Category Archives: India

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Beguiled by Baltistan

After reading the itinerary, I tried to look it up on a map, but couldn’t find it. A village, Turtuk, in Baltistan. I was going, but as I tried to explain to people… I didn’t really know where Turtuk or Baltistan was, just somewhere high in the mountains of northern India.

Perhaps this contributed to the apprehension that was building for this trip. I’m not a nervous traveler. By this time I have been to many out of the way places and I find that off the beaten path is best to me. But – there was the lack of maps, the warnings about high altitude sickness, the list of medications to bring, and every time I looked at the satellite view of the region on Google maps all I saw was a whole lot of barren or snow-capped mountains. Ask my husband, this is not my preferred type of travel destination. I like cities, I like people, secret neighborhood hideaways – and if I want to relax, I like warm water and beaches. I wondered what I had signed up for…

The “what” I had signed up for was a two-week Master Class Photography Workshop, organized by Travelling Lens and to be taught by Maggie Steber and Ami Vitale, two photojournalists whose work I admire. I was in serious need of mentoring and to me, it really didn’t matter where the class was being held. I was going for that in-your-face interaction that I don’t get through online studies. So, maps be damned, I went.

There was a last minute change in the instructors, bringing us Lana Slezic rather than Maggie Steber, but as we all came to know each other, Lana seemed like a perfect fit for this trip. We started in Leh, the former capitol of the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh. We spent three days there to acclimatize to the altitude. We felt it. Climbing the flight of stairs to my room left me gasping on the first day. But after a few days of exploring Leh and its surroundings, we were breathing easier. We prepared ourselves and began our Innova caravan over the Khardung La pass. At 5,359 m/ 17,582 ft. it’s one of the highest motorable roads in the world. But, we made it up and over and began the descent towards the Nubra Valley and the next day, into Baltistan and Turtuk.

As I said, I hadn’t been sure what to expect. I had envisioned a few houses in the midst of open, perhaps barren lands with a few scattered trees to offer a bit of occasional shade. I knew we would be camping in tents and I imagined we would be rather exposed and in primitive surroundings. Instead, our camp was a permanent setup with quite luxurious “Swiss” tents (the term “glamping” was used.) Turtuk itself was a village that is charming in a way that I find difficult to describe. From our camp we had to walk up a trail to the hillside above to reach the village.

Surrounded by fields of barley and vegetables, Turtuk is quite large, with meandering pathways running between houses, gardens, streams, animal pens and many, many apricot trees.

There were children everywhere and we quickly got to know a few. We did hear a scattered bit of “one pen,” “one candy,” “one photo,” from the children so it was clear we were not the first to visit this village.

But some of the older ones spoke decent English in addition to the Hindi that many of us spoke and it wasn’t long before we were being invited into homes and offered the famous (and to my tastes, delicious!) local sabas chai (salt tea) of the region. They also served us “paika”, made of barley flour mixed with sabas chai and ghee that you scoop into a ball with your fingers and eat to get some stick-to-your-ribs nutrition.

Three cups of tea...

What transpired over the next several days was magical. We were welcomed into homes and hearts. We were befriended and embraced.

We were told of hopes, of dreams and yes, of fears. We experienced hospitality of a kind that is rarely encountered in the modern world and I think it’s safe to say that we all, every one of us, dream of our return.