Thursday, July 02, 2020

Two roads diverged and I took the one less travelled


For sixteen years On An Overgrown Path has been taking the road less travelled. One example was my road trip from Kalka to Leh in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir in the north of India. Éliane Radigue's electronic paeans to Tibetan Buddhism, Trilogie de la Mort and Jetsun Mila featured heavily in the iPod playlist for that journey. 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.


I travelled to Ladakh in 2014 to attend 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, the mythical Pure Land of Tibetan Buddhism. For those unable to make a pilgrimage to this magical region great art - including great music and great poetry - can be the route to fleeting, if not boundless, bliss. But it does mean taking the path less travelled. Among the less travelled musical paths I have explored over the years is the overtly Buddhist nuanced electronica of Éliane Radigue; notably Trilogie de la Mort, Jetsun Mila, and Songs of Milarepa. The Tibetan saint Milarepa who inspired the latter two works described how in the vast empty spaces of the Himalayas the vortex of everyday life can be exchanged for boundless bliss. Which brings this photo essay full circle back to the poetry of Robert Frost:
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 enlightenment offered by Éliane Radigue's 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 was originally published in July 2014. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

No comments: