I stumbled out of bed in the crisp morning air. It was still dark outside and I could see my breath as I tried to shove my sleeping bag in its case while shivering uncontrollably. I was wearing all of my winter clothes, which weren’t much, and hadn’t taken off my maroon wool hat since I’d arrived at the airport in Leh several days prior.
I dropped my large green backpack stuffed with non-essentials, such as shampoo, conditioner and any type of clothing shorter than my ankles, as well as my laptop, at the door of the guesthouse owners’ kitchen and walked into the dark, cold air. I stood shivering, as a donkey standing on the street right below my paper-thin window screamed,
“HEEEEEE-HAWWWWW” over and over and over again.
It was the end of my third night in the girl’s bedroom decorated with Cinderella stickers. The sounds of the night were so clear in this room that it sounded as if packs of howling, barking, fighting dogs were tearing through my windows only to be countered by a pack of mad, crazed donkeys that must be on their last harried breaths while dying from rabies.
“Oh my God!” Rosie exclaimed when she walked up to me in the dark. “What is happening with that donkey? And those dogs?! You were right! I thought you were exaggerating.”
Everyone always thinks that I’m exaggerating because most of the time, everything that happens to me is just too ridiculous to believe, including getting no sleep due to these crazed animals, which were, indeed, only standing outside my window. The rest of the area was so quiet and peaceful.
“Ha ha,” I said, sleepily. “Welcome to my life!”
We started walking down the dark bumpy dirt road that led into Leh. I nearly slammed directly into a cow that was sauntering along the road.
“MMOOOOOOO,” it said angrily as it continued walking slowly down the street.
Rosie and I were on our way to Nubra Valley, which is a remote valley in Ladakh, India, about 150 kilometers from Leh. The journey was to start at the ‘polo grounds’ where we were supposed to find a local bus that was leaving around 6 am.
The day before, we had tried to scout out these ‘polo grounds’ after being told by several people to go there for the bus. I had no idea what polo grounds in India were supposed to be as I pictured them as large fields of bright green grass with horses running around and the riders hitting each other with long hammers. Clearly, I was confused as we were in a high altitude town in the mountains of India with crumbling buildings and hadn’t seen anything resembling a large green field.
Turns out, it was a large parking lot, which had one ancient ‘bus’ sitting in the corner. We had found a man sleeping inside and asked,
“Are you the driver? Do you go to Nubra Valley?”
He smiled and nodded.
“Yes, yes,” he replied, as I later found out every Indian man will say to you, no matter what the actual truth is.
“Great!” we said. “What time?”
“Leave at 6!” he said. “Be here at 5:30 am” Then he crawled back into the old bus and fell asleep.
Which is why we were walking through the freezing, desolate streets the following morning around 5:30 am, shivering and running into cows in the dark. We made it to the polo ground and walked up to the old bus that was supposed to take us to Diskit – the largest and ‘most touristy’ village in the Nubra Valley where we were then going to try to hitchhike to Turtuk, which was the furthest that we could go before hitting Pakistan.
“Diskit?” we asked the driver. He shook his head and pointed to the gates of the polo grounds.
“Diskit?” we tried again. He wagged his head from side to side and then pointed to the far gate at the other end of the parking lot.
“Are you going to Diskit?” we asked an old man who was climbing on the bus. He wagged his head and pointed to the far gate.
We walked all the way to the far gate and out into Leh. There was no sign of a bus or anything. We sat down on the curb and waited. After a while, a Nepali guide came and unloaded many large, heavy bags from a truck and sat down nearby.
“Are you going to Diskit?” we asked.
“Yes, yes,” he replied, looking at his watch. “A bus should come by in an hour.”
It was already 7 am by this point and the small, restaurant behind us was opening its metal overhead door. The Nepali guide went inside and brought us back some steaming hot sugary Chai teas. I sipped mine as an old large empty Jeep rolled up. There were still no signs of this alleged bus, so we purchased seats in the Jeep, along with a solo Japanese woman and our Nepali guide friend with all of his heavy bags piled on top.
Soon, we were rolling on out of town and up the most beautiful road with enormous, towering mountains surrounding it. Eventually, we hit ‘one of the highest motorable passes of the world’, although there are at least five more motorable passes in the Ladakh region alone that are higher but, still. It was the highest that I have ever been standing at 5,359m (17,982 ft). We jumped out at the top to breathe in the thin air and snap a few photos before rolling on down to the other side into the beautiful valley.
Once we got to Diskit, it didn’t seem very touristy at all (it was the very, very end of the tourist season and quite cold). We seemed to be the only people wandering the streets and it was difficult to find the time and location of the only local bus that would take us to Turtuk.
“Local bus?” we asked the men standing at the Jeeps in a big dusty parking lot.
“Oh yes, 2 pm,” one said, pointing at the parking lot.
“Oh yes, 1 pm,” said another, pointing towards the town.
“Oh yes, maybe today,” said another pointing at the main road.
It was impossible to hitchhike. We stood on the desolate road with our thumbs out but only military or private well-paid ‘taxis’ drove by, neither allowed to pick up hitchhikers. We eventually hiked on over to the Diskit Monestary and up it before pretty much running back to try and make the local bus.
It wasn’t there. We waited and waited. It didn’t show up. We sipped on chai and took turns running to the ‘toilet’ which was a hole in the ground inside of a small, smelly box.
Finally, we saw it. This ancient mini bus pulled up to the far corner of the big, dusty parking lot. We ran for it, claiming two seats in the front by the door and crammed our bags in the tiny space by our feet.
We sat there, eager to make it to Turtuk (about 90km) before dark. We watched as the bus filled up with children piling on and off. Women wearing scarves over their heads would get on and sit in the front while the old men would go to the back few rows. At one point, the bus was full. And then, one by one, everyone started getting off. One old man went to get a chai. A few children went to run around outside. Before we knew it, the bus was empty. Rosie and I looked at each other, sighed and then laughed.
We didn’t leave for another hour.
The journey, which should have taken 2-3 hours, was a slow one. We chugged on down the desolate road, passing the town of Hundar, famous for its small sand dunes and camel rides. I could see a few camels wandering among the dunes as we passed by.
Military men got on and off the bus as we passed military base after base in the most beautiful locations. There were hideouts dug out among the most beautiful landscapes, and some hideouts carved directly into the rocks nestled in the slopes of the mountains. The mountains alongside the Shyok river rose and dropped steeply as the river snaked its way through the valley. I was surprised by the amount of military bases but given the tumultuous history with this area, it shouldn’t have been a surprise.
In fact, Turtuk wasn’t even allowed to host visitors until 2010 when the locals residents (population is under 4,000) formed a petition to be allowed to interact with the outside world. It was known as the line of conflict, and the last major village before the Pakistan border. The area has bounced from being in India or Pakistan several times, and many older residents have had to choose to stay in their homes and become Indian or leave the village and rejoin Pakistan.
As the sun started to disappear, we drove alongside the beautiful river, passing small forests of beautiful yellow, red and orange trees, autumn glistening in the sunset. The bus was filled with family members and friends, everyone knew each other and as we chugged along, closer and closer to Turtuk, everyone’s smiles grew wider. Two boys hung off the bus while we were crossing a steep traverse, laughing at Rosie and I for refusing to throw our candy wrappers out of the bus window.
Chaos ensued when we arrived in a small town about 30 km from Turtuk. Everyone started yelling, laughing, jumping off the bus, jumping back on the bus, trading goods, piling on eggs and bags of food, purchasing meat, running and jumping back on several stops later. The jovial mood was catchy and Rosie and I grinned at each other. Watching the locals and military interact on the local bus to Turtuk is an experience well worth the long, long ride. When we finally arrived in Turtuk, it only appeared to be a long bumpy road with a few shops here and there.
“Where should we stay?” we whispered to each other as there didn’t seem to be any homestays in sight and we were nearing the end of the dirt road. Finally, the bus helper, a young teenager, said,
“Where do you get off?”
We realized that we were at the last stop.
“We don’t have anywhere to stay,” I said.
He began talking in Balti to the old woman sitting in the bench next to us.
“Follow her,” he said as he opened the bus door while pointing at us to exit. The old woman got off and motioned for us to follow her. She immediately began hiking straight up a mountain slope. Rosie and I followed her vigorous pace for some time before a handful of children ran over to us smiling,
“Hello!” they said, practicing their limited English. “How are you? We are friends!”
“Hello! Hello!” we said back as we huffed and puffed to keep up with this speed hiking old woman barreling straight up a mountain.
Finally, we reached a plateau and looked around. It was a beautiful sight. There were vast, green fields with large two story houses nestled in between. There were lush green trees, most still untouched by fall and children running around laughing. It was a hidden paradise that I could have never imagined from the desolate, dusty dirt road that we had just stopped at. Rosie and I looked at each other and giggled as we stepped into paradise.
More to come from Turtuk…my favorite place on the planet.