The day after we crossed Khardung La, we drove west as far as we could go and arrived at the lovely Balti (बल्ति) village of Turtuk. You get off the car, cross a bridge over a fast flowing mountain stream that empties into the Shyok river, and then climb up the side of a mountain. Nestled in the slope are the houses and agricultural fields of Turtuk.
Closest to the bridge is a cluster of restaurants aimed to draw in tourists. It had been sunny when we started, but clouds had gathered during the three hour drive which brought us to Turtuk just a little before lunch. We were nonplussed by the number of tourists who’d come here. Our driver Yasin was even more surprised, “Never seen so many cars here,” he exclaimed. Our luck, I suppose. We were not the only people trying to forget the lockdowns. The Family had her heart set on a restaurant called The Balti Kitchen, so we walked on up.
The recent political history of Baltistan (बल्तिस्तान, སྦལ་ཏི་སྟཱན) is easy to read from books. It was part of the Tibetan empire in the first millennium of the CE, then evolved into separate small kingdoms, became part of Ranjit Singh’s Sikh empire in the 19th century, and descended to the kingdom of Kashmir in 1840 following the destruction of the Sikh empire by the British. After the complex events of the mid-20th century (in 1947 it came to India along with the kingdom of Kashmir, then was taken by Pakistan in the 1947 war, and parts were re-taken by India in the 1971 war) it is now divided into two by the Line of Control. But who the Balti people are is perhaps as complex. The Balti language is closely related to Tibetan. A local farmer and entrepreneur (photo above) gave us his belief: that the Balti have both Tibetan and Central Asian blood in them. In some way this could be true, but the story is complicated by the discovery that people have lived here for nearly 7000 years, thrice as long as the silk route existed. There could have been ancient migrations and mixtures which are forgotten.
There was a bit of a steep climb right at the beginning, but after that the slope became more gentle. There seemed to be a single path through the middle of the village, with houses and fields on both sides. Agriculture and construction require terracing the landscape, and a tremendous amount of work goes into that. Although it is not obvious in the featured photo, men were at work in the fields. A wonderful feature of the village is that a clear mountain stream runs through it. We saw people come out houses and dip cupped palms into it to drink the water. We found the restaurant, made a reservation, and then decided to walk up to the topmost point of the village.
It wasn’t very far, but between taking photos, gawking, and pausing to catch our breath every now and then, it took us a little more than half an hour to reach the Balti Museum at the top. We passed a lovely selection of doors on the way, as you can see. Houses are made with dressed blocks of the local gneiss, and, sometimes a timber framework filled in with stone rubble. Interesting, I thought, because that means that there are stone masons at work somewhere. We saw a house under construction using modern techniques of steel-reinforced concrete. But even here, curtain walls between concrete beams are filled with dressed stone. Going by the number of houses under construction, the village is probably doing well with the tourist trade.
When we reached the museum we realized that it was time for lunch. We’d told Yasin to wait for two hours, and it would be hard to keep to that schedule as well as walk through the crowded museum. We turned back towards lunch. Little did we suspect how interesting that would be.