Friday, September 11, 2015

Hanging by a Thread

The title of this blog is quite apposite for one of the journeys that I had undertaken in November 2014 from a small town of Lonand to Mumbai on board the 11030 Kolhapur-Mumbai Koyna express.  After a successful solo trek to one of the hills near Satara in Maharashtra, I decided to board the Koyna express to return home, in a hope that it wouldn't be crowded as I didn't have the reservation, and had decided to board the unreserved 2nd class carriage (it is always fun and adventurous to travel on 2nd class of the Indian railways as you get to see the real India, the people, the struggle written on the face of every person and the hope and determination of executing their dreams and goals).

After spending a few hours in the small town of Lonand, meeting some interesting people who were very friendly and relishing on some local Maharashtrian spicy food, I decided to move to the railway station way ahead of the scheduled arrival of my train. The scene at the station was not so exciting as it was small with 3 platforms and less train movement, mostly goods trains however, I was lucky to see a train that sped thorugh the station  hauled by a WDP-4 class loco link at about 90 KMPH, a sight which is still fresh in my mind. People slowly started to fill in, and mere 10 minutes before the arrival of the train, the station started straddling with people, all of them going to meet their families and friends due to Diwali festival and it was also a weekend - I knew it was going to be a temerarious ride!

With a delay of just 5 minutes, the train, hauled by a rather strange link, A WDM-3A class loco of Gooty shed however, the regular link is a WDP-4 class loco of Krishnarajapuram shed, pulled into the platform number 1 of Lonand station. Even before the train came to a complete halt, I could see the 14-coach train completely filled in with people, and even the reserved compartments, including a solo air-conditioned chair car coach, were not spared by the unauthorised travellers. There was not an inch available to move onto the train, as all of the doors were occupied by people. With a halt of mere 2 minutes at this station, I made a quick decision to hop onto the train and survive the ride for the next 7 hours hanging at the door with my backpack, as there was no other train bound for Mumbai for the next 7 to 8 hours. Initially, some people objected me and asked me not to board as there was no room whatsoever, where in a compartment with a capacity of about 103 people, there were more than 150 people crampped onto all of those 14 compartments. Thankfully, nobody dared venture onto the roof of the train as it would mean the end of everything for them by being charred to death by 25 KV current upon entering the electric territory.

As I managed to balance myself and seek some 'comfort', I was getting pushed outside by the force of some 10 people standing around me and I thought that this is going to be my final train ride but managed to cohere onto the bars of the door with all my might. The things started to get worst when the train picked up the pace, but on some sharp curves with a speed of about 60 to70 KMPH, I thought my fate had been sealed. Thankfully,this train has a lot of halts enroute, which did allow me disembark off the train to release some tension built in my hands and legs but it was just a temporary relief. Sadly, a lot of travellers with reserved ticket waiting for the train enroute couldn't board and all I could see was their worried and feared faces as the train accelerated out of the stations.....without them!

I was hoping for some relief from the derangement at Pune as this is one of the biggest train stations as I was expecting a lot of people to disembark. A huge chunk of people did get off the train, however to my shock there were even more people waiting to board the train due to weekend. I, however, got a chance to squeez into the 'comfort zone' much to my extrication. The crowd swelled in more than before but the only difference was that I was not hanging at the door but again it was difficult to stand due to chocking like condition as there was not enough room for fresh air. Strangely, a man started asking me some questions in English and I wondered if it was important for him to talk to me in almost gasping conditon, and I affably refused to talk to him.  From outside I was surfeited and drained off energy, however my inner soul was not unamused by an unexpected adventure.

After living through nearly 6 hours in the unsurvivable conditon, I felt souped up as the train was nearing the suburbs of Mumbai. Finally, after almost 7 hours I disembarked from the train much to my relief and of course......alive!

Although I have traveled on super crowded trains countless number of times but this was the best experience, a real adventure, and I loved it!!

Indian railway is my passion since the day I was born and unarguably it is second to none.

Memories relived! I miss travelling on Indian trains very much.

Following are some photos from this trek

Kolhapur bound Maharashtra express with WDM-3A class loco of Pune shed

Yeswantpur (Bangalore) Bound Train Passes Through Picturesque Sahayadri Mountain Range 
Over 100 Years Old Name Slab which Once Served the Meter Gauge Train Line to Miraj. This line has since been moved into oblivion

The Rugged Terrain Landscape of  the Sahayadri Range

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Russia - From My Point of View

       It was a winter night of December 2014 when I told my mom that I would be going to Russia to pursue my PhD, and she asked "Are you crazy"? I replied "No, I am not and I know what I am doing and where I am going". She was visibly upset on hearing about my plans but I managed to convince her and she warily asked me to go ahead with my plans. It was the start! I had heard a lot of negatives about Russia, and the war but I knew non of those were even remotely true and I felt absolutely safe even before moving to Russia. I was all decked up and excited and most importantly I was going to pursue my dream, a dream that I had almost given up once. I also knew that the language of instruction would be Russian and that it wouldn't be easy to learn a new language however, I was determined to over come any challenges, and in fact I took this problem as an opportunity to learn new language and enhance my skills in the field of linguistics. Surprisingly, the Russian language has a lot of words similar to Hindi and Sanskrit, probably borrowed from these languages many years ago. 

      One of the things that has always exasperated me is that a lot of people have a wrong notion about Russia, falsely believing that it is a hostile country or jump to the conclusion without even doing some basic research to find the facts. One such example was one of my relatives who told me some 'horror' stories about Russia and asked me to cancel my trip. With all due respect for his concern about me, Russia was quite inhospitable back in the early 90s however, it is probably the safest country now and of course, extremely friendly. I don't think there is any other country which is so open and friendly to foreigners, especially from India and specially compared with some 'English speaking developed' nations. Upon landing in Moscow, I knew I was in an amazing country!

 The Education System

       The reasons Indian students abnegate from heading to Russia for higher education/research degree are the language barrier, lack of opportunities, and the other reason, as mentioned above, is safety. The latter is just in the minds of the people because Russia would take care of you like you were its citizen, and of course, there is no discrimination whatsoever, and certainly no racial discrimination at all. Sadly, I had experienced racism in India because of my accent but in Russia, I everyday look forward to meet new people, and my friends who are always excited to meet me, too. And if you don't mind learning a new foreign language (Russian) then look no beyond Russia! And as far as opportunities are concerned, Russia offers a lot of opportunities in numerous fields than any other developed nations combined.

     The Russian education system and standards are on par with the international standards, and some Russian universities are amongst the best. The Udmurt State University in Izhevsk, for example, is one of the top classical universities in Russia and has everything that an international university has to offer. The research facilities, the professors, the support staff are amazingly helpful. For me Russia is new the USA, or UK. A lot of students from Asia, especially India, head west for better opportunities and earnings but I guess it's time to look north! 

       Izhevsk, the capital of Udmurt Republic, is located along the Izh river in the Western Urals. Although the city is small as compared with Moscow or Kazan, but it is one of the most beautiful and well organized cities. One of the best things about the city is its people, they are extremely wonderful, very helpful and are always welcoming no matter where you come from.

The Udmurt Republic 

     I had not heard about the Udmurt Republic or Izhevsk before applying to this university, and the only cities I knew were Moscow and St. Petersburg and when I heard about this city (Izhevsk), I had no clue about the pronunciation, tried all possible ways to pronounce the name of the city right but couldn't  until I landed here. One of the first things that comes to our mind when we hear about Izhevsk is the AK 47 automatic rifle as Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of this weapon, was born and raised in Izhevsk. With the population of about 650,000, Izhevsk is the capital and the biggest city of Udmurt Republic. Between 1984 and 1987, the city was called Ustinov, named after the late defense minister Dmitri Ustinov.

     This is one of the most beautiful places in Russia and I feel happy and excited to be here and many thanks to the people of Izhevsk for allowing me to be associated with their culture.

Я люблю Россию! 
Following are some of the pictures from Russia:
The Udmurt State University
The City of Izhevsk
Izhevsk, Udmurt Republic
The Holi celebration in Izhevsk
Sunset over Izh Pond
A Street of Izhevsk with a Tram
Another Sunset
International Moscow Business Centre
The Kremlin and Moscow river


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Into the Unknown

The only thing that is constant is change!  

             I have always been enraptured by the world of biology and since my school days, albeit I was an average students, was quite good in this field. Being an average student, my mom had been of the opinion that no sooner I complete my 10th class, than I shall find any job and settle in. I, however, have had some other ideas and was determined that I am not going to give up so easily as I wanted to continue my studies in the field of science. After scoring a very miserable grade in 10th class, I was lucky enough to be admitted in one of the science colleges in Mumbai (Bombay) and, of course, my friends and family laughed at me for opting for science. After completing 2 years of mandatory junior college, I didn't face much troubles getting into the University of Mumbai for my bachelor's degree in zoology and oceanography. 

             My mom, upon leanring that I am going to complete my graduation, was very happy as up until my 10th class, she has had absolutely no hope from me as far as passing junior college was concerned, let alone getting a graduate tag. After completing my graduation from the University of Mumbai and getting a first class, I went on to pursure my masters degree in biotechnology and molecular oncology from Kannur university in the state of Kerala, India. This was the first time that I went very far from my home for 2 years but I loved it. I learned a lot of things, made new friends, learned a new language (Malayam) which I wouldn't have learned, had I not been out of my comfort zone.
             After passing my masters degree (again with first class), I decided to pursue PhD (doctorate of science) degree abroad and applied to many universities in the UK and other countries. I was again lucky to be accepted by 3 universities in the UK but sadly they didn't give any financial help and I knew I wouldn't be qualified for any scholarship program, if any, considering my poor grades in the school and as a result I was not able to go the UK. I was, however, determined to pursue my research, and while working, I concurrently continued to apply for PhD program abroad. Many universities never replied to my emails, and some that did, had rejection written all over them! But I still didn't give up as I was sanguine enough to get into a PhD program.

….and then came a twist!

          As I was browsing through some university page on Facebook, I came across a comment in which somebody had mentioned about the university in Udmurt Republic. At first I wondered as to where is this place located and then after a few Google searches, I stumbled upon the Udmurt State University website. By this time, I figured out that Udmurt Republic is in Russia and that the university is located in the city of Izhevsk (I had no clue about the pronunciation then)  

          After browsing through the website, I sent an email to the international relationship department with no hope of getting any reply, as most of my queries to other universities have had turned futile.  But after a few days, I was surprised to receive a reply (and this was the first ever positive reply I got in my hundreds of query emails that I had sent to many universities across the world).

         Upon seeing a positive reply, I decided to ‘step on the gas’ and head to Russia!! And after a month, it became clear that my destination is Russia and that I would be finally be pursuing my PhD degree, a dream of my life! Had I not been stumbled upon and scrolled to the ‘comment box’ of that Facebook post, I wouldn’t have been writing this blog from Russia! Russia, an unexpected destination for me! 

The Departure Day

       27th February 2015 would always remain a date that changed a lot of things for me. Once again moving to an unknown place completely out of my comfort zone was very difficult decision for me to take, and especially leaving my mom alone but I knew that if I don't snaffle upon this opportunity, I wouldn't get another. My mom was quite disolated to see me going and didn't know when she would see me again, yet she was very happy about my decision and suppoted me. It was probably the most emotional moment in my life to bid adieu to my mom who was in tears, yet I could see hope in her eyes that things would turn around and change for good for me. 

     As a devouring Indian railway fan, my original plan was to board the Mumbai-New Delhi Rajdhani express however the last moment rescheduling of my Moscow bound Air India flight forced me to board a flight out of Mumbai, sadly. I boarded an Indigo flight for Delhi and then boarded the Air India AI-155 for Moscow and finally boarded Izhavia airlines from Moscow to Izhevsk. As always, Air India has always been an amazing Indian airlines but this time I wouldn't say that I was totally happy with their service. As expected, the flight got further delayed and departed at 9PM as against 7:55PM. The entire duration of flight was uneventful except for some small turbulences while flying over Pakistan and Afghanistan. Landing in Moscow, too, was smooth despite heavy snow around the airport. 

Leaving Mumbai! On board Indigo airlines bound for Delhi
Moscow bound Air India's Boeing 787 Dreamliner in the background at Delhi IGI Airport
Moscow Domodedovo Airport
             Being all alone in a country where English is not spoken widely and I had absolutely no clue about Rusisan language then, it became a quite a challenge for me. After spending about 8 hours at the airport (whole night), I went to my friend's place in the wee hours of the morning for much needed sleep.

The Yak 42 Experience

            I was very excited about my travel plan from Moscow to Izhevsk as I was going to fly on a Russian made Yakovlev Yak 42 aircraft for the first time. Although a small aircraft, it was more comfortable than Boeing or Airbus and there were no turbulences despite flying through heavy snow. I would absolutely love to fly the Yak 42 again. The flight departed on time from Moscow's Domodeovo airport and landed in Izhevsk 30 minutes before its scheduled arrival. Thus ending my 48 hours journey from Mumbai to Izhevsk.

On Board Izhavia Airlines Yak 42 Aircraft about to Land in Izhevsk, Russia