Turtuk – A Paradise within a Paradise

The famous Sufi musician and poet named Amir Khusrow has described Kashmir in very apt words. “Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast” (If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this), which is undoubtedly true. But a visit to Turtuk village on the India-Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) border and you would realize why I chose this title for this post. Read on to know more about this heavenly place.

ABOUT TURTUK VILLAGE

Turtuk is a village in the North-eastern part of Ladakh. It is sandwiched between two majestic mountain ranges in the world – the Himalayas and the Karakoram, on the banks of the Shyok river. Turtuk was under Pakistan’s control until 1971, after which India gained control of this strategic area. Though Turtuk is now politically in Ladakh province, geographically, linguistically and culturally a part of Baltistan region. It is one among four such villages on Indian side, the other three being Tyakshi, Chalunkha and Thang. Turtuk is predominantly a Muslim village and the locals speak Balti language. It is the last outpost in India beyond which Gilgit-Baltistan region begins.

  • The wooden bridge connecting Youl (left) and Farol (right)
    The wooden bridge connecting Youl (left) and Farol (right)

Turtuk basically is a village consisting of two villages – Youl and Farol, connected by a wooden bridge on a beautiful stream of water. Farol is a bit higher than Youl in terms of altitude. However, both these villages can be explored on foot and is probably the best and only practical option. There are three more villages around Turtuk – Chalunkha, which is at the base of Turtuk and on the banks of Shyok river. You get to visit Tyakshi while on your way to Thang, last village in Indian territory. The Tyakshi School in Tyakshi village was constructed by Government of Pakistan and is now run by Government of India.

DOCUMENTATION FOR VISITING TURTUK

Now that the Turtuk village comes in a protected area, the tourists need to take an Inner Line Permit (ILP) beforehand in Leh itself. The Permit fee is inclusive of Red Cross, Wildlife and Environmental Fees. I had opted for a week long permit for all the regions under ILP’s purview. You may read more about ILP here and apply for the permit online here. Please note that you have to take the print of the Permit Details document to TIC Office, Opp. J&K Bank in Main Market, Leh and make the necessary payment.

HOW TO REACH TURTUK

Turtuk is 200 kms away from Leh beyond Nubra Valley. It is 77 kms away from Hunder village in Nubra Valley. So one can either choose to cover entire 200 kms in a single journey or have an overnight stay at Hunder and then leave for Turtuk. But before that,

HOW TO REACH LEH

Air: The best but the most expensive option. Leh Airport is connected to Srinagar and Delhi Airports. If you choose this option, make sure you acclimatize well once you land in Leh.

Bus: Public and Private transport buses ply between Srinagar and Leh (takes 3 days) as well as Manali and Leh (takes 2 days).

  • Leh Bus Time Table
    Leh Bus Time Table

From Leh, one can reach Turtuk by a public transport bus or shared cabs. The route will be Leh – Khardung La – Nubra Valley – Diskit/ Hunder – Turtuk.

Cabs: The shared cab is generally an SUV car that accommodates about 7 people plus the driver and they typically charge Rs. 600-800 per person.

Bus: There is a direct public transport bus to Turtuk from Leh every Saturday (yes only Saturday) that leaves from Leh at 6 am and ticket fare is Rs. 316. And the same bus leaves from Turtuk next morning for Leh. However, one can instead opt for other option – reaching Diskit from Leh by a 7:30 am bus (runs daily; fare Rs. 243) and from Diskit board a 2:30 pm bus for Turtuk (runs daily; fare Rs. 110). For reaching Leh from Turtuk, one can take a 6 am Turtuk-Diskit bus from Turtuk (runs daily; fare Rs. 110), stay overnight at Hunder and take Skuru-Leh bus next morning. This bus leaves from Skuru at 7-7:30 am and reaches Hunder by 8-8:30 am. Hunder to Leh bus fare is Rs. 210.

Please note that if you are a group of 6-7 people, it will be easier for you to get a cab from Leh for Turtuk. We were only 3 and the driver waited quite a long to get 4 more passengers and hence we left from Leh at 8:30 am (on 1st August 2018). Even after taking only 2-3 short breaks, the entire journey took 8 hours to complete. Except several patches, the road condition is not that good.

  • Khardung La Pass
    At the world's highest motorable pass

We reached Turtuk at around 4:30 pm and headed straight to visit India – PoK border (7 kms away from Turtuk). However, we were sent back by the Indian Army since the visiting hours for civilians are 8 am to 4 pm. So, we decided to go back to the village and look for the accommodation. Our stay was at Ismail Homestay in Youl village (Rs. 1,000 – single room – three persons – dinner and breakfast – two nights).

PLACES TO VISIT IN TURTUK

  • Turtuk Waterfall
  • India – PoK Border at Thang Village
  • Balti Heritage Site
  • Natural Cold Storage
  • Yabgo Palace

TURTUK WATERFALL

Next morning, Dattatreya and I decided to visit the Turtuk Waterfall which is in Farol village. We left the homestay at around 6:30 am. The locals on the way would tell us that it would take only about 25-30 minutes to reach. But, it was definitely not true. The hike to the waterfall has a steep gradient, the route is very confusing and there are times when you have to walk on the edge of the cliff. The route is full of scree (small loose stones) making the hike very difficult. And even at best possible pace and without losing the trail, we reached the waterfall at 8 am.

  • Scree on the way to Turtuk Waterfall
    Scree on the way to Turtuk Waterfall

The worst part of this visit started during the descent. We lost our way, got stuck at couple of dead ends, slipped due to the scree and somehow managed to STAY ALIVE (believe me it does get that tough while climbing down). So ultimately we took more than 90 minutes to get back to the base village i.e. Farol. Please do not attempt this trek solo since hardly anybody goes in that direction. So, even if you get stuck somewhere, you would be on your own with no help whatsoever.

INDIA – PoK BORDER AT THANG VILLAGE

The only place that needs to be visited by a vehicle around Turtuk is the India – PoK border. Getting a cab to even cover this journey of 14-15 kms (to and fro) is difficult in Turtuk. The cabs available near the Wooden bridge would quote you anything around Rs. 3,000-5,000 only for visiting the border. Your best bet is going to Turtuk market and check for any vehicle going to Thang village in the morning so that you can hitchhike. A guy who introduced himself with only his initials KK (Mobile: 9484360219) agreed to take us to the border for Rs. 600 which was quite okay. He turned out to be the cousin of Ismail, our homestay’s owner.

  • Thang village
    Thang village

It takes about 30-45 minutes to reach Army checkpost at the border. This particular border area is managed by the Maratha Regiment. After scrutiny of the ILP documents, the officers let us drive to the actual border spot. Please remember that it’s better to carry extra copy of ILP document (meant for Nubra Valley/ Turtuk visit). Also, the Army officer keeps the original photo IDs of the travelers. So, make sure you collect the same once returning to the checkpost.

The Army officers at the border give detailed information about the border, which mountains belongs to whom, locations of the Indian and Pakistani bunkers, Line of control, etc. Please note that only photography is allowed at this spot and not videography.

BALTI HERITAGE SITE

After spending about 30-45 minutes at the border, we got back to Turtuk by 3 pm. We had our lunch at The Balti Kitchen restaurant in Farol. The prices are a bit high but it’s okay to shell out extra bucks to binge on some authentic Balti food.

  • The Balti Kitchen's farm in their backyard
    The Balti Kitchen's farm in their backyard

Few meters away from The Balti Kitchen is the Balti Heritage Site. It is like an old house with everything related to Balti culture stored – be it clothes, utensils, weapons, etc. The visiting charges are Rs. 50.

NATURAL COLD STORAGE

A short walk from Balti Heritage Site takes you to the Natural Cold Storage in Turtuk. Known as Nangchung in Balti language, these are small bunkers that remain relatively colder during summers and warmer during winters than the outside. Since it doesn’t make sense to click pictures of a place which needs to be visited in order to experience its significance, I do not have pictures of Natural Cold Storage. However, you can see it in the video at the end of this post. The visiting charges are Rs. 20, to be paid at Balti Heritage Site only.

YABGO PALACE

My final destination in Turtuk was the Yabgo Palace in Youl village. And the person who took me there was to my surprise, the present King of Yabgo dynasty, Yabgo Mohammad Khan Kacho. And I came to know about his identity only after exploring the entire palace (and hence I haven’t captured his face in the video).

  • Yabgo palace Turtuk
    Yabgo palace Turtuk

The enthusiasm in him to let travelers know about his dynasty and Baltistan’s history was amazing. Although there are no visiting charges for Yabgo Palace, one can donate some amount for the maintenance of this heritage structure.

The experience of living in Turtuk cannot be explained in a single post. In fact, the more I write about it, the more things I recollect about this heavenly village. The lush greenery, the constant sound of flowing water, the apricots, the friendly locals, the hospitality offered by them, the sense of security (even though being a border village), everything compels one to think that what Amir Khusrow said would definitely be in reference to this paradise called Turtuk.

BEST TIME TO VISIT TURTUK

May to September

ACCOMMODATION IN TURTUK

  • Ismail Homestay, Youl (9419300430/ 9419807014)
  • Chhorbat Guest House, Youl (01980-248160/ 9419308539)
  • Maha Guest House, Farol (01980-248040/ 9622982165)
  • Apricot Villa Guest House, Farol (01980-248041/ 9419696499)
  • Royal Turtuk Guest House, Farol (01980-248023/ 9469878118/ 9469571395)
  • Ashoor Guest House

RESTAURANTS IN TURTUK

  • Maha Organic Restaurant, Farol (01980-248040/ 9622982165)
  • The Balti Kitchen

The best and least expensive option is to make arrangement for meals with the homestay owner himself. The food will definitely be delicious, more than enough quantity and vegetables are fresh from farms (based on own experience).

Also, please note that only BSNL and Airtel postpaid numbers work in Turtuk.

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Till then…Happy Travelizing!!!