Turtuk – An oasis of tradition in Northern India
The sun was slowly starting to set as we were leaving Hunder. We had left Leh that morning and put a few hunder kilometers behind us on our way to Turtuk. In my mind, this made the road a even more treacherous, but our driver carried on with cat’s eyes. For us, driving through the mountains in receding sunlight was an experience in and of itself. Turtuk has a wealth of history. It was settled well before the 1400’s, very close to the intersection of Ladakh, Baltibad, and Kashmir, making it a very strategically important area. Even in modern times, it is still contested over, and belonged to Pakistan until 1971, when India captured it. Something I pondered as we drove through the beautiful mountainous landscape.
When we finally arrived and found a homestay, it was pitch black, and the long drive, along with my jet lag, had me beat. Our homestays prepared a delicious dinner for us, which was included in the 600Rs price (under $10) for the night, and I passed out at a modest 10pm. This, of course, meant I woke up before 5:30 which, as it happened, was just in time to head out to catch the sunrise!
Turtuk is significantly greener than the rest of Ladakh, but don’t let the increased vegetation fool you (it’s only in the village limits and only due to an intricate irrigation system built around town), Turtuk is still very much a desert climate and, at that early hour, was freezing. Two layers and a lights jacket was barely enough for me, while my Indian travel bud was rocking 5 layers and complaining. We set out towards another monastery perched part way up the mountain, from which we were told we’d get a great view.
The sun, of course, wasn’t yet up at that hour, but light was slowly starting to creep up over the mountains. It was a surreal experience to be making our way towards the monastery, chants from the village mosque already filing the air, as light was slowly starting to creep among the surrounding Himalayas, progressively revealing beautiful texture and detail.
On our way back to the homestay for breakfast, we stumbled upon a little family restaurant that served us tea with homemade, locally grown, organic buckwheat pancakes. So simple but so good! A great appetizer for the fantastic aloo parantha that our homestay served us in their fabulous garden. Every meal nestled in these mountains felt so special and they were all so delicious!
Once the sun was up, we decided to start heading towards the waterfall we were told was on the other side of the mountains. This proved to be more difficult than expected. There are no signs around town, it’s quite off the beaten track, but the monastery was easy to get to as its position rendered it consistently visible and not too far of a hike up. It’s easy to navigate to just by maintaining a consistent direction towards it. The waterfall was a different story. Yes, the path along the mountain leading to it is high and visible, but the entrance to it is low and on the ground. Estimating its location while navigating the narrow streets and unmarked rocky passages at the foot of the mountain is not easy.
Along the path, I noticed that the system of irrigation that went along the entire village started up here. Trenches were dug all along the trail and, as we walked up, edges were cut into the mountain to form a sequence of flat plateaus, presumably to allow for farming up the mountain. It was no Machu Pichu, but still an impressive system for this remote farming city.
The path flattened out about two thirds of the way up, and all but disappeared, leaving only the narrow irrigation trenches, with a sharp cliff below, for us to walk along. It was a rather daunting task. There were times edges of the mountain rock stuck out over the trench, at which point you really have find a grip and hang on because the only way to get around them was to lean out while circumnavigating them.
Eventually, we started hearing the water, then seeing little streams running down in the cliff below, and finally, the waterfall. Even though it was off season and water levels weren’t high, it was still a magnificent sight. After the hike and the time we spent in the morning looking for it, it was all I could do to let out a victorious shout. I carefully approached and entered it, and let the water wash over me. My shoes got soaked, my pants so heavy they almost slipped off, but it was so refreshingly totally worth it. The Himalayan water was cool and crisp, and tasted so fresh. By the time we got back down, my clothes were dry!
Having seen all we could, and gotten a good taste of this quaint village, we pilled back in the car and headed back toward Hunder to ride camels and spend the night. I was so happy we had come the night before to be able to see the sunrise and have ample time to really appreciate the traditional feel of the village.
As we were leaving, I realized that I enjoyed Turtuk much more than Leh and I quickly realized why. Turtuk is like a little oasis within the mountainous desert. It has a beautiful river running through it, and is surrounded by farmland and greenery, whereas Leh, despite its mountainous beauty, is undeniably barren.
Even beyond the scenery, Turtuk seemed natural and native, with a modest traditional lifestyle. Leh, on the other hand, is the typical city that travelers that have visited it in the past will say it’s changed. It looks like a city that just discovered its worth and is hurrying to profit from it. Construction is everywhere, often inhibiting, invasive and unfinished. Prices are rising, especially for accommodation. I’m happy I went and saw the sights, but I don’t feel the need to see them again. Unfortunately, local lobbying is preventing roads in the surrounding area from being built, meaning that, for the foreseeable future, the only way to get to Turtuk and other surrounding cities is through Leh. So I may very well be back.