“Get apricots from Turtuk. They are the best you will get,” says our host, the chipper, plump woman who runs the Galaxy Guest House and Restaurant with her husband in Hunder — a quite, almost dreamlike village in the Nubra valley surrounded by khaki hills and the sand dunes of Ladakh. The guest house is recently built; Tsering Lanzes and her husband Stanzin Dorjay, who is an ex-serviceman, rebuilt their house into a palatial homestay-cum-guesthouse with about six double-bed rooms, one of which they occupy. They also have a live-in cook, the 20-year-old Raju from Assam whom they call Chhotu.
I had spent the night there with friends and I was ambling around their house the next morning before we left to Turtuk. The morning sun wasn't strong enough to deflect the previous night's chillness that was still left in the air. Ms. Lanze's house, like any other house in the village, has apricot and apple trees. She also has planted vegetables — carrots, potatoes, onions, tomatoes and spinach — in neat patches.
When I made my Leh plans, after hours of research on internet and travel guides, Turtuk easily found its way into my itinerary. Very close to the Pakistan border Turtuk, was captured by Indian army in the year 1971. A craggy little border village, opened by the Indian government in late 2009 after relaxing the Protected Area Permit Regime (PAPR), Turtuk's credentials are cogent to arouse my curiosity.
Mainly, I wanted to visit someplace that is not as touristy as the rest of Leh. I realised during the first few days of my trip that even the far-reaching places, like Hunder, are teeming with tourists — desi and foreign alike. The much-less popular Turtuk would be a singular experience.
I set out after a hearty breakfast of Timok — steamed dumpling served with cooked vegetables. Mussa, my driver, turned out to be a brilliant raconteur. Part of the fun in travelling through Leh is having a good driver. If he is as amusing as Mussa, your bone-rattling rides would not be half as bad.
Mussa fills me with anecdotes from his life and life in the mountains in general. He had served in the 1999 Kargil war when the Army made it mandatory for the locals from Nubra valley to serve in the war. “I was filling cannons. Since Ladakhis are very efficient climbers, we could evict the intruders despite the fact that we were at a receiving end (Pakistanis were on top of the mountains),” Mussa explains. He is from nearby Parthapur and although Mussa did not continue with Army service, his family has Army connections. His father is an ex-serviceman. His two brothers are serving in the Army now.
The terrain to Turtuk is a swirly mountain road that descends into a valley abruptly. From then on, the road is dotted with sea buckthorn bushes in full bloom with pale, shiny yellow fruits. Mussa often stopped by to feed me with apricots from the local women, teaching me that the apricot seeds can be broken and the pleasantly crisp kernels that are hidden inside the shell can be eaten. Ms. Lanze's statement about apricots was also substantiated by Mussa while he drove me through hamlets after hamlets crossing Parthapur, Skampuk, Thoise, Terse, Skuru, Hundir, Tumaru, Largap, Changmar, Bogdang and Chulunka to Turtuk. Mussa told me that Turtuk's apricots are the sweetest in the entire region and no matter how many you eat; your stomach doesn't act up.
The first thing that arrests your attention when you arrive at Turtuk is the number of guest houses that have sprouted on the rocky stretch — an excuse for a road — leading to the rugged and breathtakingly beautiful village. There are plenty of them, announcing comfortable beds, hot shower and everything else to make the tourists feel at home in the wilderness.
The mighty Sahyok River roars past Turtuk, the only thing in the village that is noisy and brash. Sahyok's waters are further augmented by the countless little streams originating from the (melting of) Himalayas glaciers. One such gushing glacier-stream cuts across Turtuk, dividing the village into two. “There are about 600 families in total, 300 on either side of the river,” Ali, a local, tells me. Life in the village is rather tranquil and for a population of 600 families, it's oddly free of the bustle.
Turtuk is lush with vegetation. Agriculture is in its full splendour during the summer months with a local variety of wheat in full bloom. Patches of vegetables including cauliflower, cabbage, spinach, carrots and greens are cultivated and stored for the long and hard winter. Apricot trees border every house's fencing and are pregnant with ripe, yellow-orange fruits. Shake one and more than a handful of these fruits rain down in soft thuds. Apple trees are in plenty while walnut trees sport green, unripe fruits. The locals would dry up the mature fruits to wield crispy walnuts.
Women separate wheat from husk in fields while tourists walk about brandishing their flashy cameras and city-bred curiosity. For all the intrusions it goes through every day during the tourist season, Turtuk is strangely accommodating. Your Julleys (the Ladakhi greeting) are sweetly replied to, curious questions about their lives are answered and you are often inquired about: Are you married? How many are you in the group? Where are you staying?
As I go about getting drunk on the village's beauty, Mussa plucks a handful of leaves with indigo flowers from a plant and makes me smell it. It was nothing like I ever smelt; a bittersweet tanginess with an indistinguishable aroma of many of the herbs I have ever known. “We make a dip out of this with thick yoghurt,” he explains. My immediate question was to ask whether this is available in any restaurants in Turtuk. The answer was no.
However, the only shack that served food in Turtuk served Chow Mein. There is something about the food you get to taste in hamlets up in the hills. They use all the ingredients we do, yet they have a distinct flavour and taste. It must be due to the freshness of the vegetables they grow in their gardens.
After making enquiries, we found a local who would sell us dried apricots. He took us to his house through narrow gullies, a class from the village's school that is being held in the open and a green mosque. At his home, he tells us, he also has walnuts to sell. And raisins too. Bring it on, we say. I will have to go Leh to sell this off, he says. Leh is about 250 km from Turtuk and a trip means a day lost. His old mother desperately tries to converse with me using signs since there is no language we mutually understand. She shows me her strange ornaments (a spoon shaped pendant and her silver headgears) but vehemently refuses to be photographed. ‘Shishikdu, Shishikdu,' she says — ugly in Balti language.
Back at the Galaxy Guest House, I give Ms. Lanzes a bottle of fresh apricot juice I bought at Turtuk, manufactured by a local co-operative society. “Gift?” she asks, before accepting it gracefully. Later during the evening, I sit with her in her sprawling kitchen and sip the Cha Kholak tea laced with Churpee (Yak cheese).
Lanzes doesn't restrain me from photographing her. In fact, she obliges charmingly. But it's the image of the old woman of Turtuk, who was probably never photographed, that will stay engraved in my memory. She and her family are the most beautiful things I have ever seen.