Turtuk, Baltistan – 6th June 2013

Leaving Hunda we rode north some 80km towards the border with Pakistan. The scenery, which had been spectacular ever since crossing the Khardung La, reached new and unanticipated heights – there is a poverty of superlatives to describe such scenery, but epic was used often, as was “ridiculous”. We stopped in a small valley under an ultramarine sky, and spent half an hour just taking it all in. Not a single vehicle passed us the entire time. Enormous valleys one hundred miles long surrounded by 6000m peaks. Riding on we came to a small army post where we had to log our passport details and show permits again. The road ran alongside a fast-flowing river jade green with glacial meltwater. Ahead of me I could see the small figure of Kitch making his way along the opposite hillside, and behind me Dan and Denise were just coming over the brow of the hill. At a bridge we were halted by an army corporal – the name on his lapel was Jigme Wangchuk: disconcertingly similar to that of the King of Bhutan. We clanked over the wooden slats trying to avoid the splinters and twists of wire that would have immediately pierced the tyre, and bumped over gravel and loose stones on the far side. Two children walking towards us held out their hands for a hi five as we passed. I needed both hands on the bars at that point, but Dan and Denise responded, and later said the kids had tried to grab their hands and nearly pulled them off.

Eventually we came to a barrier which no permit would allow us to cross. It marked the end of Indian territory, and after ten kilometres of no-mans-land another barrier marked the frontier with Pakistan. We stopped at the chai stall and sat in a small room crowded with locals both male and female. The men looked Afghan, the women all wore salwar kameez and headscarves. We had entered Baltistan.

In 1971 the Indian Army launched a massive offensive northwards and captured four villages which had previously been Pakistani territory. Chulankha, Tyskhy, Turtuk and Thang were their names, and they were all part of Baltistan, the bulk of which – another 15 towns – lie in present day Pakistan. Many families were split and locals have relatives over the border that they have never seen. We were in Turtuk, which looked unprepossessing from the road – a couple of tented camps and a cheap guesthouse. But just across from one of the camps a path led up the hillside to the village proper. The ground levelled out in a kind of plateau overlooking the valley: look right and you are looking back into India, look left and you are looking at Pakistani territory. The valley split two great mountain ranges: the Karakorams on the far side, and the Himalaya on the other. Small streams trickled through fields of wheat and poplars climbed the hillsides. The village itself looked medieval: rough hewn stone houses and open drains. The first foreign tourists were only permitted into the area in 2009, so many of the people had never seen foreigners before, and reacted with a mixture of shyness and curiosity. The women in particular were wary of being photographed – even the little girls – and all wore hijab. I happened to be wearing my Afghan pakol hat, and it provoked a sensation: “you are wearing the hat of my people!” cried Rosh delightedly. “We call it a Gilgiti Itu.” I asked him what people would make of my wearing it. “They will love it!” They did. People would stare, then break out in slow smiles of recognition. “Afghanistan” I explained. It felt like discovering some anthropological missing connection – pakols are common in Pakistan, but on the other side of the country to this. There were other similarities: the ethnicity of the people ranged from European looking through to Tibetan features (or perhaps Hazara), with the majority resembling Tajiks – the same hatchet features and distinctively Central Asian look.

Children followed us through the narrow lanes, the boys acting with bravado protecting their little sisters, the girls giggling and hiding shyly behind their hijab. Two bubblegum princesses appeared, about fifteen years old, rather flirtatiously blowing bubbles, and tried out their basic English. After a while they flounced off swinging their hips in a parody of maturity, before giggling and running away. But most girls were far too shy to talk to us men, although Denise chatted to two ten year olds, one of whom continually hid behind the other. As darkness fell we headed to the only chai shop in town, lit by a single LED bulb, and sat in semi darkness eating local sweets as the social life of the village continued around us. It was an extraordinary and increasingly rare experience – to visit a place that has had almost no contact with outsiders – and despite all of us being very experience travellers, we all agreed there was something uniquely authentic about it. The owner of the chai shop came out of the kitchen to greet us and delightedly pointed at my pakol – he was wearing the same hat, but in an off-white colour rather than charcoal grey. “Mashallah” he exclaimed repeatedly while shaking my hand.

As in the rest of the Nubra Valley no cigarettes were on sale in Turtuk, but in the gloomy interior of the shop the owner produced a packet of bidis from under the counter. Widespread delight when I said “shukriah” for thank you – Urdu is taught in all the schools here rather than Hindi. Indeed the lady of the house in Hunda taught Urdu herself, despite being Ladakhi (and Buddhist). Later, on hearing that we had been to Baltistan, she said “women are oppressed there”. It was hard to believe. They seemed quite free and independent, despite their shyness, and the irony was that when she said it, she was herself wearing salwar kameez and a headscarf – indistinguishable from the women’s outfits we saw in Baltistan. Most of the Baltis were Sunni Muslim, but they also had a small Shia population in the village, and had built two mosques next door to each other – one Shia and one Sunni. The only two women we saw who had their hair uncovered were Ladakhi Buddhists who came and looked after the small temple on a voluntary basis. The schoolgirls we saw in Turtuk wore the same uniform as those in Himachal Pradesh: baggy trousers, long kurta blouse to the knees and a cardigan over the top; the only difference was that in Turtuk all wore a close fitting white hijab, just as I saw in Afghanistan. In 100km you cross an invisible ethnic boundary here, or perhaps more accurately a cultural and religious one. Srinagar is Sunni. Kargil is Shia. And 100km further on everyone is Tibetan Buddhist. Indeed in Leh you can sit and look at a Tibetan monastery on a crag above the town while hearing the call to prayer from the nearby mosque. But no ranting irate sermons from the mullahs here, unlike Srinagar.