result, this route is 100% traffic-free, to the extent that in case your vehicle breaks down, you might have to wait a while before help arrives. But it's best to not think about the dangers lurking and simply enjoy the nature. Because that's exactly what I did during my ride. 

The road is curved out of the mountain with the river on the other side, and your vehicle pointing northwards towards Pakistan. Since you're riding in the valley and given the fact it's border area, you do get a feeling that you're being watched, but to be honest, I didn't feel unsafe even once. On the contrary, given the fact that I'm just an innocent traveller, the fact that the army is watching over me made me feel safe. 

About 20 km from Hunder is an airbase. While riding from South to North, you come up to a hill and ride downwards right past the airbase. From the top of the hill you get a great view of the entire airbase which is nearly 50 meters down. Of course photography is prohibited here but when you see this you realize what pains our security personnel are taking to keep us safe. While passing by this airbase, all I was thinking was Jackie Shroff's character in the movie Border, not sure why. 

Half an hour in to my journey (about 30 km from Hunder), I encountered a picturesque bridge. On of side of the bride was a waterfall, rising way about the bridge. The waterfall was landing into a gorge which was flushing out in to the Shyok river. I stopped by the bridge to click a pictures. About 100 meters down the road was an army post. I saw a couple of armymen waving out to me asking me not to click. Hence, I put the cam back inside and started riding towards them. I stopped by to ask the reason, half expecting someone to yell or talk to me rudely. On the contrary, they adressed me as "Sir" and explained that that bridge is the only connection between Leh and the border. If the connection is broken, all the supplies will get frozen, hence, it's a high-risk target for the enemy. One of the jawaans asked me to come inside, sit with them and have tea or some snacks. I thanked them for their offer and respectfully declined. In the meantime, another jawaan, went in and got something for me - tropicana juice in clean glass on a tray - as if it were a high-end restaurant. I was truly humbled by this kind of hospitality. On top of that, they, "Yahan pahado mein aur kuch toh zyaada milega nahi, isliye sirf ye juice hai. Aur chai chahiye toh woh bhi milega. Hamare layak aur kuch seva ho toh bataiye?" (Translation: We don't get much else [to eat] in these mountains. We can make tea for you if you want. If there's anything else that we can do for you, do let us know.)

I was humbled and speechless. I told them that they're already serving the nation in the highest manner by protecting the borders and keeping all of us safe, we can't ask for anything more. 


The jawaans who offered me juice
You see that light box in the background and the box attached to it? They keep their mobile phones on that box touching the pole - that's the only way they get mobile signal.
Don't know the name of the place since it's in middle of nowhere but this post comes on the way while going to Turtuk from Hunder, about 40km before Turtuk. I spent 15-20 minutes chatting up with these jawaans before heading further north. 


To put it in the Game of Thrones terms: Nubra Valley is the 'North of the Wall'


As discussed in one of my previous posts, Nubra Valley opens up for only 3-4 months in a year when snow melts on the Khardungla Pass, for rest of the year it's cut off from the rest of the world. For this reason, the jawaans who're positioned here are always hungry for human interaction. Hence, whenever they see any outsiders, they're more than eager to talk to them. I met one more jawaan at one of the other checkposts who stopped me not for a security checkup but only because he was curious looking at a solo biker all the way up north. He insisted on clicking a picture with me. 


The jawaan insisted on taking this pic

Protip: Don't let the village kids bully you, use force, push them away to make way.

There are 3-4 villages enroute Turtuk. Village kids are the rowdiest specimens I've ever seen in my life. These kids actually are wildlings, in every sense of the way. They block the road and don't let you go till you pay them. They look like 6-7 year-old innocent kids but they're smarter and more evil than you can anticipate. They hold hands and block the road. When you stop the bike, they'll grab your clutch tightly so that even when you try to accelerate, the clutch is not engaged and you can't move. In the meantime, rest of them will swarm around you and grab you till you don't pay them. You will have to physically push them away to make way. 

Finally, I reached the magical land of Turtuk. When you reach there, you'll realize that you've been magically transported to a parallel universe - a completely different sphere.

Turtuk is as far north as north goes

Turtuk is a relatively new town when it comes to tourism. Only in 2009, the Indian government opened the village up for tourism. This tiny place is the last village on the Indian border. Sitauted on the banks of the Shyok river, it's as beautiful as any place you've seen in India. But it's not only it's geography that would interest tourists, it also has an interesting history. 


The green belt to the right is Turtuk

Turtuk wasn't always a part of India. Till 1971, this village belonged to Pakistan. During the 1972 war, India won it from Pakistan. For this reason, the locals has distinct features. They're as different Ladakhis as night and day. While Ladakhis have more Tibetian features, the people of Turtuk, with their rosy cheeks, fair skin and sharp features look similar to the Pashtuns of the North-West Provinces of Pakistan. 

Crystal clear water trickling down from the mountains merging into the muddy river; snow-clad peaks all around and all you hear is chirping of birds and flowing of river rapids. Away from the pollutants of city life, Turtuk seems to have stuck in time for good. This village has still allowed the nature to run its course and have curved out a settlement cradled into mother nature's lap instead of barying her underneath malls and skyscrapers. I still hate myself for not staying here overnight and spending more time in this beautiful village. 

I started chatting with one of the villagers about their lives. As asked him a question which you hear as silent whispers but is rarely asked point blank - I asked him if they're happy under the India rule or were his forefathers happier when they were with Pakistan. Without blinking he replied, "We're happy with India. The army helps us a lot. We have education and earning opportunities. There was poverty when we [his forefathers] were with Pakistan. We often speak to our relatives who're still in Pakistan and tell us about the situation there. There they don't have any of the facilities that we enjoy." Take that separatist bastards!

This 20-something young lad said it out loud his feelings without any intimidation or pressure. He wasn't even put under a spot infront of a camera on a news debate. This was just a casual one-on-one chat he was having with someone who's just met. No reason for him to lie or feel pressurized. 


The blue waters of the melting glaciers meets with the muddy water of river Shyok

I wanted to go as far north as I possibly could. I kept on riding further north from Turtuk and about 3km later, I was stopped at a military check post. The jawaan told me that it was the furthest civilians were allowed to go. I was happy! I had made it to the last checkpost a civilan could travel. On my humble 150cc city commuter, I had made it to the northernmost point of India. 

The jawaan saw my 'MH' series number plate and asked me if I had actually come from Maharashtra. He couldn't believe that someone would be so crazy to come all the way just for tourism purpose. My riding gear was enough to convince him that I'm someone who takes his travels seriously. He told me that he was from Nepal. "Don't mind sir, but who is a Nepalese in the Indian army?" I asked. Apparently, Nepalese form a large demograph of the Gurkha regiment. That's something I never knew. Besides this, he told a few things which I couldn't disclose on an open forum like this blog. He said, "Just because you've come from such a far distance and because I can't allow you to go any further, the least I can do is tell you a few things about our army so that you may feel that your trip was worthwhile. But make sure you don't publish this info anywhere."

I asked the jawaan, "Sir, someone in Turtuk told me that from this checkpost you could see Pakistan. Is that true?" 
Pointing towards a bunch of peak to the north, he said, "Do you see those peaks? Do you see the three rocky peaks? Do you see the tall snow-clad peaks behind the rocky ones? That's Pakistan. The rocky ones below to India while the snow-clad peak is Pakistan." 
I've seen Pakistan from the Wagah Border but seeing our neighbour is such a natural environment is something else. I returned back to Turtuk with a wide grin pasted on my face. I had lunch at one of the local restaurants and headed back towards Diskit.


The peak in the background that's covered in clouds, that's Pakistan. All the other rocky peaks in front belongs to India. 

On my way back, I once again stopped at the same check post (where I was offered juice) to say goodbye to the jawaans. But then, the duty had changed and a new jawaan was manning the post. Surprisingly, he was even more chatty than the previous guys. He asked his colleague to get juice for me. It almost seems like a ritual that whoever stops here gets juice. Unlike the other fellows, this guy has actually served as a border patrol and was posted high up on the mountains manning one of the peaks. He shared some of the most interesting stories of how they survive so high up and how spineless Pakistani army is. No prizes for guessing that the stories that he's shared with me can't be mentioned on the blog. 

While we were chatting a local taxi which ferries between Diskit and Turtuk passed by. The jawaan gave him an angry look. I asked him what happened. Apparently, when you're posted at such sparely-populated regions, you end up knowing every person in the village and viceversa. He told me that few days back, he had given Rs.500 to the taxi driver and had asked him to recharge his mobile from Diskit. For weeks he didn't do it and everytime he asked, he would give an excuse and run away. One day, the jawaan caught hold of him and got his money back. He was visibly pissed at how some of these villagers are cheats and doesn't respect them despite the army helping them out in every way. In fact, the Gurkha regiment jawaan at the last checkpost had also told me the same thing.

Just then, this guy remembered that his mobile is running low on balance and he needs to recharge it. "Since you're going to Diskit, if it's not too much of a problem, can you kindly recharge my phone from one of the mobile shops there? I'll pay you the money right now," he requested. "Give me your phone number and tell me how much you want me to recharge it for," I said. After taking down his phone number, I told him that I'm not going to take a single penny from him. I will go to village and recharge his phone but he needn't pay me for it. 

"Sir, you guys are putting your lives on the line for us. This is a small thing I'm able to do for you, please let me," I said.
"But how can I let you spend you money for me?" the jawaan asked.
I was adament. I said, "Why not? Our corrupt politicians eat away thousands of crores from the common man and we can't do anything. You guys are the real heroes of the country. Look at how nicely you guys treated me. This is the least I could do for you. Let me do this as a token of my appreciation." 

It's not about spending Rs. 200-250, because what they're doing for our country is invalueable. It's about me getting an opportunity to be helpful to them. I wouldn't inslut it by taking money from them.

I've always had the highest honour for our armymen but after these encounters and hearing their stories, my respect for them has increased 10 folds. 


Somewhere between Turtuk and Diskit
For me the day was not over yet. While riding back towards Diskit, about 15km outside Diskit (and 8 km before Hunder), as I looked at the valley in the distance, I saw a grey wall heading towards me. If you’ve seen the movie ‘The Mummy’, in one of the scenes, the reincarnated mummy of Imhotep raises a sandstorm in order to engulf the hero who’s in a tiny aircraft. I’ve witnessed something similar. Only in this case, there was no mummy involved and instead of running from the sandstorm, I too it head on. While returning from Turtuk (the last village on the Indian border), on my way to Diskit, I saw a brown wall heading towards me from the Southern end of the Nubra Valley. What looked like rain clouds at first, turned out to a crazy sandstorm. Due to its unique geographical location, during evening time, the hot air rising from the deserts of Hunder had created a sandstorm of sorts. As you see in any Hollywood movie, I was counting down the ‘Distance to impact’ while riding straight into the storm: "T-1 km", "T-500 mt", "T-100 mt", "T-10 mt", "BRACE FOR IMPACT!"

As the sandstorm hit me, my bike slowed down: from 60-65 kmph down to 30 kmph. I had engaged the fourth gear and even then my speed couldn’t exceed 35 km. With visibility less than 10 meters, stopping at the side of the road was not an option. The mayhem lasted for about 20 minutes and by the end of it, I was completely covered in desert sand at 9000 meters above the sea level. Had it not been for my tough riding jacket, riding gloves and balaclava, the sand particles would’ve ripped some of my skin off.


I finally reached Diskit, headed back to my hotel, poured myself a beer and reflected back on the events of the day gone by. 

Easily, one the most eventful days of my entire Ladakh trip. 

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