Wonderland of Turtuk, an unknown little hamlet, flanked by Nubra on one side and Baltistan on the other, lies along the shores of Shyok River. An enigma in itself, this curious little settlement of ~4000 people is the last northernmost village before Pakistan – Occupied Kashmir. Let me share with you a complete Turtuk travel guide.
While time has not touched the exquisiteness of this place, the friendly nature of its residents is hard to miss. Turtuk has a history as colorful as the apricot plantations one sees all around the region. therefore, it is an amalgamation of all the cultures that have lived here.
Let's quickly dive into the details:
Known as village divided by a border, Turtuk has many stories to tell. Thanks to a petition by locals to connect with the world, Turtuk opened its doors to inquisitive souls in 2010.
Turtuk was part of Pakistan – Occupied Kashmir up until 1971 when Major Chewang Rinchen got the village under India ’s command. However, initially, villagers were skeptical of India, and their trust in India n Army was non-existent. As many residents served in the Pakistan Army, naturally, their allegiance to alter immediately was unrealistic.
Of course, for many born before 1947, they went from being Indians to Pakistanis to Indians again. For many, Pakistan was their only home. Thus, adjusting to a new life where the “enemy” now defined their identity was not an easy shift. Consequently, of 300 families that call Turtuk home, many have relatives on the other side.
However, the Indian Army has kept its promise, keeping villagers safe & bringing about multiple reforms while encouraging growth and prosperity.
Yes, Turtuk has been a secluded region, thanks to both geopolitical uncertainties of recent times and its exceptionally daunting geography. Cradled by Karakoram range, it is one of only four villages in India that lies in the Baltistan region.
But, its history boasts of strategic importance as a gateway to the Silk Route. Unquestionably, this is true and supported in the plethora of cultural consolidations that have led to Turtuk’s unique ancestry.
Baltistan was a separate kingdom far before the era of war glorifications that have defined the region in recent times. The Yagbo dynasty, a Central Asian empire, with monarchs from Turkistan ruled the region from 800 to 1800 AD.
Of course, as with Ladakh, Baltistan was a predominantly Buddhist region up till the 13th century. Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani, an Iranian poet and prominent Islam scholar, brought about cultural changes in the region.
Thus, they began settlements and unions of cultures. So much so, that one spots beautiful Gompas in this predominantly Muslim region. Turtuk’s Mosque reflects a delicate coming together of Swastikas, Buddhist patterns, and Iranian designs.
Here, the residents are extremely friendly and cherish the visitors to their lands. But, no matter how uncertain they might be of governments and politics, one thing is for certain – most credit development of the region to budding tourism.
Though wildly (and unjustifiably) unknown, Turtuk is a must-visit place when in Ladakh. Because no other place can teach an appreciation of stillness in time and beauty of living as humans not defined by borders.
Since Turtuk is at the height of 3,001 mt., it is far friendlier than the surrounding ranges. And it is one of the gateways to Siachen Glacier, making it a strategically important location. Also, Turtuk lies on the bank of Shyok River, ~205 KM from Leh.
Being a high desert, Turtuk virtually experiences no rainfall. Of course, the peak summer month is July and experiences temperatures of around 22 degrees. And, the lowest temperature of ~-10 degrees can be experienced in January.
Geography of Turtuk
The village of Turtuk is integrated by way of three sections:
- Chutang – Chutang is the settlement by the river bank. This place is the educational and cultural center of Turtuk. Early mornings, one can enjoy watching the kids’ daily routine, and hear bellowing symphony of the National Anthem when school begins. During winter months, villagers that stay at difficult heights, move down to the river bed- vegetation and water’s primary source.
- Yul – the oldest area of the village, Yul, is densely populated, a sanctuary of greenery, tradition, and generosity. It is home to one of the two mosques.
- Pharol – Across the river, you can reach Pharol by crossing an idyllic bridge. With open buckwheat fields spreading as far as the mountains would allow, one can view K-2 peak from here. Pharol houses most of the guesthouses in the region.
Turtuk boasts of a predominantly Muslim population, and influence of its history you can be seen in the local dialect. Here, the primary languages include Ladakhi, Urdu, and Balti. Balti is an amalgamation of Persian and old Tibetan. Of course, old Tibetan they hardly use in recent times, and the language is melodic.
Turtuk in Balti literally means “a desire to stay” – which perfectly describes the people here. And no matter what, their love for Turtuk has endured everything.
The best time to visit Turtuk coincides with the tourist season of the Ladakh region, i.e. June till September.
Inner Line Permits
While visiting any remote area in the Ladakh region, Inner Line Permit (for Indian Nationals) or Ladakh Protected Area Permit (for Foreign Nationals) is required. One can get permits online. Also, they are available at TIC Office, Main Market, Leh on all working days between 9:00 AM – 4:00 PM.
How to Reach Turtuk
Turtuk is reachable by road. There are no railway stations nearby. However, the nearest Airport in Leh, Ladakh, at a distance of 205 KM from Turtuk. From Leh, by road, it takes approximately 6-8 hours to reach Turtuk.
Both personal and for-share are taxis available for hire at Leh. At any rate, most travelers like to cover the entire circuit – including Hunder, Nubra and Pangong Tso. Thus, it is advisable to hire vehicles for a longer duration.
There are bi-weekly buses that ply the Leh – Turtuk route. Mostly, locals of the Turtuk region use this mode of travel. Of course, the travel can be rough, not because of road conditions, but primarily due to the condition of the buses. Accordingly, do check timings & details at Leh bus stop, as they might vary depending on weather conditions. You can refer to the details in Leh to Nubra Valley Bus Services.
Giving immense freedom in schedule decisions and leisurely plans, self-driving is probably the best way to enjoy the vistas of Ladakh. However, one must be prepared to self-drive for the difficult terrain.
As with most villages, the best way to explore the little town is on foot.
In terms of planning, the following is a standard itinerary for most who travel to Turtuk:
Day 1: Leh to Nubra Valley
Apart from the arduous journey and dizzying heights, the journey to Hunder takes approximately 4 hours. After crossing one of the highest motorable passes of the world, the drive is magnificent. Thus, it is advisable to push from Leh as early as possible, which will ensure minimal traffic woes. Once you’ve descended from Khardung-La, there are little dhabas that line the way.
However, I would advise stopping a little further ahead – Khalsar. Here, you will find a few dhabas, and is the preferred pit stop for locals, serving fresh and decent food. Immediately post the pitstop, the road is beautifully laid, and one can easily cruise and relish sights of huge peaks encapsulating the panoramas.
Daytrip in Diskit, spend the night at Hunder
Enjoy serenity in this beautiful village with sand-dunes. While Shyok River, literally means the river of death, it is a life-giver to this tiny village. Now, thanks to the flow of pristine water, one witnesses a lot of vegetation by the river bed.
Obviously, it makes for a beautiful contrast when compared to the barren brown mountains. Also, Hunder, famous for the high-altitude sand dunes, is a wonder in itself.
Day 2 & 3: Hunder to Turtuk, & Sightseeing
As with starting the journey from Leh, one should leave early in the AM from Hunder to cover the approx. 80 KM distance. Since there are many attractions in Turtuk, the more time you spend here, the better!. Yet, having a minimum of two days here would help in genuinely relishing the quiet of nature. Also, there are multiple attractions to explore highlighted below.
Needless to say, the finest start of the day is to trek to the top of the waterfall and enjoy excellent views of K-2. Of course, you must follow this up with roaming the village and exploring all nooks and corners, while making friends with the locals.
Day 4: Move back towards Leh or onwards to Pangong Tso
After two beautiful days in Turtuk, it is time to say goodbye to the notion of paradise. Ideally, one can move directly to Pangong-Tso via the Agham-Shyok route or choose to head back to Leh.
Again, the distance of ~80 KM takes about 2.5 – 3 hours, as is standard in this region. From Hunder, one kept straight on the Diskit-Hunder highway and moved northwards to Turtuk, alongside Shyok River.
First, 35 KM after Hunder, one comes near Thoise, a military airfield, and a tiny settlement. Though Thoise is not the real name of the place but an acronym – Transit Halt of Indian Soldiers Enroute (to Siachen). While no photography is allowed due to the sensitive nature of the region, the landscapes are exceptionally stunning.
After Thoise, the route becomes isolated again, with no sign of civilization. However, you will spot a few Gompas sprinkled away as markers.
Little Settlements and beautiful bridges
Further ahead lies Bogdang, the largest settlement between Hunder and Turtuk. Of course, the beauty of this drive is in the greenery. You will be crossing a couple of well-built bridges, leading you across the river a few times. A few tinier communities and minuscule settlements later, one reaches Chalunka, a small village along the Shyok River. This village was on the India – Pakistan Border until 1971.
A beautifully built, massive suspension bridge over the pristine clear Shyok River takes you down to the river bed. Immediately upon completion of the bridge is an army check post, where all identities are marked. Now, this is where the area under Pakistan used to begin till 1971.
The well-built road complements astonishingly blue waters and the barren brown of the hills. The route alternates between open areas and also takes one high up on a climb in certain areas. There is a particularly tricky stretch of road for about 20 KM, right before entering Turtuk.
Even though it is a small, idyllic village, there is a lot to do here. Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie looking to embark on your next crazy adventure, or seeking out spirituality and humanity, or learning more about new cultures – Turtuk has you covered. The below list does not include the multitude of Apricot and Walnut farms which you see sprinkled across the highest producer in Ladakh.
- Natural Cold Storage – In Turtuk, all villagers keep their perishables inside little hollows, which are naturally cold. This practice is due to an underground glacial watercourse keeping these quarters icy throughout the year.
- Polo Ground – a 16th Century Polo Ground. The younger generation loves to play Polo. Of course, if you’re lucky, you will be asked to participate in a friendly match.
- Brokpa Fort – The ruins of Brokpa Fort will take you back in time, into how the Yagbo royalty lived.
- Water Mill – a simple Greek-style watermill is bound to take you to the yesteryears.
- Mosque, Balti Heritage House, Monastery: All are beautiful touristy locations to visit. These showcase unique combinations of the plethora of cultures that have left their mark on the region.
- Waterfall – a very tricky climb, literally hugging the mountain at certain places. This trek will take one high up to the origin of the waterfall. Yes, it is challenging, and it will have your heart pumping – but the view from the top is indescribable. In the distance, one will catch a glimpse of the might K-2 – the second highest peak in the world. The miracle of nature and the mightiness of landscape is something that easily leaves you speechless. However, you will have to earn your views with approx. 3-hour climb.
Where to stay
There are many guesthouses, and homestays available in Turtuk and locals are extremely friendly. The food is unique and delicious, and star-gazing is a preferred activity. Turtuk Holiday Camp has nice tented accommodation, with modern amenities- though on a slightly costlier side. Another highly recommended place is Maha Guest House – which has a beautiful little garden café.
Ismail Homestay in Turtuk
BEGINNINGLESS shared in DevilOnWheels forums, “I stayed at Ismail Homestay Turtuk with a sweet family for a month in Feb/Mar 2017 (before the permit rules changed in April). The host Ismail never let me pay for anything we ate outside. As it was freezing (Feb), they gave a small stove for me to heat the water for the “mattress pad” as and when I want. This reason is why I prefer homestays for GHs. I had raw milk and natural, tasty apricots every day during my stay.”
Contact Info: Ismail at +91-9419300430
DDRDAS shared in DevilOnWheels forums, “I stayed at Ismail Homestay in Turtuk while riding alone two years back. The host and his son were very humble and friendly. You can order anything to eat within his limits there. He also served us his special Kashmiri Kahawa tea. His grandpa makes woolen blankets with a small handloom, which you can buy from there for a low price. And after all, it is an extraordinary place for me. I found my wife there who was also staying there at that time.”
Apart from multiple products that boast of Apricots in all shapes and forms, Turtuk also has bragging rights on some unique woodwork. Walking canes, you can purchase through many artisans of the town.
With a few makeshift no-name restaurants, the major culinary attraction is the Balti cuisine. There is a tea shop near the Mosque, and enjoying a fresh, piping hot cup of tea is riveting. The following dishes will leave you satiated:
- Zan with Tsamig- A savory buckwheat cake, steamed to perfection, often served alongside a mixture of greens and yogurt.
- Kissir with Grangtur– Buckwheat pancakes with greens.
- Brakoo & Muskat– Buckwheat dumplings in ground walnuts sauce, almonds, and spices.
The freshest meals will be served in your homestay and guesthouses. Also, Balti Cuisine uses a tonne of Apricots and buckwheat, adding to a unique texture in the dishes. Of course, primarily the cuisine of this region is vegetarian, due to lack of resources for poultry upkeep.
Other Important Tips
- Electricity runs only a few hours a day. Hence, please remember to charge your devices (mainly the camera!).
- Also, BSNL post-paid connections can work intermittently. So, ensure you connect with the outside world, as needed.
- The nearest petrol pump is in Diskit, Nubra – however, it is intermittently stocked. So, don’t try your luck and carry enough fuel for your complete journey.
- There is a public health center in Chutang. Also, Bogdang has a hospital, if need be.
- Of course, as can be expected, there is a massive army presence in the region. Naturally, due to the region’s sensitive nature, movement is frequent. Also, when in doubt, feel free to get in touch with the Army for any cause or concern.
- Carry your own water bottle and fill it up when possible. Undeniably, it is essential to stay hydrated to combat the symptoms of AMS in the high-altitude desert.
- Likewise, as there are no commercial places en route Turtuk after Hunder – carry perishables.
- Lastly, visiting during Ramazan might leave one with limited food options, as being a predominantly Muslim region, almost everyone would be fasting. Guesthouses and home-stays will provide one with lunch
Some more tips from the readers on Turtuk
- If you don’t mind roughing it a bit, a relatively inexpensive and convenient way to get to Turtuk from Leh is first to take an early morning shared taxi/jeep to Diskit. These taxis/jeeps leave from near the Polo Ground. From Diskit, you can catch the afternoon bus to Turtuk.
- Turtuk is a conservative place and it hasn’t been long since the place was opened to tourism – in fact for most residents of the village this was their first contact with the outside world. I would request tourists to please respect local customs and sensitivities – dress modestly in full-length trousers and long-sleeved shirts – this applies to both men and women. Please don’t smoke or consume alcohol and please, no PDAs.
- Some tourists and I must confess I have been guilty of this too, distribute small gifts such as chocolates, pencils, etc. to the children in the village. The tendency I appreciate flows out of compassion, but I’ve come to realize this does more harm than good. It only encourages children to pester other tourists for gifts and money. A better idea would be to donate books, stationery, etc. to one of the local schools who could then pass them on to deserving children as they deem appropriate.
- Though the village is Muslim, there is a small Buddhist gompa perched on a hillock above the village. It’s a pleasant hike up to the gompa, and there are fine views from the top, including the snow-clad peak of K2.
- The Mosque at Youl has some wonderful carvings on its wooden ceiling and pillars. The Mosque dates back to medieval times. Though it is being renovated over the years and most of what we see now would be more recent.
- During each visit I stayed at the Maha Guest House in Farol and each day after the early morning prayers at the Mosque, there would a recitation of the glories and praises of Allah. It is the most beautiful recitation I have ever heard, and I would go to the ends of the earth to hear it again. Truly, the faithful in Turtuk is fortunate.
Thanks to Hatim for all these details in the comments section.
With the front-line only 7 km away, Turtuk is an enigma for most. Having a torrential past, the sweetness and friendliness of its folk are even more apparent. Unmatched views, Turtuk is an oasis in the high desert.
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A largely self-sufficient village, Turtuk opened its arms to the outside world in 2010 and has been a welcoming host since. Experience the unique culture and immerse yourself in tranquillity.
I hope you enjoyed this travel guide of Turtuk village. Please feel free to post any queries or doubts you might have in planning your trip to Turtuk, either in the comments section.
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