“Almost 80,” he says with affirmation. This 50-year-old man from Nubra Valley, along with his family, runs the Snow Leopard Hotel with an ever-charming smile. I give him, perhaps not-so-needed advice on advertising his hotel on the Internet. Hunder in Leh, Ladakh, is infectious. Even more is Norbu’s hotel in the midst of this beautiful valley, secluded from the main road and in stark contrast with its counterparts. It carries the USP of being one of the nicer places for overnight stay.
The bright flowers, apple trees and the huge kitchen garden make me fall in love with this place. I haven’t read botany in years, but that doesn’t make me less appreciative of the varied flora on his farm. I wish I had one more day at my dispense to enjoy the best dinner I had in a long long time. Organic, as they say, isn’t cliched yet.
The sand dunes at Hunder can wait, especially when today’s destination is Turtuk. Sonam gets into the driving seat and turns on the Buddhist prayer on his Sony Xplod. He folds his hands and closes his eyes and then rolls his automobile. A staunch Buddhist, he’s from Nubra, too, and has been driving for the last ten years. “Om mani padme hum” echoes from the speakers and there is a strange attraction in this prayer. With each passing day, my fascination for it increases. It is becoming a morning ritual for me as well.It is a beautiful Monday morning. Tantalizing sunshine falls on the mighty Shayok River, which meanders serpent-like through Nubra Valley. It has rained more than normal in Ladakh this year and most of the rivers are muddy. Shayok is no exception. Quieter initially, the Shayok comes to its full might and grandeur as we move along the village of Changmar to Bogdang. I am told that Shayok is a tributary of the mighty Indus and their confluence lies somewhere in Pakistan. Looking at the volume of water, I would say that Shayok definitely looked like a bigger brother of the Indus. At three places en route to Turtuk, our permits are checked by Ladakh Scouts. In one of the posts near to a huge bridge, I see a Jawan painting a notice board. The bridge seems important from a strategic point of view, with instructions to pass one vehicle at a time. It is a no-photography zone, although there isn’t a prohibitory notice anywhere. I strike a conversation with one of the Army jawans and give him the unnecessary suggestion of mentioning the same on the board. A bit hesitant initially, he smiles and, perhaps, takes my suggestion a bit too seriously and nods in affirmation. I prefer to walk and realize that couple of more days of heavy rain could make the Shayok kiss the underbelly of this bridge. But I leave my apprehensions behind, since the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) would have anticipated that. I bid goodbye to the Army jawan and we leave behind the quintessential Ladakhi villages with Buddhist flags and enter a different territory, inhabited by Balti Muslims. At first sight Turtuk is a delight. A small brook welcomes us, mellowing down the roadside and eventually losing its way in the mighty Shayok. A little ahead, we find ourselves on the main road of the village. A constable checks our permits. There are cheerful people everywhere, staring, giggling and whispering. Suddenly, I feel like a tourist!
There are two parts of the village and a hanging bridge over a small tributary of the Shayok segregates them. Sonam has been to Turtuk quite a few times before and he tells us about a man who indulges in stone carving. We start our hunt to locate the man, but I am hardly interested in the stone carvings. Instead, it is the vegetation and the fields and its people that I am interested in. Our first interaction of the day is with a girl in her school uniform (or perhaps that of a madrasa?) asking to click her picture. What more could I ask for? Ah, I have forgotten the lens I use to shoot portraits. Never mind. I use my kit lens and fire three frames in a row. But the girl isn’t as innocent as I thought her to be. She mumbles a few words and asks for ten rupees. Shocked, I try to ignore her and move along. It’s an eye opener as to what tourism could do to innocence. I will be better prepared next time.
Next in the line is Sultan, a sweet shy kid of around seven, who is more interested in following me and giggling at my camera. He is too young to understand the nuances of money and I have my second model for the day. His grandma looks from behind, but doesn’t object. A little further, there are two old men sitting outside the mosque.
One of them asks: “Kahan se aaye ho?” (Where are you from?)
“Kya aap kisi Army officer X ko jantey hain? Wo bhi yahan Bangalore se aaya tha.” (Do you know the Army officer X who came from Bangalore?)
“Nahin sahab, main nahin jaanta.” (No sir, I don’t know him)
He seems disappointed. In his imagination, perhaps, Bangalore was a tad bigger than Turtuk where each person is acquainted with every household. I ask if I may take a picture.
He asks: “Kya karoge?” (Why do you need it?)
“Bas sahab, yaad ke liye.” (Just for the memories, sir)
Their rugged faces tell the tale of the life they’ve led. I feel obliged.
Sonam leads us up north towards the fields. I see apricots, apricots and more apricots. There are buckwheat fields, trees laden with fresh apples, innumerable vegetables, fresh tomatoes, cauliflowers, cabbages and flora I am unaware of. I am overwhelmed. I haven’t tasted such tomatoes in years. People are working in the fields. The men are friendly and the women are pretty, but the women hardly talk. I request them to pose for photographs and every woman denies me.
Tough luck with the lens and the only solace that I get are the handfuls of fresh apricots from a charming lady. Back in the village we move to the other side of the bridge. Intrigued by my camera bag are some lovely little kids. They are all moving, running, shouting. I struggle to put them in a line and fire several frames in a hope to get at least a decent picture. My bag becomes their object of desire and they pat it. “Chocolate, chocolate.” I get back to my bag in the car and there are six chocolates. And exactly six little angels who have followed me.
Crossing the bridge we move to the other side of the village. There are more fields of buckwheat and more kids. There is a school, too, where midday meals are being served. After the meal, each student washes his or her own thali and I even spot few girls washing their head scarfs.
“Julley,” I say in the Ladakhi way of greeting and most of them respond cheerfully. There is greenery everywhere and you could see the mountain range towards the LOC. Pakistan is not far.
After the village walk, I get back to the hanging bridge to shoot some pictures. Women and kids are staring from far-off roof tops: This man is stupid.
Lunch is delayed and we get into a restaurant with a poster in Hebrew. The food is insipid but the hospitality is warm. It is primarily a guesthouse put in place few months back by a young man named Abdullah Ashoor, a soft-spoken fellow and perhaps one of the few graduates in Turtuk. He graduated from Srinagar and is currently employed with the agriculture department in Deskit. I have a long chat with him and he tells me about the history of Turtuk, its language, people, culture and different crops. Turtuk or Turtok was a part of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir until 1971 when, after the ceasefire, it became a part of India. There are almost 5,000 people in the state of Jammu and Kashmir who speak the Balti language and 2,400 of them are in Turtuk. Being at a lower elevation than the rest of Ladakh, they are two crop cycles in a year. After the normal wheat harvest, the second crop is buckwheat and a other crops. The people of Turtuk celebrate Navroz as the New Year, which falls in March. They have a polo ground where matches are held during Navroz. He takes me around his small guesthouse and invites me to the New Year next March.I head back for the rest of my journey, taking along sweet memories like a kid holding candy in his fists. Turtuk was addictive, not only for its natural beauty, but for its people too. But for how long? I spot almost half a dozen guesthouses and camps. Go there before the kids lose their innocence, while those apricots are as sweet as its people. Go there before it becomes Just Another Place.