Not more than 5 months ago, I was staring at the purple ceiling of my tent with absolute certainty that I was going to meet my death miles away from home. The rarity of oxygen there had given me a new appreciation for life — the kind that lasts for a couple of days before you get back to your daily grind. With no preparation or the slightest idea of what I was getting myself into, I had agreed to take a 10-day trip to Ladakh with a group of friends. I was in Turtuk now (Day 5), a hamlet nestled in the snow capped mountains of Ladakh just 10 kms away from Pakistan. The small village has an impressive display of small scale farming and a milky river that flows with an enviable conviction. I remember standing on a wooden bridge and watching the river flow endlessly. I was left completely speechless at the splendor of what I saw infront of me. While we were still in India, the village seemed so isolated from the rest of the country. The fact that we could boat or simply drive to Pakistan in under an hour made me feel like I was in some kind of a suspended reality. Regaling us in the tales of Turtuk’s history was the hotel manager, who was also serving as the tour guide. I was walking uphill; I was completely breathless and had to hold hands with my friends just to walk but the promise of the royal palace kept me going. As we finally reached the ‘palace’ after what seemed like walking forever, I was left underwhelmed. While the ‘palace’ we were in was larger than most other houses in the village, it barely looked royal or a palace. We were walking up the stairs of a worn down old building that could be described as a bungalow at best. As tourists poured into the small hall of the ‘palace,’ a frail looking man waited with baited breath to tell us what seemed like an important piece of information. He was standing against a wall painted with a royal family tree. He went on to recount the fascinating history of Turtuk under the dynasty of Yabgo kings.
In 1948, Turtuk alongwith entire Baltistan were merged with Pakistan. If memory serves me right, after the merger, the Pak army took control of the village and the royal palace. The then King of Turtuk had to appeal to the Lahore court to instruct the Pak army to vacate the premises. He won that appeal, and the Pakistani army did vacate the palace but not before damaging it. After the 1971 war, India acquired Turtuk and three more villages from the Pakistani territory. Just imagine going to sleep a Pakistani one night and waking up an Indian the next. The way he described the cessation from Pakistan, it felt like history had repeated itself. While so many Indians were divided and separated from their family during the 1947 partition, the Indian army’s move to acquire only a part of Baltistan separated countless families in 1971 too. It was not until the end of the story that the narrator told us he was a descendant of the Yabgo dynasty. I remember him only as Khan Sahab, but a simple google search tells me his complete name is Yabgo Mohammad Khan Kacho. Khan Sahab’s image and his sceptre are etched in my memory now — never to be forgotten. While we were there only for a day, I left Turtuk completely smitten — it is asethetically goregeous, rich with history, the 4000-odd residents with their sunkissed cheeks are beyond adorable and their way of speaking is like poetry to the ears. While most of my trip was spent in assuaging my lungs, Turtuk was a breath of fresh air. All the breathlessness and the fatigue was worth it for this one memorable story. As we stepped out of the palace, watching the granddaughter of Khan Sahab run behind her cat, a smile spread over my face, a fresh perspective in my brain and a new love for history in my heart.