Two roads diverged and I took the one less travelled
Éliane Radigue's electronic paeans to Tibetan Buddhism, Trilogie de la Mort and Jetsun Mila featured heavily in my iPod playlist for this road trip from Kalka to Leh in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir in the north of India. As my photos show, the road climbs from Kalka on the edge of the Ganges plain over the western end of the Himalayas to reach the alpine desert of Ladakh - 'Little Tibet' - seen in the final photo below. En route the road crosses some of the highest passes in the world: three are over 15,000 feet with the highest, the Taglang La pass reaching 17,480 feet. The 500 mile drive took three long days on the road plus one rest day to acclimatise. For the final 300 miles between Manali and Leh the average altitude of the road is 11,000 feet, and it is only passable between May and October. Due to the altitude there is no permanent habitation for 200 miles from Jispa until the road enters Ladakh; the only services are temporary dhaba - road side eateries - such as the one seen in photo 9. This is the only overland route into Ladakh; it carries a continuous stream of petrol tankers and military vehicles as the region is of strategic importance because it borders both Pakistan and China. Many glacial streams cross the road - see photo 3 - and for much of the last 300 miles the road is unsurfaced and just one-and-a-half carriageways wide - see photo 17 - with no barriers to stop errant vehicles plunging down the mountainside.
For anyone who, like me, suffers from vertigo and dislikes being driven, the distraction of a well-stocked iPod is highly recommended for this journey. Unfortunately the only alternative way to travel in and out of Ladakh, which is a narrow plateau between the Himalaya and Karakoram mountains, is flying. This is how I returned and it is only slightly less nail biting than the overland journey. At an altitude of 11,500 feet Leh is one of the highest airports in the world and, because of nearby mountains, has one of the very few unidirectional runways. This means planes can only take-off and land in one direction irrespective of the wind direction. This compromises even further the ability of aircraft to climb quickly in the very thin air. Which is somewhat disconcerting when taking off from an airport surrounded by the world's highest mountains, and as a safety precaution the airport can only be used in the morning due to the strong mountains winds later in the day. Thankfully Leh airport has an excellent safety record; perhaps because there is no room for aircrews to relax - video via this link.
Frequent rusting wrecks below the road are salutary reminders that altitude sickness is not the only health risk on the overland route into Ladakh. 150,000 people die every year on India's roads and the Kalka to Leh route is largely inaccessible to ambulance crews. Kailasha, the second section of Éliane Radigue Trilogie de la Mort, was written following the death of her son Yves Arman (her husband was the sculptor Arman) in - ironically - a car crash in Spain in 1989*. The work is a homage to Mount Kilash, the sacred mountain that in Tibetan cosmology is at the centre of the universe; pilgrims to Kailash are said to be able to enter the Buddhist 'pure land' of Shambala from the holy mountain. The Tibetan saint Milarepa who inspired Jetsun Mila described how in the vast empty spaces of the Himalayas the vortex of everyday life can be exchanged for boundless bliss. I travelled to Ladakh to experience the Kalachakra teaching by the Dalai Lama; this is a Tantric initiation that uses visualisation and meditation to plant the seeds for practitioner to achieve enlightenment by being reborn in Shambala. For those unable to make a pilgrimage to this magical and mythical region great art - including great music and great poetry - can be the route to fleeting, if not boundless, bliss. But as Robert Frost told us, it means taking the path less travelled:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
* Those wishing to experience the fleeting glimpse of enlightenment offered by Éliane Radigue Trilogie de la Mort and Jetsun Mila will find samples online. Of particular interest is a short video of an al fresco performance of Trilogie de la Mort in 2011 at the Villa Arson contemporary art museum in France which is an excellent illustration of how classical music can attract new audiences by taking the road less travelled.
This photo essay is a revision of one originally published in July 2014. All photos (c) On An Overgrown Path 2017. Any other copyrighted material n these pages is included for review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). My travel arrangements in India were made by the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery UK Trust, but any views expressed in this post are strictly my own. Also reluctantly on Facebook and Twitter.