The day following our hairy night time descent from Khardung La was motorcycling perfection.
The twist and wriggle of smooth tarmac is the silver lining for all the local conflict and civilian collateral that had rendered Turtuk restricted for all tourism until 2010. Without any reliable alternatives to resupply their many military outposts the army needs to maintain these roads as best as they can, difficult considering Nubra valley can be entirely under snow for months on end.
We’d been sunbleached and exposed for the entire ride. Pressed against my rucksack, sweat collected in the small of my back and white dust choked my jeans. It had felt like a long day, but we reached the end of the road around mid-afternoon.
A quaint wooden footbridge took us across the river to a set of concrete steps ascending to the village. The long hours on the bike dissolved in the viscous tranquility of peaceful shade, luscious greenery and the babbling of the narrow irrigation channels that bordered each tiny walkway through fields of white flowered buckwheat and traditional houses.
Turtuk is a tiny, unspoilt wonderland with kind people and wonderful children who would approach you confidently and curiously, eager to learn what brings these new strangers to town – not least the strangers who have an odd white battering ram strapped to their left arm. The adults would walk by and smile as the children gawped at the x-rays on my phone and listened to how I’d trigger airport metal detectors when flying in future.
Over two days we exhausted everything to ‘do’ in Turtuk besides soaking up the ambiance and playing card games. Our biker gang had reunited with our friends from Leh who’d taken a Jeep the day before and explored the monastery and precipitous path to a nearby waterfall, then it was time to go. Not least because the whole group had been infected by Gosha’s cheery jingle – vulgar enough that I’d be told off for posting – and we were probably destroying the calm atmosphere that we, ourselves had relished only 48hrs ago.
The return journey passed in a flurry. Somehow being aware of the landmarks means you feel you pass them twice as quickly, even with twice as much time allocated to pratting around. But heading into the unknown, well – time seems to just stretch out ahead of you and it feels like only a little distance has taken ages.
We stopped at the same guesthouse in Khardung before taking on the pass in snow flurries which had send two bikers fleeing back down to Nubra for cowardly shelter. I also longed to see some of the ‘snow chains’ for bikes that one of them recommended to us desperately, should we continue our ill advised quest. Aside from the bone chilling cold (…you really had to sympathise with the labourers taking turns to break rocks with hammers and thaw by a garbage fire), there was little challenge other than the altitude that, after another night dehydrating myself to the tune of rum and three beers, disoriented the living shit out of me in under five minutes. The others were gracious to descend with me early – but it wasn’t like we were missing out on much of a view as the storm onubilated everything further than 20 feet away.
Yoav, an amiable young Israeli with flowing locks and a passion for chain smoking, was meant to accompany us to Turktuk but our late departure meant he’d travelled solo a few hours ahead of us. When we finally met halfway through the second day Yoav became one of the boys instantly, despite a quiet disposition.
I mention this because on the way back down to Leh, we lost Yoav. Like, lost – lost. Younes was setting a blistering pace, Sai and I following, with Gosha and Yoav somewhere behind. Gosha, Sai and I waited and waited, pruning in the heat on the outskirts of town, but Yoav never showed up. There was a mild panic as he had nearly hopped off the side of the pass when dropping his bike in the ice – so it was entirely possible he’d been unlucky again, only worse. In a vague, flagging search and rescue response we checked the local streets before heading back to the hostel. There was a chance he’d taken another route down and was waiting for us.
He wasn’t. But a missing persons report, filed on Facebook by Yoav’s mother, was. You had to laugh – the pictures used were such classic, cheesy obituary photo’s that they almost tempted fate. I had to touch some wood and hope he was alive.
As luck would have it, Yoav had just accidentally given us the slip and was returning the bike and sorting out another guesthouse, wondering where everyone else had gone. When we reconvened at the hostel, he didn’t seem very missing. Noa and Adi, the girls in our group, then promptly requested Yoav contact his parents to let them know he’s ok.
Classic quiet type, always causing trouble.