Tuesday, December 29, 2009

BIRDS OF RANTHAMBORE: slide show

Ranthambore Wild Life

SLIDE SHOW

RANTHAMBORE NATIONAL PARK: WILD LIFE



Though for most of the visitors, the single most important sighting would be of a tiger, however, this park like most of the other wild life parks, has many other attractions in form of animals, birds, and many kinds of plants and trees. And then, Ranthambore Fort in itself demands an independent visit.
The other wild life that we could see during our visit were spotted deer, sambhar deer, neel gai, wild boar, monkeys and langurs, and crocodiles. The spotted deer are among the most beautiful deer in the wild. It is so graceful in its walk, and runs almost effortlessly. We could see many small and large herds of spotted deer, and each herd any many adult males and females. However, in case of sambhar, there was one adult male with many females in a single herd. Due to its antlers, it looks majestic and formidable, and walks upright showing off its antlers: it is for no small reason that it is popularly known as ‘ghamandi barasingha’. There were large number of monkeys and langurs all over the park; the antics of the young ones were a joy to watch. You could see them playing and making pranks on one another for hours.
We could also see a large number of birds. The most common, of course, were peacocks and tree pies. Peacocks at this time of the year were not in their full attire of colourful feathers after having shed their heavy plume around Diwali time. The males were not in their dancing mood also, this being not their mating and breeding season. The tree pies were everywhere and the boldest creatures in the park. It, being an opportunistic bird, would come very near visitors in hope of some food. Many people were feeding them nuts and bread from their hands. We also could spot brown fish owl, spotted owlets, black vulture, whitebacked vulture, sand pipers, snipes, quails and partridges, kingfishers, woodpeckers, lapwings, and many other water birds.
Thus, it was a very satisfying visit to Ranthambore, worth visiting again and again.

T - 17 : THE LORD OF THE JUNGLE

SLIDE SHOW

RANTHAMBORE NATIONAL PARK



Finally we made it to Ranthambore, the sanctuary we had been longing to visit for a long time. The sanctuary had its reputation for having the friendliest of tigers, and visitors had returned not disappointed. The Lord of the Jungle had been obliging visitors to its sanctuary by giving them an easy audience. May be, that has been the precise reason for its continuously dwindling numbers everywhere including Ranthambore. The greed of man had exploited the easy and friendly nature of tiger to kill it for flimsy reasons, the most laughable being that its mortal remains are potent aphrodisiacs. It should have preserved its savage nature to preserve itself and for preservation of its progeny in the country which prides itself in having tiger as its national animal.
We had seen tigers in our first visit to Kanha, but the Lord had eluded us in many other popular sanctuaries. Now we know why. The Lord was not acting ‘pricey’, but because it had ceased to exist in many of the sanctuaries. It is nothing less than a national shame that our National Animal is not spotted in the wild but is seen more frequently in the zoo. However, over the years I have come to realize that if you are visiting a forest, go for many things other than tigers; if you happen to chance upon a tiger, it is your bonus. Fortunately, many of the forests in India still have many other attractions left, though we made a total mess of Project Tiger and at the same time neglected everything else in the name of tiger. So when Kush last month suggested planning a visit to Ranthambore, we all jumped at the idea. Since time was short, we decided to go there by train rather than driving all the distance by car. There are a number of trains which go to Sawai Madhopur from Delhi, and the park is just 11 km away from the station. It is a small town and has many hotels and guest houses catering to all kind of pockets and taste.
We were lucky in our first ever visit to the Ranthambore National Park as within first 15 minutes of our entering the park we made a sighting of a tiger. It was a young but fully grown female tiger, which we would later find, called T-17. We saw it hidden behind a growth of bushes looking intently at a herd of spotted deer (chital) and ready to ambush it. And suddenly she stood up, came into open and charged towards the deer. Alas, it was unsuccessful, as tigers are successful in only 1 out of 5 chances. The herd of deer was successful in escaping to safety, and we were successful in sighting our first tiger at the Ranthambore National Park. T-17 is daughter of a world famous tigress, Machhli, who has been heroine in many stories on Ranthambore and also the leading actress in a number of documentaries. For next 45 minutes she played hide and seek with us, and then decided enough was enough, and disappeared into the river bed. What a majestic creature she was; I can not forget her carefree gait and attitude, and the total indifference and disdain she reserved for us. But even that was welcoming coming from the Lord of the Jungle.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

ROSE FESTIVAL

This Sunday the Rose Society of India organized its annual Rose Festival in Delhi. Enjoy the slide show. All photographs are courtesy Vasuman. Cheers

Friday, November 13, 2009

A SUMMER IN ANTARCTICA

I am giving an illustrated talk

‘A SUMMER IN ANTARCTICA’

at

the India International Centre Annexe Auditorium
(40, Max Mueller Marg, Lodhi Estate, New Delhi)

on Thursday, 3rd December, 2009 at 6:30 pm

to share my experiences of Antarctic Expedition.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

NIGHT FLYING INTO ANTARCTICA



I wanted to post this as a "BREAKING NEWS", last month, but many things kept me away from doing it. Finally, I am able to post it.

It’s been nearly 80 years since Adm. Richard Byrd made his famous flight over the South Pole without landing there. Traditionally, the only mode of accessing Antarctica had been by ships that were especially designed and built for navigating the rough and turbulent Antarctic Ocean. However, these can also negotiate the Antarctic Ocean only during Antarctic summer, November to March, when the weather turns less hostile and the ocean which had frozen during the winter starts melting. These are custom-built ships, ice-class or ice-breakers. Kindly see the post: How to reach Antarctica.
History was made in the year when the first aeroplane made its landing on the Antarctic continent by landing on the frozen ice air strip. Since then, air flights have become a regular means of transport carrying Antarctic scientists and logistic experts, equipments, supplies, and tourists. However, these flights had remained limited again during the summer period when various flights operating companies would make 16-20 flights employing cargo aircrafts like Ilyushin or Hercules.
Aviation history was made once again on the night of September 11, 2008 when a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster, a huge military cargo and troop transport, touched down on Pegasus White Ice Runway at McMurdo Antarctic Base of the U.S.A. It was the first time such a landing had been done in Antarctica using night-vision goggles. It was a challenge that has been accomplished, making night landing a reality for the purpose of Science and medical evacuation. Previously that was not possible.


This year, flight since the summer of February, 2009 was scheduled to land at McMurdo Station on Aug. 20 (local time McMurdo) during a roughly weeklong period dubbed Winfly, for winter fly-in. However, two straight days of poor weather conditions at McMurdo delayed the arrival of the first flight. However, ppassengers disembarked from a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III at Pegasus airfield on Aug. 22, 2009 (McMurdo local time). The first flight of Winfly finally arrived on the continent after two days of weather delays, carrying 120 passengers. Three more passenger flights were planned over the next week.


India started using flights to Antarctica from Cape Town way back in 2002, when it initiated DROMLAN (The Dronning Maud Land Air Network) international cooperative project with other participating countries, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. ALCI, a Cape Town based South African polar shipping and air carrier company has been involved as logistic service provider. It operates approximately 16 flights during Antarctica summer, October to March.


I too flew all the way to Antarctica from Goa in November, 2007 covering the entire distance in approx 18 hours of flying time in 4 flights. The fourth flight was in IL-76 from Cape Town to Novo airbase lasting for 6 hours covering 4500 km, (http://himalayanadventurer.blogspot.com/2007/11/arrival.html)
(First 3 photos from US Antarctic website, the last one by the author)

Sunday, August 30, 2009

SWIMMING TO ANTARCTICA



Antarctica is fast developing into a land, or I should say, a continent for innumerable and diverse kind of adventures. However, Antarctica itself is not new to adventure. It has received adventurers and tested their stamina, strength, endurance and abilities for over a century. Even when commuting to Antarctica is becoming easier and faster each year, and man having almost colonized it for many decades now, Antarctica continues to offer challenges to never-say-die spirit of humans. Every year during summer season of Antarctica, adventurers attempt to negotiate Antarctic challenges in their own styles. Last year only, adventurers got together to organize first of its kind, South Pole Race 2008, to replicate historic race between two legends of Antarctic exploration, Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen to reach the South Pole. Though there were many records attempted and made, a unique feat of the race was that of a blind man completing the arduous journey of 483 nautical miles across some of the most inhospitable terrain and hostile environment on this earth. Women have been part of such adventures on Antarctica now for many years.
Recently I read the book, Swimming to Antarctica’ given to me by Kush (www.tantrikclimber.blogspot.com). This book is an autobiographical account by Lynne Cox. She is a remarkable athlete with incredible ability to swim long distances in freezing waters. Her accomplishments started at the age of 14, when Lynne swam across the a Channel of 43 km, with a group of teenagers in California, in 12 hours and 36 minutes. At age 15 Lynne swam across the English Channel and shattered the men’s and women’s world records with a time of 9 hours and 57 minutes. When that record was broken, she returned the next year and broke the world record for the English Channel a second time with a time of 9 hours and 36 minutes. She has not looked back since then, going for bigger and bigger adventures and breaking more swimming barriers. Lynne is perhaps best known for swimming the Bering Strait from the island of Little Diomede in Alaska to Big Diomede, then part of the Soviet Union, where the water temperature averaged around 4 °C. At that time people living on the Diomede Islands, only 3.7 km apart, were not permitted to see one another, although many had family members living on the other island. Looks so familiar at our Kashmir or Punjab! Whether her accomplishment eased Cold War tensions or not, as Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev both praised her success.



The last swim in the book, Swimming to Antarctica, gives the book its name when she swims 1.6 km from a ship to the Antarctic shore in 25 minutes in freezing water below zero degrees dodging icebergs. Such a cold water, would send even a hardy person into fatal hypothermia within 5 minutes.
Lynne has been helped in achieving her accomplishments by many people, and she is generous in acknowledging them in the book. I personally think she owes a great deal to her parents who made a crucial decision quite early in life to move to Los Angeles so that their children could get best of facilities and trainers in the sport of indoor and outdoor swimming.



Lynne makes this point very clear at many places in the book: she is not swimming to establish new world records. She swam across the Bering Strait, the Strait of Magellan, or around the Cape Town so that she could contribute to making some difference in the world. Her heroics as well as her magnanimous spirit and the ability to bring people together is simply commendable.
Lynne has put down her autobiography is quite simple and illustrative style giving quite graphically her preparations and ordeal in achieving her numerous feats. It is an awe inspiring book, and not only for the swimmers or adventurers, but for any person who wishes to appreciate the limits of human endurance and challenging spirit.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

SHIMLA – THE SUMMER CAPITAL OF BRITISH INDIA



I had been to Shimla a few times earlier, however, when I went to Shimla (spelt ‘Simla’ then) with Chitra, Ishu and Vasu way back in 1987, I almost vowed to myself never to return to Shimla again as a tourist. Though I have been to Shimla many times since then, but always for work, and have stayed there just for a day overnight. At that time, we had stayed in the AIIMS guest house at Summer Hill. India’s first Health Minister, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur had a soft corner for the AIIMS, and had gifted her property at Summer Hill to AIIMS. Gandhi Ji is said to have enjoyed the hospitality of Raj Kumari Amrit Kaur at this house. It is beautifully located surrounded by tall pine and deodar trees, and is very close to the University.
What put me off in 1987? Climate wise, Shimla was not much different from Delhi in the month of June. The Mall Road was as crowded with tourists as Chandni Chowk or Karol Bagh. We ran into some of Delhi wallahs there whom we saw only infrequently back in Delhi. One could only have chhole-bhature at the Baljee’s; there was nothing like local food. But children had, perhaps, enjoyed their stay there, especially, the ride on Kalka-Shimla train, walks, pony-rides, and a reward of softy ice-cream after a long walk from Summer Hill to Mall Road. So, last month when I got a call to visit Shimla once again for a brief meeting, I was quite pleased. I would again be away from the oppressive heat of Delhi. I did not mind when I was advised to come a day earlier since the meeting would start early in the morning, and traveling by night train was not a feasible option. I would travel by Shatabdi Express till Kalka, and then take a taxi to reach Shimla. Travel time to Kalka from Delhi is 4.30 hours, and the track runs parallel to G.T. Road. Last time I traveled on this route was more than a year ago. May be, since I was traveling alone this time, I looked outside more often even when I had the company of an engrossing book. Very soon it dawned on me that all along there were houses on either side of the track and road. Big and small constructions had sprung all the way. There were no uninterrupted stretches of land or green fields. Previously during this time, one could see men and women busy working in the field, but now if you saw them, they were either traveling on tractor-trolley or working at construction site. The train reached Kalka on time. Kalka was hot, but I did not bother much since I was to travel uphill all the way to cold climes of Shimla. Since the tourist season was practically over, the taxi stand was deserted and I had no problem in hiring a taxi. The hills start even before you cross the town of Kalka. However, the drive which used to be so pleasurable and refreshing earlier was not the same anymore. The greenery on both sides of the road had thinned away. It had given way to mushrooming construction all along. There was not a single kilometer of stretch which did not have a house, office, dhaba, restaurant, hotel or a shop selling all kinds of goods. It was quite a sad picture.
At Shimla, my staying arrangement was made at Peterhof hotel. I was quite intrigued by this name having read, heard, and seen so much of Peterhof during our Russia visit. A quick search on the net brought out the following information, ‘Peterhof Hotel is located in the heart of Shimla city at Chaura Maidan offering panoramic view of Choorchandani on the front side, Dhauladhar ranges on western side and Kinner Kailash on the eastern side. It is also strategically situated with the State Museum on one side and famous Viceroy Legal Lodge on the other side, now housing the Institute of Advance Studies. The Peterhof, originally built in early 19th century, housed at least seven Viceroys and Governor Generals during the Raj. The first Viceroy to move into Peterhoff was the Earl of Elgin who arrived in Shimla on 4th April 1863. After independence the building served as Punjab High Court and it was here that the trial of Nathu Ram Godse, who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, took place in 1948-49. When Himachal became full fledged state the building became the Raj Bhawan, Unfortunately it burnt down in 1981 but it was restructured in 1991 and designed to match the hill architecture palatial pattern and now is a heritage luxury hotel’. However, the net could not give me any information as to why it was named after Peterhof. I thought of finding more about it there itself. The hotel is situated at a quite strategic place, offering a very panoramic view of hills in front. Though it is supposed to be a heritage hotel, it could do well by paying more attention to its maintenance. I made enquiries from the staff there about the origin of this property’s name, but no body had a clue. There was not a single photograph of its original structure, or its earlier occupants from Raj era. Nor was there any photograph of the historic Nathuram Godse trial. May be, the State Museum next door has some of those historic photographs.


Since I had reached much earlier than the sun-set, I went for a walk towards Mall Road. It was terribly hot and humid in Shimla too, and did not look much different from Delhi’s weather. Locals told me that there was not much snow during the winter, and now the rains have also eluded Shimla, with the result the weather had turned too warm. The apple crop has been severely affected, as much as by half. It was evident in the market when I saw the size of apples; they were not bigger than an ordinary lemon.



At Mall Road, I found good old Indian Coffee House. I have so many good memories of Indian Coffee House which were many in Delhi previously, but now have disappeared. I went in to feel the aroma of filter coffee and taste its dosa dipped in sambhar. Being evening time, the coffee house was almost full to capacity, and did not mind sharing my table with an elderly couple. We immediately struck good rapport and talked politics, region, spirituality, and Shimla life. I will remember meeting them as one of the high points of my Shimla visit. I seemed to have brought some good cheers to Shimla; it started raining when I headed back to the hotel. I did not mind, only lucky ones get drenched in the rains.

Monday, July 27, 2009

NEVER CHALLENGE A LOVER

This morning when I went to the back courtyard, I saw two monkeys climbing down the pipe, and then casually walking towards the kitchen garden. I realized they did not cross the boundary, but had settled comfortably in a corner. Not liking the idea of having two monkeys in the garden, I yelled at them to get lost. Instantaneously, the bigger monkey came charging towards me, showing his all incisors and canines and growling menacingly. I just stood frozen, not knowing how to react; but my dad who was enjoying his morning newspaper and cup of tea sitting on the swing, stood up charged and came forward making equally menacing sounds. The monkey had not seen him earlier, but was now taken aback and stopped in his track and retreated back to the company of his mate, nudged her, and both of them walked away, but showing no urgency to leave. I am sure he must have said to his mate that he spared this middle-aged man in consideration of his old father. Now I realized they were a young couple, and the male who came charging towards me, was a strong and handsome specimen. Obviously he did not like the idea of my trying to chase him away when he was wooing his love interest. We all know that the females in the whole animal kingdom get overprotective towards their newborns, and challenge even mightier enemies once they perceive any threats to their offspring. But the male pride could be so fragile, so sensitive, so easily provoked? Of course, he was on a trip; with all his pride and vanity he must be boasting to his love interest and showing off all his territory and empire. How could he tolerate any challenge to his authority! Proving his prowess, whatever may be the challenge, was an investment to his love life. He will make this investment again and again, whether to scare the human beings, or ward off a potential rival.
A popular blogger with a huge fan following, in one of her posts, posed this question to her readers: Is love a one-time-lump-sum investment that you make to go on enjoying its returns unlimited? Or is it a daily wage earning that you must work for each day? What is my take on this? I think investment is a continuous process, it has to become a habit. Whether it is to with our finances or with our body or mind, or with our interests or hobbies, all require regular investments. Investment is not limited to this. We have to regularly invest in our children; in our friends, relatives, and acquaintances; in our staff and students; in our domestic helps and maids; in our gadgets, and the list is endless.
So why not in our love interest!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

PINDARI TREK - SLIDE SHOW

DOUBLE CLICK ON THE PHOTO TO VIEW THE SLIDE SHOW IN LARGE SIZE

Sunday, July 5, 2009

ST PETERSBURG SLIDE SHOW

TREK TO PINDARI GLACIER



I had been thinking of trekking to Pindari for a long time. It had been a long cherished desire. I heard of Pindari glacier from Motor Mama who had done this trek in 1946 at a young age of 16-17. Motor Mama is my uncle, my mother’s brother (mamaji), from Indore and we have always addressed him like this since our childhood when we must have seen only him driving the family car. Motor Mama has never looked back since then, and must have measured the length and breadth of Uttarakhand many times over. Though I have trekked to some other glaciers, the Pindari eluded me even when that was the first glacier I had known, and is supposed to be one of the most accessible glaciers. But this year opportunity came almost knocking at the door. Vasu’s plans to trek to Sunder Dhunga glacier with a group had fallen through. I suggested to him Pindari for both of us, and planned an eco-trek, that is, we would travel by public transport, and stay and eat in road-side huts; the only luxury we would allow ourselves would be the services of a porter cum guide. However, Leena, Rajesh and Vinayak from Vasu’s original group joined us, and from an eco-trek it turned into a premier packaged tour of KMVN. Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam (www.kmvn.org) organizes packaged tours to many of its popular treks and glaciers for all kinds of trekkers. Though it does take away some of the charm and thrill of adventure, yet, it provides a convenient way to explore the unexplored Himalayas, especially if time is short and one wishes to avoid all the hassles of bookings or uncertainty of adventure. Though originally we had planned a trip of 10-12 days, but in deference to wishes of the group, had cut it short to 8 days, from Sunday to Sunday. Vinayak at 12 was the youngest member of the group, while yours truly was the eldest; age proof not required.
1st Day: From Delhi to Bageshwar: 450 km
We left Delhi early morning to avoid the rush on NH 24 later in the day. NH 24 goes to Haldwani and Kathgodam via Garh Ganga, Gajraula, Moradabad, Rampur, and Bilas Pur and Pantnagar. NH 24 can be very trying due to its unpredictable (or predictably predictable) and long traffic jams. I had traveled or driven on this road a few times in last few years, and I was so frustrated in 2007 driving there that I had vowed to myself never to return to this highway until and unless I got confirmed news that it had become worthy of being called a road. One wondered how India could boast to fast-track its economy and development with such infrastructure. However, road had appeared much better in April this year when we had traveled to Bareilly. As on earlier occasions, this time too, we stopped at Gajraula for our breakfast of dry paratha (sans ghee or butter that you get separately) and lassi. After Ram Pur (town famous for its knives, and lately put on national map by Jaya Prada), the drive had become comfortable and pleasurable. But we got stuck at Bilas Pur to cross a small bride over a small river. The bridge was too narrow to handle two-lane traffic, and Vasu reminded us that the adjoining unfinished wider bridge was at the same stage of construction as we had seen in 2007. After passing Haldwani and Kathgodam, we stopped at Bhowali for lunch. Bhowali was known in earlier days for its sanatorium. The drive was becoming more and more scenic with mountains and tall coniferous trees in view all along. We crossed Almorah well in time and headed for Bageshwar. We chose to take shorter route via Binsar; however, it proved to be wrong choice as the road was under major repair all along and we reached Bageshwar only by 7:30 pm in the evening. In last few years, it was my third visit to Bageshwar.


2nd Day: Bageshwar to Lohar Khet
Bageshwar is a small sleepy town at 975 m (3217 ft) on the bank of confluence of Gomati and Saryu rivers, and hence is considered an important pilgrimage town. Though there are two rivers, but it was sad to see just a trickle of water, it looked more like a nallah. It has a 7th century Bagh Nath temple devoted to Lord Shiv, and has as its exhibits nearly thousand years old statues. Around temple, there are shops and eating places. During our last visit in June, 2007, we had settled down at an eating place, when Chitra asked for the fans to be switched on. To her amazement, the shopkeeper politely declined to switch on the fan. And the reason he gave us impressed us tremendously. The tiny migratory swallows had built their nests in his shop, and a revolving ceiling fan would have been a sure killer. He informed us that these birds come here every summer, and stay for 2-3 months till their young chicks grow enough to fly to reach their next destination. We were only a transient visitor, but the shopkeeper (and many others in this town), a true environmentalist, had been sweltering every year in the oppressive summer months for the sake of these birds. Swallows build their nests with mud etc which appears hard as concrete. This time too we witnessed these restless birds and their nests and young ones. From Bageshwar, we traveled 45 km by a jeep to reach Saung. The motorable road ends here. Here we met our guide and porter who would accompany us for next 6 days. We trekked uphill for 5 km to reach Lohar Khet at 1760 m (5800 ft). We had wonderful lunch at the kmvn rest house of ‘kadhi’ and ‘marhua ki roti’. The rest house was a hub of activity with a group of trekkers from Kolkata and another group from Michigan arriving there after completing their treks. There were a few brightly coloured scarlet minivets noisily chasing each other on tree tops. I rued my decision not to bring my zoom lens. A little rain had made the evening quite chilly. Our mobiles had stopped receiving signals here; and there was of course no radio or TV or newspaper. Within a day we were so far away from the civilization, and yet strangely, we did not miss any of those things.


3rd Day: Lohar Khet to Khati: 17 km
We were to trek 17 km on our 3rd day, so we left early soon after having our tea at 5 am. It was all the way uphill, and after 3 hours of walking we had our breakfast of, what else, aloo paratha, and resumed walking once again. The trek so far was not too spectacular, though all around it was green. One could see huge patches on the hills where soil erosion had taken its toll. We met a group of young boys coming down after completing trek to Sundar Dhunga. They were excited, yet disappointed in not having seen much of snow at the zero point. Global warming or whatever had taken its toll. We had trekked for 8 km to reach the pass, Dhakuri Khal, at 2940 m (9700 ft). From here, we descended 1 km to reach Dhakuri which has a KMVN tourist rest house. The place was so scenic that one could spend a few days here without going further. However, this was not our destination for the day; we were to trek downhill for another 8 km to reach Khati (2210m; 7300 ft). After lunch, we again pushed ourselves through a beautiful forest full of rhododendron trees. Though October is the usual month of bloom, yet a few flowers had bloomed over some trees. As we reached near the village of Khati, the fields had plants of cannabis scattered here and there. Khati village had about 300 houses, and had a post office with PCO and STD facility. There were some private guest houses as well where one could get a room for as much as 100-200 rupees. Many houses had solar panels and satellite dish over their roofs. At Khati, the trek bifurcates with one trek heading towards Sundar Dhunga. From village the kmvn rest house was at a steep climb of less than 1 km, but that seemed to be the most difficult part of the trek. It was after 4 pm when we reached the rest house, and were dead tired.


4th Day: Khati to Phurkiya: 18 km
Our destination was Phurkiya today at an altitude of 3250 m (10725 ft), which meant we were to climb uphill all the way. The trek passed through a dense forest where we could listen to chirping of birds continuously. I am not good in recognizing uncommon birds through their calls, but could not miss the piu-piu of handsome pied crested cuckoo. We also saw groups of monkeys and langurs too, but they kept their distance from us, unlike their urban brethren. Now Pindari River was giving us company. Across, there were frequent sighting of water falls. Drinking water from these falls was very refreshing and rejuvenating; no doubt we were able to go up and down long distances. We reached Dwali midway which too has a KMVN rest house, and had our lunch there, and resumed our walk soon after. From Dwali, one trek cuts off to Kafni glacier also. At a distant mountain, guide of another group pointed out to a pair of mountain goats (bharel). We were constantly gaining height with wind becoming chillier, and tree line gradually thinning away. From dense forest, we were entering dense mountains covered only with shrubs and small vegetation. We managed to reached Phurkiya quite on time and were in good shape, and comfortable mentally too having come so far. We were at 3250m (11,000ft)and ready to celebrate Vasu's birthday; Leena had brought a cake all the way from Delhi for the evening. Amazingly, Vasu has celebrated his birthday on quite a few such places. Now the zero point was only 5 km of comfortable walk. The sky was clear, and even with chill outside, we felt great sitting outside and looking at moon and snow covered peaks appearing so near. They were changing colour with each passing hour. After dinner we slept early, since we were supposed to start our onward march next morning at 5 am.


5th Day: Phurkiya to Zero Point, and back to Dwali: 21 km
Though zero point was only 5 km away, but it would certainly test us with thinning air and very bright sun on a clear sky. As we advanced, we began to see many peaks which surround Nanda Devi; though, you do not get to see Nanda Devi herself. I had seen Nanda Devi in her full glory a few years ago at Auli. The peaks visible were Baljuri, Pawali dwar, Nanda Khat, Chhangoj, and Nanda Kot. About 2 km before the zero point, the trek culminated into a huge meadow. It was covered with flowers of many colours, almost looking like valley of flowers. There was a hut of a Babaji who has been living there for last 15 years. He looks after the tired trekkers with tea and food, and tells them some interesting stories. It was a magnificent experience being surrounded by snow covered peaks all around. What would I not sacrifice to be able to spend a few days in this bliss! Zero point was still a kilometer away. Normally at zero point the usual trek ends at the glacier. However, here it is just a convenient point, though the glacier is still quite far, having receded by a few kilometers. We were now at nearly 12,500 ft. I reached zero point only to feel sad, the magnificent Pindari glacier about which I had heard and read so much, was now only a rudimentary thing. Instead of a frozen river, it appeared to be a frozen water fall hanging in air as if it had been amputated in between. I did not know whom to blame; global warming, but what is causing this global warming?
Return journey: on our way back we stayed overnight at Dwali and then Dhakuri. On reaching Bageshwar, we immediately left for Kausani to stay there overnight. We returned via Almorah where we stopped for ‘samosa’ and ‘jalebi’. Before we reached Delhi, we got stuck in massive traffic jams at two places delaying our return by at least 4 hours. But no complaints; we all were jubilant having done the trek successfully and as per our itinerary. Will I repeat the trek: perhaps, yes, for Kafni and Sunder Dhunga!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

TRAGEDY STRIKES MAITRI

Tragedy struck Maitri, the permanent Indian station at Antarctica when it lost its valued scientist, Mr Kuldeep Wali, on the 1st June 2009. Shri Kuldeep Wali a professional meteorologist with India Meteorological Department was deputed to Antarctica as a member of the winter over team of the 28th Indian Scientific Antarctic Expedition in November 2008 and was expected to return to India by November 2009. Born on 12th April 1952, Shri Kuldeep Wali passed way on Monday the 1st June 2009 at Indian Research Base Maitri, Antarctica in service to the nation. He suffered a massive acute myocardial infarction at 11:45 UTC (17:15 Hrs IST). Doctors struggled hard with all possible treatment but could not revive him and pronounced him dead at 12:20 UTC (17:50 Hrs IST). He is survived by his wife Smt. Rita Wali and daughter Ms. Ranshu Wali.
Shri Kuldeep Wali left National Centre of Antarctic and Ocean Research, Goa on the 17th November 2008 along with the second contingent of the 28th ISEA. He reached Novo airbase in Antarctica in the early hours of 22nd June flying all the way to Antarctica via Cape Town. Ever since his arrival at Maitri, he was actively involved in research and other work related to the Maitri station until he breathed his last.
It has been the most unfortunate thing that could happen at Maitri. The family of Mr Wali back home was obviously in shock and disbelief. However, it courageously and respectfully accepted the fact of life and requested for an early cremation at Maitri itself. Otherwise the body would have been preserved there and flown to Delhi only in November later this year when the air-flights resume with start of the summer season. Though the winds are very strong and the temperatures very low during polar nights, the wintering members found a huge boulder about a km downwind of the station and carried out the cremation in stormy winds there on the 11th June. It must have been an unnerving experience for the whole wintering team stationed currently at Maitri.
Losing and cremating a team member after spending nearly 6-8 months with him must have needed volumes of mental strength on their part to go through the process of bereavement during the icy and frozen conditions of Polar nights of Antarctica at this time of the year.

Through this blog, I pay my humble homage to Mr Kuldeep Wali, and pay my sincere condolences to the family to bear this irreparable loss with courage and dignity.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

MOSCOW DIARY



To be honest, I did not know many of the amazing facts about Russia till we decided to visit it. Apart from my knowledge of Russian royalty of 19th and early 20th century, its architecture, its role in WW II, a little bit of Lenin, Stalin, and the communist era, my awareness of the current Russian nation was not too positive having been fed by the media of its mafia and crimes, and its stinking billionaires. I was a bit apprehensive: politically, India had always considered Russia as a staunch ally, but post-cold war scenario could be different; the generation which went berserk over Raj Kapoor in 50s and 60s would no longer be there; if there was no St Petersburg in the itinerary, I might not have considered visiting Russia
First some facts about Russia and Moscow: Russia, even after the disintegration of USSR into more than a dozen independent nations, is the largest country in the world extending over Europe and Asia covering more than 12 percent of Earth’s area and spanning 11 time zones. Russia has the world's greatest reserves of mineral and energy resources, and is considered an energy superpower and is world’s largest energy exporter. It has the world's largest forest reserves and its lakes contain approximately one-quarter of the world's unfrozen fresh water.
It is world’s sixth largest economy, and has been averaging 7-8 percent growth in its GDP. The Russian Constitution guarantees free, universal health care for all citizens. Russia has more physicians, hospitals, and health care workers than almost any other country in the world on a per capita basis. As of 2007, the average life expectancy in Russia is 61.5 years for males and 73.9 years for females. The biggest factor contributing to this relatively low life expectancy for males is a high mortality rate among working-age males from preventable causes (e.g., alcoholism, smoking, traffic accidents, and violent crimes). As a result of the large difference in life expectancy between men and women and because of the lasting effect of World War II (Russia lost more men than any other nation in the world), the gender imbalance remains to this day and there are only 859 males to every 1000 females. Till recently, the Russian population was showing a declining trend. Since 2007, the Russian government has implemented a programme whereby women are paid around US$ 10,000 if they have a second child.

After having dealt with St Petersburg successfully and joyfully, we were better prepared to deal with Moscow, a large city by any standard. We knew by now that there were no meters in the taxis and you had to settle the fare in advance; an average citizen knew no or very little English; there was an excellent bus and metro service linking practically every nook and corner of the city and you could master it within a day or two; veg meals, veg pizza and burgers could be obtained and there were many Indian restaurants in Moscow. And what we were most assured of was the fact that crime and law and order was not a significant issue if you took some basic precautions, like, not getting out of a disco or night club at 2 am dead drunk.
Our flight landed at domestic terminal of Sheremetyevo airport and we had no difficulty in hiring a cab having earlier enquired the approximate fare. Our hotel was within the city and four metro-stops away from the Red Square. It was situated in an open area with lot of blooming trees around. There were 4-5 blocks of this hotel each having 1-2 restaurants. Our guess was that it must have served as a youth hostel or something in earlier days. The room was basic but had a fridge and TV, though the latter had no use for us as was airing only Russian channels. The Russian hotels, whether 3-star of 5-star, do not provide you with an electric kettle and tea-coffee bags in the rooms. But our plan included complimentary breakfast. The lady at the restaurant took special care of us when she found we were vegetarians. So if you are planning to visit Russia and are fond of your bed tea, carry your kettle and tea bags. Same evening we ventured out to visit the city centre, and managed to reach the Red Square and Kremlin. Asking for directions was a risky affair. We did not know if the person had understood where we wanted to go, and we were also not sure if we understood where he was asking us to go. We spotted a well-dressed gentleman, and just thought he could be English speaking. And yes, he did. He explained us the directions patiently, and then asked us if we were from India. Now we asked him if he ever visited India. He replied it was an interesting question as he had visited India three times! What cities? It was Bhuj on the first occasion. We were flabbergasted, of all places he chose Bhuj. Chitra was quick to think it must have been in connection with earthquake there. Yes, he was a rescue expert. After his first visit, he told himself, never again to India. But official work brought him to Delhi second time, and he thought, yeh, may be next time also. And after his third visit, he would look for an opportunity to visit India once again.

Red Square and Kremlin are incredible places along with all the churches, cathedrals and other buildings within the compound. You need to see all this yourself to appreciate the grandeur and vastness of this place. Though the tourist season had not started yet, there were people all over. And all around it are so wide roads that we hadn’t seen elsewhere. Inspite of a far reaching and efficient metro service, these roads are usually jam packed with cars and buses. Though you see all the latest models of merc and BMW, but most of the cars are older models, small or medium sized. We could manage to see many of the important tourist attractions of the city. We avoided museums since, I believe, Russia must be having the largest number of museums in the world, from Museum of Erotica to Sigmund Freud Museum of Dreams. Earlier we believed that the most beautiful churches and cathedrals were only in Rome or Prague, but St Petersburg and Moscow are very close in the race. Moscow can boast of some ultra-luxurious clubs and shopping arcades. Of course, any shopping at these places was out of question. But we did visit a weekend market in the outer skirts of city having hundreds of shop selling souvenirs, Russian handicrafts, shoes, bags, and garments etc. A sizeable number of these shop owners were those Afghanis who originally must have been from Indian sub-continent. They could speak some Hindi sentences.
Alcoholism is major health hazard in Russia, but cigarette smoking is a big public nuisance. It is rampant among men and women both. I think the only place they do not smoke is the metro. It is very common for people to walk in the streets smoking. I must have inhaled every day equivalent of one full packet. I must visit Himalayas to get rid of all the smoke deposited in my lungs.

Metro service of Moscow must have been the largest in the world. It ferries 9 million passengers every day, more than that of London and New York combined together. Frequency is incredible too, at peak hours you do not have to wait for more than 30 seconds! Some of the stations on the Ring Line were breathtakingly beautiful, marble faced, frescoed, with gilded work of arts. The art work depicts history, war, and Russian life. We had not seen such beautifully done metro station anywhere in the world.
During the time we were in Moscow, Jag Mohan and Gurmeet were also there. We met up with them on a few evenings, and they invited us for a meal at the Indian restaurant, Maharaja. On our penultimate day, we went to outskirts of Moscow to visit the University of Moscow, and also to go to the ‘look-out point’ from where one could see the entire city. It was raining, and we crossed a large wooded area to climb up to that point. While negotiating a small incline covered with fallen leaves, Chitra slipped and fell down hurting her left shoulder.

On our final day, the taxi driver taking us to the airport seemed very pleased to learn that we were from India. He managed to convey to us that he was 61 years old, and had seen ‘Awara’ seven times 50 years ago. As if on a cue, we broke into the famous Raj Kapoor song, ‘Mera Juta hai Japani’, and he joined us in the chorus. We bade him ‘Dissvidaniya’ at the airport, and wished that when and if we visit Moscow once again, he takes us to our hotel from the airport.

Friday, May 29, 2009

ST. PETERSBURG DIARY



Our first stopover in Russia was St. Petersburg, formerly known as Leningrad. In fact, it had been known as St. Petersburg since its inception in 1709, but was renamed Leningrad in 1924 following Lenin’s death. What a better way than to begin Russia from St Petersburg, which is in Russia but not Russian! I was to attend the conference here, 12th Multi-disciplinary International Conference on Neurosciences and Biological Psychiatry with conference theme of “Stress and Behaviour”. I was to chair a scientific session as well as make a presentation. And with my continuing preoccupation with Antarctica, what else would I speak other than ‘Psychobiology of Mood and Behaviour in Extreme Climatic Conditions of Antarctica’, more on this subject in some other post. This conference was being organized by two Ukrainian scientists settled in the US with support from local scientists and professionals. They were organizing successful annual meetings year after year in St. Petersburg. I was told about this meeting, in fact, by our friends Jag Mohan and Gurmeet who were coming from Brisbane to attend this. We had not met them for last so many years, and thought if we could not meet in Australia or India, why not in a third country!
It was past 7 pm when our flight landed in St. Petersburg. The outside temperature was 4 degree Celsius. It looked like bright day even at that time of the day. St. Petersburg is not far from North Pole, and the city was gradually moving towards ‘white nights’, when during June and July, the Sun would hardly set. Reaching our hotel, St. Petersburg Hotel, from the airport did not create any hassles as Chitra and I had decided not to embark on public transport (when we are overseas, we are always bogged down with saving money), and had hired a cab. The hotel was right on the bank of river Neva. The hotel was big with impressive lobby and dinning hall, but our room was basic with both the beds not arranged side by side but one after the other in a row. Soon after checking, we took directions from the receptionist to locate the nearest metro station which would take us next morning to the conference venue at Hotel Oktiabrskaya. We did not reach the metro station, but managed to find a small supermarket for buying drinking water, fruits, some bread, cheese etc. Next morning we managed to reach the metro station not before losing our direction a few times. What was dawning on us was that though people were trying to be helpful when we asked for directions, very few of them knew English. St Petersburg is well connected with metro and its bus service. Though the metro maps, announcement within the metro, and names of the stations all are in Russian language, we could master it in 2-3 rides. In our first ride, we did go back and forth a few times before disembarking at the right station, and what a relief it was when we saw Hotel Oktiabrskaya as soon as we stepped outside the metro station.

Though more than 300 delegates had registered for the conference, not many were seen inside the lecture hall. It is very difficult to sit through scientific sessions when you are in St. Petersburg for the first time. However, I did attend some interesting sessions. We also met a group of 10 psychiatrists from Pakistan who were accompanied by two drug representatives of the pharma company. They precisely attend two hours of meeting out of 5 days. The organizers had also arranged a visit to the Pavlov Institute, where the great Russian scientists worked on dogs and gave us the principles of classical conditioning paving the way for Behaviour Therapy as an important tool for managing many psychiatric disorders. Currently some scientists there are working on ‘brain music’ where brain’s electrical impulses (which may indicate state of our relaxed or tense mind) are turned into music. A tense mind produces a noisy mixture of unrhythmic music while music from relaxed mind may appear very soothing. I had volunteered to be a guinea pig for demonstration for other’s benefits, and so everyone had to admit that my mind produced some very pleasing and original score.

St Petersburg is the second largest city of Russia and steeped in history and riches of its royalty. After all it had remained capital of the country for more than 200 years. The city is full of palaces, museums, and gardens. Tulips of all colour and hues were blooming merrily everywhere. We took the guided city tour and boat cruise to get oriented to the city and to have its feel. We managed most other attractions on our own. But you can not do justice to the city in one visit or with only a few days at your disposal since there were too many museums, art galleries, cathedrals, and stage shows. The art collection in museums was amazing; the beauty of cathedrals spellbinding, and the gardens displaying a riot of colours. By Indian standards, entrance fee for most of these places appear exhorbitant, however, what you get to see fully justify that.

Meeting Jag Mohan and Gurmeet once again after so many years was very warm and pleasant. We together spent some very good time in St. Petersburg, and then again in Moscow. One very memorable evening was at the only Indian restaurant of the city, the Tandoor. The host who waited on our table was a young smart Indian boy who was willing to talk. He had been in St. Petersburg for last 8 years and was in the internship after having done his medical studies there. Stipend from the internship was obviously not enough, and he had to supplement his income from such jobs. He proudly told us that for last four years he had been financially independent by waiting on tables. He had married a local Russian girl and was looking forward to his Russian citizenship next year. He is aiming to be a cardiologist. With private health sector likely to open up and expand in new and booming Russian economy, he is hoping to have a flourishing practice. We also met one of the partners of the restaurant, who was an Indian doctor. He had come to Russia for medical studies, but found restaurant business more lucrative. I suspect that our young host may also turn a restaurateur.
With Finland only 4-6 hours away by road or train, who knows, we may feel tempted to come to St Petersburg enroute Finland and discover some amazing sights outside the city!!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

FLYING AEROFLOT

As if once was not enough, I happened to choose Aeroflot, the Russian airlines, once again. However, this time it was to fly into Russia only, and I was not looking for a cheaper ticket to fly to Europe or US. This year, in any case, air tickets for flying to London or New York are way down the price tag even on prestigious European airlines, and it does not make sense to go there by budget airlines. The first time I was on board Aeroflot was way back in 1983 when I was working in Addis Ababa. I was to attend a conference at London (it was ironic that Pan-African Psychiatric Conference was being held in London), and with limited resources was looking for a cheaper air ticket. People advised me to fly Aeroflot as it offered London ticket at half of the price. It only involved a change at Moscow. With very limited international flying experience, I had no idea what this ‘change’ involved. Buying the ticket was another issue. Aeroflot office in Addis Ababa would sell cheaper ticket only if it was paid in hard currency, that is, British pound. That also meant buying ticket in England only. Though I had friends there, but communicating with them was not easy. In 1983, there were no emails or faxes, and telephone calls were exhorbitantly expensive. And most of my friends were in the initial stages of their careers and were shifting their addresses quite often. However, I still managed to establish contact with Late Prof G. Morris Carstairs, the reputed psychiatrist and ex-Vice Chancellor of University of Edinburgh, whom I had the priviledge of knowing since my PGI, Chandigarh days. He responded immediately and offered to buy Aeroflot ticket for me. When I met him later in London during this very conference, he would remark that it was not easy to buy this ticket. The confirmed ticket was issued by the Addis Ababa office of Aeroflot, I would reach Moscow late in the evening (or early next morning) after having three stopovers at Aden, Cairo, and Odessa. My Moscow-London flight was by noon time. I was to spend night in the hotel provided by the airlines. I must have been the only non-Russian in the entire flight which was full of Soviet nationals who were returning home from Ethiopia. Ethiopia had large presence of Soviets at that time being under socialist influence. When the flight landed at Aden, its first stopover, I was surprised at the scene inside the cabin. Even before the aircraft came to a halt, there was a queue in front of the exit with passengers holding green dollars in their both the hands. No sooner were they allowed to get out, they started running towards the lounge. Not understanding anything, I was careful and just walked and obviously reached last by which time all had entered the only duty free shop at the Aden airport, and were clinging to various electronic items and denims. Within 10 minutes all the shelves of the duty free shop were kind of stripped of each and every item by them. During Soviet period, all these ‘phoren’ items were not available in the Republic but Soviet citizens working abroad were allowed to bring in these items. We were served lunch after Aden, and the air-hostess was dumbfounded when I asked for vegetarian food. However, she was sympathetic when she learnt that I took no meat or fish. She assembled a tray for me with bread, salad, fruit etc; on learning that I could egg, she prepared omelet for me and also offered me the Russian delicacy, caviar. At Moscow, the Sheremetyevo airport looked bright and huge, but devoid of people. It had been renovated for the Moscow Olympics in 1980. At the transit desk, I felt uncomfortable when the officer there retained my passport and indicated through gestures that I would get it back before my next flight to London. The hotel room was very basic. Next morning, which came only a few hours later, my name was missing from the London flight. I protested to the hotel staff, but they were of no help. There was no common language between us. In the dinning hall, I met many other Europeans who were there for 3 to 7 days waiting for their connecting flights having come from some remote parts of Africa. Aeroflot was providing link to many parts of Africa and European cities via Moscow. I was much much relieved when I read my name next morning in the list, got back my passport at the airport, and was boarded into the plane leaving for London. Return flight two weeks later was, however, smooth and without hiccups. However, in retrospect I felt I should have chosen the more expensive route of flying to London by some other airlines.
This time around, since I was attending a conference, in the Russian city of St Petersburg only, I was not anxious of flying Aeroflot. I was at my home turf, Chitra was with me, and we could buy ticket from any vendor in INR. We had no problem with the airlines, but the agent in Delhi did not provide good service. Inspite of my clearly asking for a veg meal, and she having confirmed it, our name was not in the list for veg meal. From Delhi flight we had no problem, but from Moscow to Delhi flight, we had to wait till the airhostess could manage to put together a veg meal for us. By the way, Aeroflot does not serve liquor on the flight, but you may buy your drinks. There is however abundant supply of fruit juices and aerated drinks. And it does not pamper you with eatables every hour. The agent also did not tell us that like Delhi, international and domestic terminals were at least 10-12 km apart. Our flight at Moscow landed on time, Moscow-St Petersburg flight was two hours later. We could not figure out where to go for reaching terminal II or domestic terminal. Information desk provided very little information on how to reach there. The shuttle service was only at 2-hourly interval, and we were losing precious minutes. The cab drivers were all over us and asking for an exhorbitant sum to take to the domestic terminal. Finally we teamed up with two Indian students who were also going to St Petersburg by the same flight and hired a cab. By the time we reached there, very little time was left and while we were in the queue, the flight closed right before us. We went to the ticketing counter to rebook us on the next flight. However, the salesgirl told us that our fair basis did not allow us that luxury; we would have to pay a hefty penalty. The amount she quoted was tantamount to buying a new ticket. I declared we had no money, and we had come all the way to attend a conference little realizing that reaching domestic terminal from the international one would involve such an effort. She took pity on us and called her supervisor who seemed to know good English. She took no time in deciding the matter and rebooked us on the next flight without charging us a single paisa, or I should say, a single kopek. We all were much relieved, and thanked her profusely.
More on St Petersburg and Moscow in next posts

***

Russian Joke: A mummy was found in Egypt. The archaeologists could not determine its origin. Then a Soviet advisor offered his help. The mummy was delivered to the Soviet embassy. In two hours the Soviet advisor appeared and said, "His name was Amenkhotep 23 rd."
"How did you find out?"
"He confessed," the advisor said.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

TIBETAN INSTITUTE OF PERFORMING ARTS


The Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) was founded by the Dalai Lama on reaching Dharamsala, after his exile from Tibet in August 1959.It was one of the first intitutes set up the Dalai Lama within 4 months of his arrival in India. It was established to preserve Tibetan artistic heritage, especially opera, dance, and music. After the occupation, the then Chinese authorities had attacked and destroyed every aspect of Tibetan culture, and it had become essential to preserve the rich Tibetan culture and promote it in successive generations before it was lost forever. That also became a major source of entertainment for exiled Tibetans.

We enjoyed good music and vibrant and live performances by the dancers. Dancers were dressed in traditional bright and colourful dresses. Some of the dances were very vibrant. Some focussed on rhythm and quick-stepping. The numbers where girls challenge boys in martial arts as well as romance and activities of daily living were very entertaining. Though, of course, I knew no Tibetan language, but who needs to master the language to understand dance and music!

NORBULINGKA INSTITUTE



We visited the famous Norbulingka Institute known for keeping the Tibetan culture and values alive in India for the Tibetans living in exile. It is named after the traditional summer palace of Dalai Lamas in Lhasa, Tibet. It was established in 1995 for preservation of ancient art practices of Tibet, especially the crafts.
Norbulingka is dedicated to handing down tradition and restoring standards by providing training, education and employment for Tibetans. It supports an environment in which Tibetan community and family values can flourish. It reconciles the tradition creatively and respectfully with the modern, and seeks to create an international awareness of Tibetan values and their expression in art and literature. It offers training in Tibetan statue making, thangka painting, printing, thangk applique and tailoring, wood carving, wood and metal craft.
We saw the young students working painstakingly on all these arts. I have always admired the intricate designs and pattern of thangka, and for a long time had wished to own at least one such painting. However, the cost has always been a prohibitive factor. This time Chitra instructed me to get one, she offered to finance the acquisition. She suggested that there I would not only get an authentic thangka, but the price could also be less than the market price. But the cost this time also was way beyond my expectation. However, this time I realized that what we were offered in commercial markets of Dharamsala or Kathmandu or Gangtok were perhaps not hand-made authentic work. The traditional thangka is totally hand made and may take a year or more to produce a piece measuring 2 x 2 ft. But the end result is truly breathtaking.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

VISITING DHARAMSALA AGAIN


It just occurred to me that Dharamsala happened to be one of those towns where I have gone a few times. Of course, Dharamsala is a hill station, but mercifully it is not in the same league as Shimla, Nainital or Mussoorie. For more than 20 years now, I have stopped going to the ‘mainstream’ hill stations. They are not better off than Delhi during the tourist season – hot and humid and civic amenities breaking down. And then there are traffic jams, and familiar food corners selling chholey-bhature and jeera chow-mein fried in ‘pure desi ghee’. You hear the same bollywood numbers blaring out from the cars of puppies, and then also bump into the same people whom you assiduously wanted to avoid back home. These hill stations, and Manali included, remind you of Lajpat Nagar or Sarojini Nagar. But Dharamsala is different. It is less frequented by hill-station hoppers, and the presence of Tibetans with their rich heritage of culture, politeness, crafts and variety of food make it an interesting place. Though over the years, its character too has undergone sea change, yet I find it a charming place. So last month when I got a chance to go to Dharamsala for a meeting I could not resist.


The first time I visited Dharamsala was way back in autumn of 1961 or 1962 in a trip organized by our school for young students. Dharamsala had suddenly shot into fame by the Dalai Lama having been given sanctuary there by the Government of India after having escaped from Chinese oppression in 1959. Our teacher goaded us to trek to His seat from the bus stand, but we could not have an audience with him as he was away to Delhi for a meeting. Other than that, what I remember of Dharamsala from that time were fruit laden trees of apple, walnut and almonds. Before that I had never guessed that walnut and almonds grew on trees, and were not mysteriously procured by the store-wallah for our consumption.


Next time our visit to Dharamsala was in 1993. During the summer holiday, I was looking for an easy place to trek where we could go as family without testing our stamina or skills. Deepak suggested Triund and Ilaka glacier above McLeod Gunj. We drove via Chandigarh, Una and Kangra. Drive to Chandigarh those days used to be an easy one, and after Una, it was very pleasant and scenic. There were many places to be seen on our route - Bhakra dam, Anand Pur Sahib, and many temples devoted to Durga. If Uttarakhand is the land of Lord Shiv, Himachal is the abode of Goddess Durga. Thus, many famous and deeply revered temples like Naina Devi, Brijeshwari, Jwalamukhi, and Chamunda all lay on this circuit. Though I am not a ritualistic religious person, but if there is a famous or historical temple en route, I might as well have a darshan. But children found it too much; I vividly remember Kush telling me, “Dad, this is not my idea of vacation”. After having spent night at Kangra, we drove next morning to McLeod Gunj. McLeod Gunj has some very popular Tibetan food joints serving authentic dishes. And to cater to Western tourists, there are many bakeries selling delectable cakes and pastries. I was too impressed in having ten different kinds of tea available even at an ordinary dhaba. After spending a night or two at McLeod Gunj, we drove further to Naddi village where the metal road ended. There were a few inexpensive guest houses there where we finally stayed for next few days. We trekked to Triund and Ilaka glacier from there, which was an easy trek. We returned via Palampur and Joginder Nagar; Palampur was very scenic while Joginder Nagar was nostalgic reminding of Devanand and Suchitra Sen in ‘Bambai ka Boboo’.
This time I found McLeod Gunj grown very much. Many tourist hotels have sprung up, and there are far too many shops catering to the tourists. Most tourists at this time were westerners, including some famous ones.


And now there is a direct air link between Delhi and Kangra. We as a group had flown there. We visited some famous Tibetan institution during our stay. The weather in April was perfect. For our return while we were waiting at the airport, we were informed that the Delhi-Kangra flight could not take off due to technical snag. So we decided to hire a cab and return by road. Though I don’t like the idea of driving/being driven at night on Indian highways, we did not have much choice. So we took the plunge, and took a 12-hour road journey all through the night. Needless to say, I could not even doze off, having one eye on the road and the other on the driver. We reached safe and sound, and being Sunday, could rest for the whole day.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

BLOGOSPHERE FROM ANTARCTICA



When I started this blog in October, 2007 to post my Antarctica experiences, I was too preoccupied with a number of things and could not get opportunity to look for other people blogging live from Antarctica. Over the time I learnt that many expeditioners to Antarctica have been blogging live from Antarctica. However, most of these blogs remain active during the summer time which most of the blogger spend there, and cease their postings afterwards. Blogging occurs during wintering period too, but not as frequently. There are some expeditioners, explorers, and scientists who have been taken so much by the issues concerning Antarctica that they have devoted their life time in doing scientific projects related to Antarctica and have spent many summer and wintering periods in Antarctica. And then, there are some who are bipolar, that is, they are active at both the poles periodically. When I was blogging from Antarctica, this blog was picked up by a Norwegian doctor who had reached Antarctica towards the end of November, 2007 for a summer and had established a blog, www.oysteininantarctica.blogspot.com. He left an entry on this blog on 18.01.2008 writing, ‘Just found your blog (linked from indian news site). Interesting stuff! We're fellow travellers - I'm the current doctor at the Norwegian Troll station. I've linked your blog now, for broader coverage of us docs on the ice planet. My site: oysteinantarctica.blogspot.com’.
I blogged live during summer time and could inspire Dr Abhijeet Bhatia who was medical officer for our 27th Indian Scientific Antarctic Expedition to start his blog and maintain it during the winter period. So while, this blog is the first from India, Abhijeet’s blog, www.imprintsonice.blogspot.com is certainly the first wintering blog from India.



Recently I looked for more bloggers from Antarctica. I am quite pleasantly surprised that blogging from Antarctica is very popular. The website www.coolantarctica.com lists various blogs that have been currently active, and some more in the archive. However, the list is not exhaustive. For more blogging sites, one may also look at some countries’ websites devoted to Antarctica, for example, UK Antarctica Heritage Trust or British Antarctic Survey. US perhaps has the largest presence in Antarctica, and there may be lot more many scientists and explorers from that country blogging from Antarctica. You can see some of the most spectacular photographs on these sites, and very useful information on climate changes and conservation strategies.
I was curious to know who started the first blog from Antarctica. The claimant is Dale Andersen who claims in the coolantarctica website, ‘I was blogging from McMurdo in 1993, and again from the Dry Valleys (Lake Hoare) in 1996. You could double check with Geoff Haines-Stiles (passport to knowledge, polar palooza) for the 1993 blog (Dale's Dive Diary) and Keith Cowing at NASAWatch for the material I posted in 1996.’



I could established email contact with Dale, and it is fascinating to know his work. Dale has been a Principal Investigator at the SETI Institute’s Center for the Study of Life in the Universe since 1992. During this time, his research has focused on microbial ecosystems in extreme environments including areas of the Arctic, Antarctic, Atacama Desert, Death Valley and Siberia. Dale has participated in field research in polar regions for more than 25 years having participated and led 11 expeditions to the Antarctic (each lasting 4.5-6 months on the continent) and over twenty expeditions to the Arctic. Dale helped pioneer scientific research diving in the perennially ice-covered lakes of the McMurdo Dry Valleys and the Bunger Hills and has made more than 600 dives beneath polar ice, north and south. Dale was the first to use remotely operated vehicle (ROV) technology in the Antarctic to help explore lake and marine environments and as a PI at the SETI Institute he helped develop and utilize telepresence technology to extend the capabilities of the underwater ROV’s.
Dale’s website, http://daleandersen.seti.org, is very fascinating, and is worth many visits. Do watch an hour long movie “Antarctica and Mars”

Sunday, April 19, 2009

LIMCA BOOK OF RECORDS




I am happy to share this news with the readers and followers of this blog that this blog has found an entry in the Limca Book of Records for being the first live blog by an Indian from Antarctica. When I was preparing for my expedition to Antarctica, there were many things in mind. Though we had received some training at the Indian Mountaineering and Skiing Institute at Auli in Garhwal Himalaya by the expert instructors of Indo-Tibetan Border Police for negotiating snow and glacier walking and learning to tie various kinds of knots used in rescue operations, yet there were doubts and issues which needed attention and fixing up. One such concern was communicating with the family and friends on regular basis since I was going to be away for not less than four months. Though Chitra had very sportingly supported my wish to go to Antarctica, but she needed to be assured of my welfare on regular basis. I had told her that Maitri, the Indian station at Antarctica, was well equipped with internet and telephone services, but I knew it was easier said than done. Internet facility was limited and we could send and receive emails only through group email id (Maitri@ncaor.amosconnect.com) which could not exceed 50 kb size; telephone was available all the time but was exorbitantly expensive at Rs 200/- per minute. Communicating with family was OK, but with friends it was going to be tedious with these limitations. It was during discussions with Chitra and kids that Kush suggested to start my blog to share my diary and experiences of Antarctica. He offered to start the blog and then update it as regularly as I wrote my experiences. He was already into blogging and had started his own blog some time back: www.tantrikclimber.blogspot.com. It was a master suggestion; I would be able to share my Antarctica experiences with interested friends and visitors all over the world! Thus the blog got started on 2 November, 2007 and the first entry from Antarctica was posted on 16 November, 2007 – the day I reached there. All credit to Kush for his painstaking effort to put up posts regularly for next more than four months with suitable titles and editing, and also with photographs whenever I could send them. Thus, I posted more than 100 entries during my entire stay there. I would first email my intended post to Chitra, Kush and Vasu, and then Kush would upload it on the blog.
I found a new thrill in blog writing and have continued it since my return in April, 2008. I have found many fellow blog-writers through this blog, and am amazed to know them through their writings. Blogging is a very popular activity, and more creative people maintain two or more blogs on regular basis writing on varied subjects. I too follow some blogs regularly. Ever since I returned from Antarctica, my fascination with the amazing continent has only grown. I have discovered many other blogs by Antarctic expeditioners. I am continuing to write on Antarctic themes of general interests. Before this Limca award, another award had already come my way, the cute ‘Butterfly award’ bestowed by another popular blogger, www. manmahesh.blogspot.com.
Thank you all,
It has been a fascinating journey.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

SCOTT'S HUT





If one ever thinks of Antarctica explorers, one name that invariably conjures up in memory is that of legendary explorer of Antarctica, Robert Falcon Scott. Scott was the person who fired up the imagination of European explorers in early 20th century to reach South Pole. He was a British Royal Naval officer and explorer who led two expeditions to the Antarctic regions: the Discovery Expedition, 1901–04, and the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition, 1910–13. During this second venture Scott led a party of five which reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912, to find that they had been beaten by Roald Amundsen's Norwegian party by a few days in an unsought "race for the Pole". The chosen group had reached the Pole on 17 January 1912, only to find that Amundsen had preceded them by five weeks. Scott's anguish is palpable from his diary: "The worst has happened; all the day dreams must go; Great God! This is an awful place". "I'm afraid the return journey is going to be dreadfully tiring and monotonous", wrote Scott on the next day. On their return journey Scott and his four comrades all perished because of a combination of exhaustion, hunger and extreme cold.



Scott's Hut is a building located on the north shore of Cape Evans on Ross Island in Antarctica. It was erected in 1911 by the British Antarctic Expedition of 1910-1913 (also known as the Terra Nova Expedition) led by Robert Falcon Scott. From here Scott and four companions set out on the ultimately fatal trek to the South Pole. Although abandoned in 1913, the hut and its contents are remarkably well preserved today due to the consistently sub-freezing conditions.
In selecting a base of operations for the 1910-1913 Expedition, Scott rejected the notion of re-occupying the hut he had built on Ross Island during the Discovery Expedition of 1901-1904. This first hut, known as the 'Discovery Hut' was located at Hut Point, 20km south of Cape Evans. Scott's ship, the Discovery, had been trapped by sea ice at Hut Point, a problem he hoped to avoid by establishing his new base further north. Discovery Hut was never fully occupied during the Discovery Expedition, as most expeditioners elected to live aboard the ice bound ship. Ten years later when members of the Terra Nova Expedition journeyed south from Scott's Hut at Cape Evans they found Discovery Hut intact (although full of snow and ice), along with supplies left over from 1903. Discovery Hut was cleaned out and used during 1911 and 1912 as a staging and rendezvous point for Terra Nova expeditioners heading south towards the Pole from Scott's Hut at Cape Evans.
Scott's Hut is rectangular, 50 feet long and 25 foot wide. Insulation was provided by seaweed sewn into a quilt, placed between double-planked inner and outer walls. Considerable effort was made to insulate the building, and to extract the maximum amount of heat from the flues from the stove and the heater. Terra Nova expeditioners described the hut as being warm to the point of being uncomfortable. During the winter of 1911 25 men lived in the hut.




New Zealand and the UK have undertaken responsibility at various times to preserve these nearly 100 years old structures, while they were built to last only five years. By a stroke of luck, these have survived all this long duration, but may not survive further until and unless regular efforts toward preservation are not put in place. Most people don't know about these huts, and those who know think these huts must be in perfect condition being frozen and in Antarctica. The decay comes in all forms: biological, chemical, environmental - and, despite low visitor numbers, human intervention. It happens from knocking things, scraping the floor, through to people putting stuff in their pockets!