January 11, 2022

Natural Cold Storage Spaces of Turtuk

Turtuk, the last outpost in Ladakh is a village situated at the Indo-Pak border beyond which lies the Gilgit Baltistan region. The village became a part of India after the war of 1971 and Turtuk has been open for tourists since 2009. The beautiful Shayok river flows through Turtuk and into Pakistan to merge with the mighty Indus. This place flaunts a heavy green cover which is both refreshing and soothing given the height at which it is located.

The rich Balti culture is very evident through the village but the unique 'Balti Heritage Culture Museum' at the heart of Turtuk encapsulates the rich cultural heritage with unique beauty. However, like many of the other areas in Ladakh, this village too is geographically isolated and therefore, has only a small self-sufficient economy despite the limited modern resources we find essential. The efficient use of available resources by the locals, however, is evident just by their way of life. One such example is the Natural cold storage, also known as "Nangchung," meaning "cold house" in Balti.

As I always write, institutionalised learning isn't the only space conducive for innovation, and a great example of that, according to me, is the brilliant cold storage solution people of Turtuk have adopted. We all know that the earth acts as an insulator, the temperature inside the atmosphere is not affected by outside variations as it remains constant. A similar model is recreated in the cold storage spaces in Turtuk, spaces not adversely affected by outside temperatures, keeping summers cool and winters warm.

The cold storages in Turtuk are small bunker-type structures built below the majestic mountains where the temperature remains relatively colder in summer than the surroundings. Since these were built beneath the mountains, large stones are used in a manner that creates gaps in the structure that allow the ventilation of cold air. These spaces today, belong to different families and the people of Turtuk use them to store various perishable items such as milk, butter, meat, and wool. They have preserved and maintained these old structures over the years and have used them as a gift from the generations above.

To get the local insight, we spoke to one of the natural cold storage space owners, Mr Mohammad Ali Ashoor. Reminiscing about his childhood, he proudly says, "Refrigerators these days can't beat the Nangchung simply as the former needs electricity to operate! We have preserved, and we value, the cold storage, and will continue to do so in the future. No one can build the same cold storage spaces anymore. Though people have attempted to build some underground or under streams; none are as cold as the nangchung." Mohammed

Ali has also experienced that tourists love visiting the nangchungs. When tourists enter the cold storage during the summer, they are flabbergasted by how they feel as if they were in an air-conditioned room! Mohammad Ali believes that tourists value the old cultural lifestyle and customs. Much like the locals.

Additionally, I spoke to a friend from Turtuk, Mussa Kaleem Ashoor (MK). His family also owns "nangchungs". Talking about its origin, he says that according to researchers, the spaces were built around the 16th century but there isn't any literature to back this claim. While talking about the lane where they have their nangchung MK describes that there are around 10-12 bunkers in that lane and they belong to a few families who are said to be the descendants of Yangdrung. Today, a few of these cold storage spaces have more than one owner, and not everyone has opened theirs to tourists. He speaks of Mohammed Ali Ashoor, who, according to him, is truly a cultural enthusiast who believes in preserving the culture of Tutrtuk. On asking about the tourism perspective, MK approximates that out of 100 tourists, around 90 visits the cold storage spaces and contemplates that other families who haven't opened their nangchung for tourists may find the interference by tourists in their cold storages while going about their daily activities, disturbing. MK also believes that it is the integrity of the people of Turtuk has made it an attraction for the outside world. He requests finally that tourists visit the open "nangchungs" on their trips so that they can take a piece of Turtuk back with them while supporting this wildly isolated village.

By Safina Qusar