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”