Thursday, May 04, 2017

A Backpacker's Guide to the Tuscan Heartland

The name Tuscany creates an image of rolling lush green and yellow valleys, series of cypress trees and undulating  grape vines – pictures we often see in postcards and calendars, pictures many of us love to set as our desktop background. Ever since I took up photography as my hobby – possibly towards the end of the previous century – I had those images set in my mind by looking at the pictures in books. I wanted to be there, watch the rays of the morning sun glisten the misty slopes and walk the hills caressing those cypress trees. And when the chance came, to attend a conference at Florence, I embraced it dearly – knowing that I may only be able to squeeze only a short time to visit those places and it will be hectic, and possibly exhausting.

An Italian photographer friend who roams around in Tuscany and is known for his landscape photographs was the person I could seek advice from, and he duly obliged. Equipped with his advice and a timetable of trains and buses, and of course my camera and lenses in a backpack, I set out from Florence on this journey to my very own Neverland.

The landscape of this part of Tuscany, known in most literature as Val d'Orcia, is actually the agricultural hinterland of the Siena province. The place was developed with a view to showcase the model of good governance and aesthetically pleasing landscape back in the 14th and 15th century. For ages, since the renaissance and continuing till today, this landscape has inspired many artists resulting in images exemplifying the beauty of well-managed renaissance agricultural landscapes. Within the heart of this land, rests the medieval town of Pienza – one of the five municipalities forming the national park of Val D'Orcia featuring in the list of UNESCO's World Cultural Landscapes – which is where I was travelling to.
Map of Val d'Orcia (image source:

For a short trip, you really have two options to travel to the Tuscan heartland; firstly, the luxurious way, with tour companies, in air-conditioned coaches or chauffeur-driven tourist cars – travelling through the undulating valleys, finally visiting the famous wineries for wine tasting; and secondly, the backpacker's way – by trains and buses, stopping in-between, walking around the offbeat gravel paths through the rolling hills and cypress trees – a more exhausting, but more satisfying way. Taking the second option, it is a short train ride of an hour and a half from Florence to Siena, with trains running almost every hour. From then on, it becomes a little complicated as the buses in that area are not that frequent, but the ride from Siena to Pienza is a treat for the eyes of the beholder. Miles and miles of rolling landscape stretched along all directions, with almost every town tempting enough for getting off the bus and getting lost in the meadows. If you can resist the temptation, it takes about an hour and a half to Pienza, known as the “touchstone of Renaissance urbanism,” rebuilt by Pope Pius II from a village called Corsignano, his birthplace.

A town submerged in tranquility, Pienza is surrounded with a fortifying wall, and crisscrossed by narrow lanes and stone pathways with medieval palaces and cathedrals forming the centre of the town. Well known among these are the four forming the trapezoidal piazza - the Palazzo Piccolomini – the principal residence, the Duomo – the cathedral, Palazzo Vescovile – house of the bishops, and Palazzo Comunale – a civic building. Tourists with interests in medieval architecture will find the pilasters and columns and arches attractive, but for me, the narrow lanes of this tranquil town with happy people were more attractive – from the point of view of street-photography. Beyond the commune wall lie the open meadows stretching for miles beckoning the travellers. If you are of the explorer kind, there is a gravel pathway sloping down towards the next town of Montepulciano about 10 km from Pienza. The route goes right through the green meadows and is the best possible way to get intimate with Val d'Orcia, and I did not have second thoughts. I walked, for may be a couple of hours, between the lines of Cypress, the wind rustling in my ears when I realised that I have come a long way from Pienza and I did not have a place to spend the night. I walked back and checked myself in a bed & breakfast. The sun was about to set and I was back on the streets to take pictures of the valley in the setting sun – part of the golden hours as we call it in photography.

Morning was not too late (as it was the summer with long days), and I was anxious to take an early bus to San Quirico, on the way back to Siena – another place my photographer friend suggested. I reached San Quirico at 6.30AM when the sun has just risen behind the far away hills. I was walking on the highway out of San Quirico when through the trees besides, I caught a glimpse of a misty valley – with only one word fit to describe it – heaven. 

The soft morning light fell over the glistening mists which were caressing the grassland and the lines of cypresses, and a lonely house lost within it – I stood spellbound. The mist slowly started to rise and I followed the winding pathways for another hour to get a closer view of the valleys. 

By 8.30AM, my legs rebelled – the fifteen odd kilometres on the previous evening and possibly eight more in the morning were probably a little too much within a very short time, and I had to settle for a return to more urban Florence – tracing back the route I took during my onwards journey.

I know I haven't been able to do justice to Tuscany with such a short trip and a shorter travelogue – but those few hours I walked along the valleys and between the cypress trees have been etched permanently in my memory. People say “just like a photograph” to describe beauty. I would say that my photographs do not go anywhere close to the real beauty of the Tuscan heartland. Tuscany is more perfect than a perfect photograph.

(Originally published at @TCS, a magazine at my workplace)

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The Untold Story of the Humans of Ladakh

True, it is a travelogue of Ladakh, but unlike the popular ones, I am not going to show you postcard shots of the famous places of Ladakh. Rather, I will be telling a story of some humans from the farthest corner of India - a place not frequented by tourists, a place where life flows like an ancient stream, locked in time...It is not a story of the great cold desert and the lakes visited by millions. Rather, it is a story of a little hamlet of a couple of thousand people, living their life day by day.

Believe me, as opposed to popular perception, I did not find Ladakh exquisite. There are so many names - of popular places - Leh, Pangong, the white sand dunes of Nubra...and the herds of Bactrian Camels...the highest motorable roads through mountain passes like the Khardung La, Chang La...perpetually covered with thick layers of snow...the high clouds over some of the highest snow peaks of the world...Thousands of tourists flock to take glimpses of these views each year, and when they come back, they write passionate travelogues which get published in travel magazines - but, for me, Ladakh remained a far away place. It isn't about the geographical distance, rather more about a mental distance that was never diminished. It is possible though, that somewhere it has relations with the geographical distance - it takes nearly two days to travel to Leh from Srinagar in a car, and after that wherever you go - it takes at least a day. You will see some phenomenal landscapes, may be stop for few moments or not, and again move on. There is never enough time to spend some time at those places for an average traveller from distant places of India. May be the natural roughness of the Western Himalayas is a reason - the greyish, blackish, brownish rocks are places for geologists to seek for treasures of their own kind - but there will be no soft and moist winds of the Eastern Himalayas whispering in your ears...the moist low clouds will not caress your face while walking through a Rhododendron forest over the glistening dew covered grass or stoney pathways lost under layers of moss...the sounds of silence will not fill your ears like it happens on the unknown trails of Sikkim; it never feels like the hill, or the stream, or the forest path are mine - like it has happened countless times at the low hills of Cherrapunjee or the mountains of Sikkim.

We go to Ladakh, like a strong wind, take a few glimpses around the places, share a thousand photos on Facebook - but, Ladakh remains distant.

There is though, a little hamlet in the midst of the Karakoram range - where you will not see many tourists - a little green village of just over three thousand residents on the North Western borders of India, named Turtuk - a stoney staircase rising on the hillside besides little houses where there is still an innocent look on the faces of those few people. During those twelve days of incessant motoring, it was perhaps the only place, where while walking on the little steps of the village path towards a little Buddhist monastery at the very end of the village, I felt that this path, the hills, the flowing stream on the roadside belong to me...they are my own.

This travelogue is about that little village Turtuk and the life in it.

Nubra Valley was an anti-climax. So much has been said about the "white sand dunes" and the herds of bactrian camels of the cold desert beyond Khardung La, the highest motorable road. I had created pictures of an endless white ocean of sands in my head, but that was crushed when we reached Hunder, about 160 km from Leh. The white sand dunes lay outside Hunder, just a stretch of a couple of kilometres probably - with a people (I mean tourist) density close to any metro cities of India (well, sort of) - it has ended up as nothing more than a tourist trap primarily because of the "famed" camel ride. Bactrian camels are natives of Central Asia, and probably because this route was once part of the famous trade routes of history, some descendants of the camels that used to travel along this route ended up at Hunder. Unkempt, uncared, the camels take those thousands of tourists around the sand dunes for a joy-ride - one of the few things to sustain the economy of the village where the virtues of "development" have failed to reach.

 Beyond Hunder, the road winds besides the Shyok river through the Zanskar and Karakoram ranges towards the North Western borders of India, at the end of which lies the little hamlet of Turtuk on the banks of Shyok - which has metamorphosed into a roaring greenish torrent from its turquoise blue placid state at Nubra. The village was originally part of Baltistan and you can see that on the faces of the residents - their rosy cheeks, high cheekbones and deep hollowed out eyes are starkly different from the rest of the Ladakhis. Most of Baltistan is now beyond the Line of Control, but during the 1971 war, Indian Army recaptured four villages near the LoC of which one was Turtuk. The population is predominantly Muslim, as opposed to primarily Buddhist Ladakh, with people speaking in Baltistani, Ladakhi and Urdu. On one side of Shyok stretches the Zanskar range with its reddish tint, and on the other side lies the famed Karakoram range and somewhere inside those mountains, lies the LoC across which bullets and cannonballs have travelled either way for as long as the residents can remember. This has been the war zone for more than fifty years, and it is evident from frequent military barracks all along the road. Just past Turtuk, is the gate of the last military command indicating the end of the trail for tourists. And just outside the gates, on the mountains, are the caves - "we hide there when the shelling starts; we spent a night in those caves only the previous week" says the owner of the roadside tea-stall.

Turtuk is actually not one, but two villages, Youl and Pharol - twins actually, separated by a little bridge over a mountain stream. Youl, in the Balti language, means "village" or "town" and Pharol means "outskirts" - which is what Pharol actually is, created when Youl seemed to be full. A little shop stands on the banks of the stream where we stop for some snacks - maggi is readily available everywhere and is the quickest thing to stuff yourself. At the shop, a local man tells about the two villages - Youl and Pharol. He talks about the night in 1971 they went to sleep in Pakistan and the following morning when they woke up in India. And he talks about a man who was forced to live on the other side of the border with his pregnant wife in Youl and was only allowed to "visit" the village forty-four years later to see his grandson...The same man tells us about a little mosque in Pharol and the Gompa on the top of the hill beyond Youl from where, if fortune favours, you can see K2 towering above the mountains. I decided to take a chance and visit the gompa first, and started across the bridge towards the far-off hill.

 Inside, the village is a world-apart - unlike any other places I had so far seen in Ladakh; there was life. Houses are made up of stone and wood and are hidden behind lines of apricot, mulberry and walnut trees. Narrow lanes made of little stoney stairs crisscross between rows of houses, and a little channel of water flows besides the pathway where few ladies do household chores while chatting away amongst them. There were faces staring at us from little windows of the houses. I could do with a few photographs, but the older women were too shy for cameras and disappeared behind their doors or windows even before I could open the lens-cap. The children were curious about the camera though, and flocked close to me - almost on my laps, like my own daughter does - to happily see their own faces on the camera display. Their language was alien to me, so was mine to them - but their smiles were not. I walk through the mazy pathways to cross the village and arrive at a wide courtyard which can be called the village square. Some old men were sitting there and on the courtyard, a group of older children were playing volleyball. Beyond the courtyard was a greenery, with small fields where the village people grow their crops, and a forest of trees - mostly walnuts and apricots. At the end of the little forest, rises the hill, and on top of that is the little gompa. It was closed at that time of the day, and fortune did not favour me - so K2 was no where to be seen, but I could see the entire village from the hilltop, with Shyok flowing past it, and the blackish peaks of the Karakoram.

Disheartened, I walked back to the bridge through the same mazy pathway back to the shop. My fellow travellers, that is, the rest of my family had gone along towards Pharol to see the mosque. I was having a glass of tea at the shop when my son came running, very excited. He has just seen a monarch, a living one! He explains to me that Pharol houses the "royal family", or "the man who would be the king" - the house of the Khan of Turtuk, Yabgo Mohammad Khan Kacho (from the Yabgo dynasty). His ancestors used to control parts of a feeder road to the Silk Route, going to Central Asia, from which came their power. The royal palace is a three-storied wooden building, which has all those typicalities of royalty - like a room full of portraits of the ancestors, a room full of arms; but the auburn-haired and bearded man was rather down-to-earth and himself showed them around the house. The "king" talked about his family, his famous grandfather and his centenarian mother, who can still walk around unaided around the house and about the bygone ages. Apparently, there are a number of centenarians in Turtuk. On one side of the bridge, a number of old men gathered around - it was like the village elders sitting and discussing about the village; many of them could have been centenarians, but of course I couldn't ask them.

 It was close to afternoon and we had a long day. We were supposed to travel back to Leh the following day - and so we decided to head on our way to Hunder. Thus came the end of the only day when the hills and mountains and streams felt "personal", I could find something new aside the overcrowded tourist spots, bactrian camels and alpine lakes. I could find life amongst the barrenness of Ladakh, hard life may be - with four hours of electricity per day and communication links limited to BSNL - but life it was...on the rosy cheeks of those innocent children, the warm smile on their faces, their seemingly happy chatter when looking at their own faces on my camera...There was life on the wrinkles of those almost centenarian old men chatting idly at the village courtyard, those kids playing volleyball...There was life in the bright eyes of the local man who told us about the history of the villages...

That little hamlet called Turtuk, by far, remains almost the only reason, why, may be some day I would want to go back to Ladakh.