Have you ever been to a place that you’ve fallen in love with immediately? That’s how I felt when I visited Turtuk in May 2019. I can’t blame you if you haven’t even heard of the place. It is an under-appreciated tourist destination, opened to tourists only in 2010. But I’ll tell you, paradise on earth- that’s what Turtuk is. Being one of the northernmost villages of India, it’s remoteness from the rest of the country makes it seem like a boring place to visit. What’s so amazing about a village? This was the attitude I had when my family had planned a visit to the place. None of the other tourists we met on our Ladakh (Kashmir, India) trip had planned to stay overnight in Turtuk as we had. All of them thought the place wasn’t worth spending any time on. This only made me doubt our decisions more. When we reached, I realised how wrong I was. There was something special about this village- unlike any other I’d been to.
Before I get to the people’s culture and my experience in the village, I want to let you know more about Turtuk’s geographical location and history.
Geographical Location and Timeline of Conflicts
Turtuk is located at the India-Pakistan occupied India border.
The Indo-Pakistani war of 1947-48: Turtuk was annexed by Pakistan.
The Indo-Pakistani war of 1971(Battle of Turtuk): Turtuk was recaptured by India.
The Kargil War(1999): Another major conflict between India and Pakistan.
Turtuk was juggled between the two countries.
The locals’ experience of being part of both Pakistan and India
One of the elderly locals who would’ve been around 25-30 years of age when India recaptured Turtuk said “Both the countries have wonderful people and terrible politicians. There is no difference in the feeling of belonging in either country.”
Many locals said that their families were separated at the time of the Battle of Turtuk. Their relatives were in Pakistan and they were able to visit only once in a blue moon because of the bad relations between the countries.
The people of Turtuk have gone through so much for India. Yet, the rest of the nation has a stereotyped image of them that they want to be part of Pakistan, are violent, and are the main cause for constant tensions between India and Pakistan. These presumptuous people badly need a visit to Turtuk, to learn how harmoniously these Muslim people live in a Buddhist region in a Hindu majority country. They do not impose their culture on anybody but simply practise what they want to. They are happy with what they have and do not mourn about the past.
The Turtuk way of life
The immense hospitality of the villagers left me spellbound. If someone or the other came into my street every second of every day, carrying cameras and whatnot, my irritation would know no bounds. I might even smack them on the head and tell them to get out. But here, there was not one person who didn’t greet us with a “Hello” or a “Julley” (the local way of saying hello). All the students coming back from school, bags held over their heads, greeted us with a smile and a polite “Hello”. It warmed my heart how welcoming all of them were. There was one girl of about 7 years age who was coming back from school with her little brother. She came to me and asked, “What’s your name?”. I said, “Shreya, what’s yours?” She stammered. She looked at me for a few seconds and asked “Aapko Urdu aati hai kya?” (Do you speak Urdu?) The girl had wanted to show off her English speaking skills to her brother.
All the natives had a rosy tinge to their cheeks. It was perhaps the climate that gave them this colour, because on my second day there, I started to develop this tinge on my cheeks as well. All of them were absolutely gorgeous and had flawless skin. Maybe they looked extra beautiful because of how kind and giving each one of them was.
When asked for directions to the museum, instead of just showing us the way, one of the ladies guided us to it. I really couldn’t understand how they managed to be so patient and loving. Was it part of their culture? Were they doing it only because tourism promoted their lives? It didn’t seem like it. It seemed like they were doing it because that was how they were. Compassionate about everyone and everything.
Turtuk has an everlasting natural supply of water. The water runs through a channel on every single road. Unlike the drainage water that runs through the streets of our metropolitan cities, this water is remarkably clear. The villagers follow strict rules to maintain the purity of the water. Not one person washes clothes or vessels in the water directly. The water is so clean that the villagers drink from it directly.
It amazed me how disciplined the people were. It is this discipline that had ensured that the place never ran out of water to date, even when water was scarce in the rest of the nation.
Museums of Turtuk
There are two museums in Turtuk – the Balti museum and the Royal Palace of the Yabgo dynasty. We first visited the Royal Palace, which the locals called a museum. The Palace was only the size of an average city house, with two floors. The man in the museum claimed to be a descendent of the Yabgo dynasty and had displayed his ancestors’ possessions and gifts from the British during the time of the British Rule in India. He demanded the respect of a King through his demeanor, but the rest of the village treated him as the village crazy man.
The Balti museum was the highlight of the entire trip. The museum was basically a house, built around 100-150 years ago, showcasing the tools used by the villagers to keep the fire running, to cut meat, to walk in the snow and the like, and the clothes they made using the skin of Ladakhi animals that they wore to keep themselves warm. The house was so strategically planned that there’s even a little playroom attached to the kitchen for mothers to keep their babies in while they cook!
I noticed that every article displayed was neatly labeled in English. I was confused. The museum lady could hardly speak in even Hindi(India’s official language and most spoken language) Who had labeled them so perfectly, then? I asked her this, and she proudly said, “My son.” She walked into a room and came out with all of his medals and certificates. She wanted us to see them. He was studying in one of India’s most reputed Universities. Just speaking to her filled my heart with happiness. She was ever-smiling. She walked us through every bit of her ancestral home, educating us how the people of Turtuk survived the harsh climatic conditions centuries ago.
A Sad Sight
When we were walking through the lush green fields, we noticed that the students of a nearby school came rushing out to meet us. I thought tourists fascinated them. They repeated over and over “Photo. Photo.” They wanted us to take a picture with them and we did. When we bid them adieu with a smile and a wave, they demanded money for taking photos with them. We were all shocked. They were all about 8-10 years old. The other tourists must have encouraged this and made it a habit for them. We tried our best to make them understand it is not good to demand money- not because we didn’t want to give them money, but because it is insane for children to be money-minded. We realised that they felt like we were betraying them and we had no other way than to give them a few rupees. We witnessed the same in Ladakh, a city a few kilometres away from Turtuk. There, it was a group of elderly women.
Over 2500 kilometres from where I lived, I felt at home. I fear that with excessive tourism, the people of Turtuk may not feel at home right where they are.