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The Vaishnodevi Experience 2023

My first trip to Vaishnodevi was unimpressive. Climbing was hard, and it only served to highlight how badly out of shape I was, while my in-laws managed to cope so much better. Further, I hadn’t quite realized that the cave experience wouldn’t be the same as I had imagined, since the original cave was only opened at certain times a year, and that we only entered a newly created tunnel, one far easier to access, and hence more manageable with the crowds that thronged the mountain shrine. The resulting experience at the shrine, for barely a fraction of a second, hardly compared to what I had expected / imagined / heard about. So, for me, Vaishnodevi was like any other temple, nothing to write home about, something that was reflected (though not explicitly mentioned) in the blog post I wrote then.

Ladakh Diaries Part 6: Turtuk

Our original plan at Nubra was to enjoy the sand dunes and relax. We took one look at the crowds and changed our mind! Of course, it helped that we had a destination in mind – one that had been suggested by many people we had talked to, over the past few days – Turtuk!

The village of Turtuk, about 200 km from Leh, lies in the region of Baltistan. This is one of the few villages of the region under Indian control. The rest of Baltistan is part of Pakistan. The village lies about 2.5km from the Line of Control, and is the farthest visitors are allowed to go.

Changing our plans meant that we would have a long day ahead. We were on the road at 5 AM, with the dawn to ourselves, not a soul on the road! We did startle a pair of foxes which ran across the road. They probably wondered why humans were out on the road so early!

Watching the mountains change as the day broke made the early start worthwhile. There was a flip side, though. We reached Turtuk at 7:15 AM, only to find everything closed! We had left without even tea to fortify us, and it appeared we would have to wait some more!

For the next part, I am going to rely on my diary, and quote verbatim –

Turtuk, at first glance, was just like any other village. We crossed the bridge over the river, and just a few steps later, felt as if we had entered a different world! The village was set right on a plateau, the mountains towering on one side, and on the other, a straight drop down to the river. On this plateau, as far as our eyes could see, there were fields – I could recognize cabbages, cauliflower, and lettuce, apart from apricot trees (which we recognized only because they were laden with fruits!). In the midst of this verdant greenery at an altitude of about 10,000ft, were houses huddled together. We walked around for a while, content to simply enjoy the peace and solitude amidst green fields lush with vegetables, and orchards laden with fruits. Finally, we spotted a small house with a board advertising “Balti Cuisine” which was open, and decided to try our luck. Little did we know how time would fly for the next couple of hours!

Picking apricots from the tree in his backyard was Mr. Abdul Rashid, one of the oldest residents of Turtuk. As we waited for our breakfast of Kisir and Moskot (Buckwheat pancakes with walnut sauce), we spoke to Mr. Rashid about his life in the small village. Most poignant was his description of his childhood, when Turtuk was part of Pakistan, and he used to attend school in another village on the other side of the river. All that changed during the 1971 war, when Turtuk came under Indian control, while the other village remained in Pakistan. While he seemed to be content being Indian, and happy with the way his life turned out, the pangs of separation caused by war never really go away.”

Mr. Rashid took us along to his orchard / garden filled with fruits, flowers and vegetables, and we learnt that the main produce of this region are apples and apricots, dried apricots and apricot oil being the main products. We also learnt that Polo was a major sport here, and that there is a Polo ground where matches are held every year in March/April. However, unlike the well-known and accepted form of the game, the version played here is way more ruthless. Polo, having its roots in warrior championships, is played like war! Further, it is a requirement for every male. Someone incapable of playing polo or hunting is considered unworthy of marriage!!

The village has about 200 residents, all of them Baltis. There are 3 smaller villages with Baltis under Indian control, all smaller than Turtuk. These are the only Balti residents of our country, and hence, marriages tend to be settled within the community. People choose their spouses from these villages and continue to settle here. Very few actually leave the village to work, and even those that do, tend to come back since their families are here. This has probably helped preserve the village as it is.

Stuffed full with apples, the freshest apricots we had ever eaten, holding a bag filled with apricots we had picked, we headed back to our car, to drive back down, to Hunder, to collect our stuff, and back to our homestay in Leh.

The return drive was just as good, but now my thoughts were filled with the village we had left behind. Visiting border areas, especially those touched by conflict, is never easy. I cannot imagine what it would be like, to one day belong to one country, the next day, another. Transferring allegiance can’t be that easy, no matter how improved the situation.

It also brought up thoughts of war, and those touched by it. Those who instigate war bear the least of its effects; those involved in the war lose their lives, or their loved ones, or live with memories of death and destruction; but it is the one who lives on the land being fought over, who is touched the most, who lives with it always. 

Our thoughts might have been sombre, but the landscape did much to lift out spirits... Watch this video of the Shyok river in full flow, to get a glimpse...

Coming up -

  • Ladakh Diaries Part 7: Pangong Lake


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