Wham. I just landed a foot-high bounce off the back seat of the bus. I’m on a 10-hour coccyx-crunching ride that winds up and up and up what’s disputedly called the highest motorable pass in the world—Khardungla—with magnificent views of Leh valley below. The 18,300 foot rollercoaster of a ride is a trip in itself. On its way through barren desert and high mountain passes, the bus stops at four military checkpoints along the carefully controlled Pakistan border in India’s northernmost Jammu and Kashmir state, ending in the green oasis of Turtuk.
“One photo, one photo,” I hear in surround sound as I stroll the narrow stone footpaths of Turtuk. Two Baltistani girls dressed in colourful traditional dresses, baggy pants and matching headscarves follow me, asking for their picture to be taken yet again. I look up to see five more young girls smiling down at me from their rooftop, all asking for “one photo.” Snap. I capture all seven of them, show the picture in the viewfinder and continue walking down the path until a minute later I yet again hear the familiar “one photo” mantra.
It’s not vanity driving the villagers of Turtuk to seek photographs, but a curiosity of tourists and a desire for cultural interaction. Butted up against what’s considered one of the most dangerous borders in the world, the Pakistan border in India’s northernmost state of Jammu and Kashmir, the mainly Muslim agrarian village used to be part of Pakistan (more specifically the region of Baltistan) prior to the 1971 Indo-Pak war and just recently opened to tourism in 2010.
A trip to Turtuk is a trip back to a simpler time when people were more connected to nature. It seems everywhere I walk in the village a cleverly diverted irrigation stream gurgles alongside me, while a food forest of bountiful apricot and apple trees shade villagers with their low-hanging branches heavy with produce. Rather than getting cut down, trees are integrated into the building of homes. Streamlets pass right through the middle of people’s homes, powering their mills and providing easy access to fresh water. A wave of relaxation melts the stress soon after arriving due in part to the slow pace of village life and in part to the village’s close integration with nature.
As I walked and walked through the fields I couldn’t help but think how being here is like village therapy. A walk back to a simpler time, to a time when the important things were the focus of one’s life: nature, community, real food, fresh air. Being immersed in that environment, even though just for a few days, had such a calming effect that it brought me to the point where the mind dropped its story. It just had no more ammunition to divert itself. I saw with my own eyes how much sense living this way makes and how far off the mark our industrialized society has gone.
Turtuk’s calm nature stands in stark contrast to its heavily-fortified surroundings. While walking through the outskirts of the village, two military officers patrolling the border stopped me from walking any further along the valley leading to Pakistan. But they were chill about it. They gave me a bidi (Indian cigarette) and we exchanged a few words. Like the relaxed border checkpoints along the way these people in uniform did not express the charge that can come with wearing the uniform. Living among that environment I can see why they’re so chill.
With an army of 1.1 million, the tension felt from India’s military might is ever present, spicing the general calmness of a trip to Turtuk with the occasional tense moment. Yet given the political and military charge this border has, I’d rarely felt calmer in my life. The few visitors to the village consistently comment that they just feel different when spending time in the village. Village therapy is such a simple thing—bring ourselves back to simplicity to come to peace and realize our truth.