Apricot and other stories – Travel to Turtuk, Leh

“Get apricots from Turtuk. They are the best you will get,” said 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 6 double-bed rooms with attached bathrooms, one of which they occupy. They also have a live-in cook, the 20 year old Raju from Assam whom they call chottu.

Ripe apricots ready for harvest
Ripe apricots ready for harvest 

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 in front of her house.

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 relaxing the Protected Area Permit Regime (PAPR), Turtuk’s credentials are cogent to arouse my curiosity.

The road to Turtuk
The road to Turtuk

Mainly, I wanted to visit someplace that is not as touristy as the rest of Leh. I realized during the first few days of my trip that even the far-reaching places, like Hunder, are teeming with tourists – desi and foreign alike. There are couples (old and young) with children, groups of friends and loners with cameras wherever I went. The much-less popular Turtuk would be a singular experience.

I set out, while the sun was still unwilling even as I finished a hearty breakfast of Timok – steamed dumpling, served with cooked vegetables – with my driver Mussa. Mussa turned out to be a brilliant raconteur. Part of the fun in travelling through Leh is a good driver. If he is as amusing as Mussa, your bone rattling rides would not be half as bad as the roads in the area.

Mussa fills me with anecdotes from his life and life in the mountains in general. He had served in the 1999 Kargil war when Indian army made it mandatory for the locals from Nubra valley to serve in the war. “I was filling cannons in the war. Since Ladakhis are very efficient climbers, despite the fact that we were at a receiving end (Pakistanis were on top of the mountains), we could evict the intruders,” Mussa explains. He is from the nearby Parthapur and although Mussa did not continue with the army service – limiting to war service – his family has army connections. His father is an ex-serviceman. His two brothers are serving in the army now. Almost every family in this area has served in the army at some level.

Mussa and me
Mussa and me

The terrain to Turtuk is swirly mountain road that descends into a valley abruptly. From then on, the road is dotted either side with sea buckthorn bushes in full bloom with their 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 apricotsare 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 has sprouted in 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.

A river runs through it
A river runs through it

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 each in either part of the river,” Ali, a local would tell 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 splendor 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 (desiccated) 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.

Pashmina goats
Pashmina goats

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 accommodative. 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 walked through the fields, the houses, the school, the village’s water storage facility and got drunk in 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 yogurt,” 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 – stir fried noodles – with local vegetables. There is something about the food you get to taste in local eateries in the village hamlets, up in the hills. They use all the ingredients we all do, yet manage to derive a distinct flavor and taste. It must be the freshest of vegetables they grow in their gardens.

Upon enquiry, 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 kms from Turtuk and a trip and back means a day is gone for him. His old mother desperately tried to converse with me using signs since there is no language we mutually understand. She shows me her strange ornaments (the spoon shaped pendant and her silver headgears) and vehemently refuses our attempts to photograph her. ‘Shishikdu, Shishikdu’ she says; ugly in Balti language.

Back at the Galaxy Guest House, I gave Ms. Lanzes a bottle of fresh apricot juice I bought at Turtuk, manufactured by a local co-operative society. “Gift?” she asked before accepting it gracefully. Later during the evening, as I sat with her in her sprawling kitchen and sipped the Cha Kholak tea laced with Churpee (Yak cheese), I realized her deportment was almost as translucent as her.

Lanzes doesn’t restrain my attempts to photograph her. In fact, she obliges charmingly. However, more than the picture of Lanzes I would have with me, the one of the old woman of Turtuk who was probably never photographed is clear engraved in my memory. I also realized that she and her family are the most beautiful things I have ever seen. And probably I would ever see.

This appeared in The Hindu and can be accessed here.

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