Turtuk literally means “a desire to stay”. It is a small village 12km from the India-Pakistan Line of Control. For the past 40 years, along with the adjacent region in the Nubra Valley in Ladakh, Turtuk has been unheard, unreported and, unfortunately, unseen.
Turtuk, as well as other regions in the Nubra valley, opened for tourists and other civilians only in 2010.
Photos courtesy Aditya Singh, Tushar Narain Kaudinya and Atul Kumar
At 8,500ft, Turtuk is home to a scenic landscape: apricot and apple trees, freshwater canals and star-studded night skies. Most members of its native Balti tribe are porters.
As members of the Delhi-based NGO Karmabhoomi, which empowers villages to become self-sufficient, we were keen to set up an year-round educational system in the area.
The scarcity of teachers (especially in the winter months) renders students ill-prepared for the examinations conducted by the Jammu and Kashmir state board of secondary education. We were also told that to tackle this problem, the local education council hires teachers every year in the vacation months of January and February from places like Leh, Jammu and Srinagar.
Karmabhoomi decided to conduct the winter tuitions for villages, which would not only benefit the children of Turtuk but also serve the children of the adjoining villages of Tyakshi and Chulungkha.
We had a month-and-a-half to find volunteers who would agree to go to Ladakh in the chilling winters for a project we titled Teach to Learn. We succeeded in getting three on board; along with four members of the Karmabhoomi team, they set off for Turtuk in December.
We were promised support by the village education council all through the project. The major impending threat for the team members, though, was not food or shelter but the plummeting temperatures, which we were warned went as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius. Our evening regime was to sit next to the bukhari (heating equipment that uses wood, cow dung and kerosene as fuel, and is extensively used in Ladakh in winter) and then quickly slip into a sleeping bag to trap the heat.
We knew that if we were to survive the chilling winters, we had to be in supreme physical condition. Our lungs should be powerful, legs and shoulders strong, and mind, even stronger. We used to run for 15-20 minutes every day, but considering the mountainous task ahead, we started a tougher regime. In a month’s time, we were running for 3 hours with only short breaks to catch our breath.
The opening day of our pop-up school (impromptu classes) was marked by speeches by the councillor of the region, the village sarpanch and some senior local teachers. They commended the Karmabhoomi team on getting from Delhi to Turtuk by crossing the formidable Khardung La in the chilling, mind-numbing winters of Ladakh. As a token of appreciation, we were promised wood and bukhari.
Amid all these speeches, the students—around 250, between classes VII and XII—stayed put, warming their hands by rubbing them against each other. With little or no interaction with the outside world, the students were extremely shy and things had barely changed by the time it was time for us to leave.
We definitely intend to go back this winter and are also in the process of formulating an year-round tuition system with volunteers. While the children of Turtuk learnt grammar and math from us, we learnt life’s bigger lessons: Facing adversities with a brave front.
For information on the NGO, visit www.karmabhoomi.org
As told to Anindita Ghose