Monday, December 17, 2007


Last weekend it was off to Varanasi, meeting Sarah and Daniel on the train after their overnight leg from Gwalior to Allahabad. Varanasi has a repution for hassle as well as the dirt and pollution in the Ganges. We were told to expect many touts outside the station, pretending to be from out hostel, who would try to scam us. We waited for out official hostel person to show up and were treated to an exceptionally drunk seeming man urinating in the middle of the station then keeling over hitting his head and rolling in it. This was right infront of the tourist office and surrounded by the tourist police, but they didn't seem to want to know. The man from our hostel eventually showed up and we got in to an autorickshaw and off up the meandering alleys, passed the armed soldiers and to out hostel (the soldiers are there because of a important temple next to a mosque, the mosque having been built on part of the old temple, and a sight of tensions. We then found that despite our booking ahead they hadn't kept the rooms we'd asked for. Obviously "booking" has a different meaning in India. Daniel ended up staying in a triple room on his own (cost 1 pound more than the single room would have) so all was sorted.

We went for lunch in a nearby rooftop restaurant. By now the urge to have non-Indian food when given the opportunity was strong with us all, though I did have some pakoras. The roof top was a great vantage-point and we could see the river and across many other rooftops,, featuring a selection of people and animals including many kite-flyers. The kite-flyers along with varyous whistling and shouting men of rooftops seemed to trying to stop flocks of birds from landing. Very odd.

It turned out the biggest risk on Varanasi was not touts, or disease, or bombings. It was angry (provoked) cows charging through the narrow alleys and along the waterfront! Poor old Daniel got a headbutt in the back. More to the point Sarah was pointing a camera at him at the time and didn't get a photo! We dodged the cow threat as we set off along the ghats to see the burning bodies. On the main burning ghat there were around 15 fires going and you could see the bodies, wrapped in cloth, placed on piles of wood and set alight. I didn't find it disturbing. The only unsettling thing was when you ended up breathing in the smoke. This didn't help my cough which seems to develop when I leave the campus and head into proper India.

We passed round the burning Ghat and continued along the waterfront for a bit, before getting in a boat to head back towards the centre. We ended up with a rather lacklustre rower, who seemed well aware he was being paid by time not distance. As boats with twenty passengers surged past our boat of three, we got a very leisurely different perspective on the ghats.

After disembarking Sarah decided on getting her palm read and horoscope from a random chap. He even threw in a face-reading as well, apparently. I must say Daniel and I were not impressed, but Sarah was happy to find out she'll have a successful cloth or furniture business in 2029. We had a look at some of the shops around town, walked a lot and had dinner in an Israeli-style place. I continued ordering as much garlic as humanl could for some reason.

The next day we took the 40 minute autorickshaw ride to Sarnath, where the Buddha supposedly preached his first sermon. There's a big stupa, an archaelogical museum (only 2p to get in) and various buddhist temples, one including an alleged descendent of the Boddhi tree the sermon was preached under (similar idea to the Newton apple trees in Trinity College really). There was also a deer park with crocodiles and pelicans in, naturally. We returned to Varanasi, had some lunch,went throught he security cordon to see the disputed golden temple mentioned above, some shopping was done and I just had time to sort out my stuff before getting my train home. The river and burning ghats were definitely different and worth the journey.

More photos here.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


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The week after Diwali I set off to Gwalior to visit Sarah. It is an overnight train journey starting at 730pm, so I had to leave the campus before dinner time. I got to the station in plenty of time so decided to get some food. There was a clean and modern looking place in the station and I decided to have pizza (I needed cheeeeeeeeeeese!). This was a mistake. The resulting train journey was a bit of nightmare migh pains in my stomach, unable to sleep at all, couldn't lie on my bunk because of it, but not enough room to sit up either. Most of Saturday was a right off from being ill as well, not much fun for me or for Sarah who had been looking forward to showing me around the orphanage and introducing me to the kids and everyone.

The orphanage itself was a quite a modern building, much nicer that I imagined from Sarah's reports, but her negativity wasn't to do with the facilities. The children were lovely and demanding of attention. I must admit to not knowing what to do with a disabled child in a wheelchair who doesn't speak english, but they seemed to enjoy just having attention and being pushed around. Some demanded to be carried around everywhere. On Saturday I felt ropey so couldn't spend much time with them. In the evening I became excited to discover that the orphanage had satellite tv, what with the Scotland Italy game being that evening here (5.5 hrs ahead here). Unfortuneately there was only 10 channels of cricket and, irritatingly, the previous days Bulgaria England U21s match!

The next day I was getting better and we set off on a trip to the zoo with some of the children, cramming us, kids, carers and wheelchairs into the small minibus. The zoo itself wasn't bad, though I found the cage of pigeons a particularly uninspiring exhibit, especially as they continue to torment me wherever I go. There were tigers and cute monkeys though. After the trip Sarah, Daniel (another volunteer at the orphanage) and I stayed in town and went for lunch (pizza again, non-pathalogical this time) in a trendy coffee bar where the youths hang out (who dared eachother to speak to us, hmm). It was so trendy they even played a track by the terrible western band I mentioned in the last post! They did have good chocolate cake/brownies though.

In the afternoon we went to Gwalior fort, which is large sprawling and not so well kept, it did have some interesting Jain temples and carvings though, and was different in that it had some coloured tiles (I didn't take my camera and am relying on Sarah's photos so here's one from the net). It wouldn't be worth going out of your way to Gwalior for it. We had dinner near the station and I headed off home, with a much less arduous journey this time.


On the 9th of November it was Diwali. This is just about the biggest celebration of the year and everyone on campus was invited to the celebrations, organised by the first year PhD students (always a mistake). In return for my 200 Rupees I was promised fireworks, food, music and perhaps stick dancing (nothing like pole dancing on a miniature scale).

After being told that things started at 630pm I turned up on time to find nothing remotely looking like being ready. I'd forgotten to adjust for Indian time keeping. People were beginning to set out hundreds of little candle/lamp things along the roadsides and ledges on buildings (see first photo, unfortunately they were too faint to photo well and my photos came out particularly badly that night).

After an hour or so things actually seemed nearly ready. Fellow westerners Ted and Andreas (see photo two, I even got them to smile) showed up and there was even a sighting of mysterious Russian girl. The institute staff and their families began to show up and tiffin (snack foods) and chai was served (in thimble like cups, I drank about 20 of them). By this time they'd decided to unleash the sound system. This was a trailer with huge speakers (which you can just about see in the background of the first photo) and a tape of about 5 tracks on loop in a mysterious "Hindi-Hop" genre, which was, quite frankly, pants, unlike the Indian music we'd heard in town at Durga Puja a few weeks before. It was also played at at extremely high volume making it hard to hear anyone speak even though it was outside.

Before the major munitions arrived small kids started playing with firecrackers. I was thinking this was a little dangerous (no sparklers without gloves on now children) but this was nothing compared with what was to come. Lets just say health and safety was not an issue and throughout the fireworks people eventually inched back to prevent themselves becoming collateral damage. But in the end no-one died, and there were some pretty impressive fireworks, though someone should have probably explained that a Catherine wheel is not intended just to be put on the ground in the centre of a crowd and lit.

After the fireworks was the main food event which was a bit disappointing! Just the usual mess standard food (the Tiffin had been quite nice). We did get ice cream after though! This was eaten on the lawn behind the mess, and they kindly moved the sound system round, pointed it as and turned it up to 120dB so conversation, thinking,etc were impossible. Really it was far louder than a gig/club.

Fortunately we had prepared plan B and had some beers stashed away. Of course we weren't allowed to consume them openly but we snuck off to the veranda of the guest house where we could just about see the people on the lawn below, and despite being at least 100 yards from them still had to shout to be heard above the music. At this point the music was getting worse, and to prove the point they played a one western song, a spectacularly bad choice that I'll give you a prize if you can guess!

Well we had our beers and a chat and that was about it, the music continued at earthshaking volume and we caught a glimpse of the fabled stick dance, which wasn't up to much but is a rare opportunity for male students to actually dance with girls! They seemed to be enjoying themselves but they made a Trinity college bop look like the royal ballet. It seemed strange that many of the faculty and families were just sitting round in a circle watching this but as I say, the music made conversation impossible. I headed off to bed at this point. Despite the huge billing it was more like a Guy Fawkes night party than anything bigger.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Sarah Visits/ Durga Puja

After I'd been in Allahabad for a few weeks Sarah came to visit from Gwalior. She had a lot to talk about after being trapped in a fire at the orphanage where she volunteers, and having to deal with the politics and sexism inherent in that organisation. On the Saturday evening Swarup, one of the students from the particle physics group, kindly offered to take us into town to see the durga puja celebrations. As you all know Durga is a Hindu Goddess and Durga Puja is a 9 days celebration in October. Temporary temples are built with shrines depicting a standard scene (see first photo). On the final day these are chucked in the river. Lots of lights also go up in town and music is played from speakers. I hope the second photo captures some of the activity that goes on in the town. We travelled around and views four of these temporary temples. I enjoyed the lights and music in the streets (unlike the Diwali music, see future post!). We then went for dinner to the connoisseur restaurant in town, where the waiters spent around an hour arguing with an irate woman (the rest of the time they watched the cricket). Sarah was desperate for non-Indian food. I shared some Indian food with Swarup, but as it was veg it wasn't that far away from what we get in the mess every day!


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Map: The HRI is actually in Jhusi, down the long winding road that almost reaches the river. From near the institute you can take a boat upstream towards the confluence (Sangam).

About a week after I arrived at HRI there was a strings conference, the Indian String meeting, which gave me a chance to hear what people here were up to, as well as to give a talk myself. It also meant the visit of Costis who I know from his Queen Mary days, as he is an India veteran having been working in Mumbai for a year now.

Along with Ted, an American post-doc here for two years, and some Indian PhD students we set off one evening to the mythical Hasty and Tasty, a bar-restaurant of ill-repute. The Indian's wanted to tag along with us, but weren't so keen to go to Hasty, as it serves beer and so is considered a bit dodgy (as a consequence of having alcohol there no women there ever!). I actually enjoyed the atmosphere: it had dim lighting and felt like a bar, not a restaurant, unlike anywhere else I'd been here. The beer here comes in 750 ml bottles, many varieties are strong, but the labels says "under 8%" as the brewing process seems a bit random here. My favourite here is Haywards, which fits into the okay as long as it's cold category. Kingfisher is also popular but tastes like cats piss. They also have Indian brewed Fosters. They all are slightly more chemical than they should be. To get to Hasty is a bumpy 20-30min bus ride into town on the free institute minibus.

Later in the week we also got the campus guest house to get us some beer, even on the HRI campus it's considered dodgy and we weren't allowed to drink them on the veranda, instead we had to skulk off to Costis's room in the guest house feeling unclean.

At the end of the week when the conference finished Costis, some of the Indian students and I went on a boat trip from the bank of the Ganges near the institute (you can see the Ganges from my office window and it's a few minutes walk down the road) to the "Sangam". This is the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers (along with the mythical underground Saraswati river). Here we could just about see the differing colours where the rivers meet. It's a holy place for Hindus and many bathe in the (very skanky) water nearby. It was a strange boat trip as we spent most of it being pulled by a man walking in the river in front of us, or on the bank beside us (though the river was wide and relatively shallow, the current was too strong for them to do much rowing against. I enjoyed the trip as I generally like being on boats and by water, the Sangam was quite underwhelming really though.

The pictures here are: being pulled up the Ganges with Allahabad fort in the background, On the boat (Me, Rajesh, Ayun, Costis), great plan to disembark on a platform at the Sangam.

Thursday, December 6, 2007


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On the evening of the 8th of October I arrived at HRI, a bit tired after the train journey. As you can see from the map it fairly central in India, in Uttar Pradesh, in the so called Hindi-belt or cow-belt. Many of the students and faculty here are Bengali and UP is regarded as a bit backward. The town of Allahabad had all the noise, dirt and stray animals, but the Campus itself, not far from the Ganges on the outskirts of town has a nice green, relatively peaceful site with plenty of armed guards on hand.

When I arrved I got the key to my flat. I was expecting a one room studenty affair, but I have a two bedroom flat with a kitchen. Since I'm carrying only one rucksack of posessions it looks very bare. Include are pictures of the main bedroom and front room. The flat has a population of lizards, and pigeons who live ontop of a primative metal airconditioner on my windowsill (it acts as a drum/amplifier when they get rowdy around dawn each morning). I thought I'd escape the terror of the pigeons after they hassled me in my early Cambridge rooms, but they seem to be in every bloody country in the world. Is nowhere safe? There was also lots of building and decorating ahead of an external review a few weeks back. The banging has only now subsided. Again builders seemed to follow me everywhere at the end of last year (reroofing our flat, outside my offices in Cambride and London). Anyway enough moaning. The next day I also was given an office, a whole one to myself this time, which is quite lucky as post-docs here (like most places) have to share. I have the office of a recently departed faculty member.

Meals are taken in the mess, a Canteen like place where you present your metal tray and get rice, daal, 2 mysterious veggie boiled mush things and chapatis. If you're lucky sometimes there are parathas, desserts or salady stuff. It's not bad really, everything (including breakfast) is spiced but not very hot. Things are on a weekly repetition, which changes every month depending who's in charge. However this month they've hardly changed it so it's getting very repetitive.

There's also a "pantry" where you can get tea (chai). It recently moved to shiny new premises with a crazy voucher system whereby you have to by tokens beforehand and then exchange them for tea. Genius. They were letting me just pay with money, but a warning email went round about this and I have to buy a big book of tokens now (not from the pantry itself, no, from reception or some mysterious office, which often run out of tokens so you can't get any tea!).

Well I seem to be ranting a bit in this post but all in all life on the Campus is fine, it's much cleaner and safer than outside but pretty isolated. I don't think I'd like to stay much longer than I am.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Agra- The Taj Mahal

We didn't have long in Agra, we just had time to go to the Taj Mahal before returning to our hotel and getting up at 4am to get our separate trains (mine 12hrs to Allahabad where I'd be working, Sarah's 3hrs to Gwalior to where she'd be volunteering). There's a reason why, like the Pyramids or great wall of China, the Taj Mahal is so famous: it's pretty spectacular. Apparently the British tried to sell it off for scrap marble a few hundred years ago, the plaque outside also had some comment about the British which had been blacked out, I wonder what it said? After fighting our way past cycle rickshaw drivers who didn't want us to make the 10 minute walk on our own, we began to see the top of the towers, but you do get a proper introduction when in the compound you first see the Taj Mahal through an archway. It was good to get there in the evening as the light began to give it a pinkish hue. We got a photo taken by one of the photographers hanging around, unfortunately it made my belly look huge! I think I must have been full of wind from all the curry or something because I'm sure I wasn't really that massive.

Our driver was a bit upset that we wouldn't spend out last night together for possibly a few months with him as well, but we had dinner without him anyway in the restaurant of our hotel. This was no ordinary restaurant, no, this was a rotating restaurant! I wondered how they would fit this into the very rectangular hotel, and it turned out it only had windows along one direction, with mirrors on the others. It only had a radius of about 2.5m, and even though it trundled round quite slowly it was slightly disconcerting.

Sarah's train left a few hours after mine, so unfortunately she was left to seek refuge in the women's waiting room and say our goodbyes to our driver on her own. On the train I found by 2nd class AC ticket had been downgraded to a 3rd AC, as there was no 2nd AC on the train. Coupled with the population of small cockroaches in the carriage this didn't seem to good a first impression of Indian railways (apparently the largest employer on earth). I sat on my bunk and decided not to eat the half a potato wrapped in tin foil (with sachet of tomato ketchup) I'd got in my packed breakfast from the hotel.
At 830ish that evening I arrived at Allahabad station where a car picked me up to take me the bumpy half hour ride to the Harish Chandra Research Institute where I'd be based for the next 3 months.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Fatehpur Sikri

On the road to Agra we stopped at Fatepur Sikri. This was built by Mughal emperor Akbar (meaning great) to commemorate a victory at Sikri (Fatehpur means victory). However there was no access to water and the city was soon abandoned and is well preserved. This place is definitley worth a look. We hired a guide here as there is no labelling of anything so otherwise you'd just be wandering around aimlessly. The architechture features a combination of Islamic, Christian and Jain designs. Akbar had tried to come up with a universal religion, but it didn't last. He also had a Christian wife (Portugese), an Indian wife and a Persian wife each of whom had their own mini-palace (he also, naturally, had many concubines).

Seperate to the main palace complex was a large mosque with a tomb featuring delicate marble carmed screens: from inside you could clearly see outside, but from outside it just looked like marble. It was hot when we were here.


Next up, Jaipur, a big, pink city. We had two nights in out hotel here, arriving late evening and leaving early morning a few days later for Agra, via Fatepur Sikri. The hotel was an in an old builing, so the room had a bit of character (and the usual head injury risk for me), but it had only just opened, and we were the only diners in the posh and newly fitted out dining room that night (apart from the occasional visit from our driver so he could drop hints about things). The hotel was nice but plagued by mysterious water and internet stoppages.

On our day in Jaipur we first went to the Amber fort, which was actually just outside the city, stopping for a photo opportunity by a palace in the middle of a small lake on the way. The amber fort was quite impressive, with fortifications extending over nearby ridges reminiscent of the great wall of China (photo 1 is the view from the fort). While the defences and scale were pretty impressive, the decoration inside didn't compete with Bikaner or Jodhpur forts we'd already seen (although see photo 2 of Sarah by the mirror palace (Shish Mahal)). We decided to walk up the hill to it, rather than trouble an elephant to carry us. After the informative audio guides that were included in the Jodhpur fort and the National museum in Dehli I decided to get an audio guide here (an audio guide being an electronic thing you hold with headphones, it plays a pre-recorded description when you reach a point of interest). Well I don't know if there was just less interesting things to say, but I was disappointed! It droned on and on with various different voices, and was prone to anthropomorphising various parts of the palace. ("I am the great geat of the Amber fort, so many great armies have I seen ...over long trumpet call... but now let me hand you back to shugghi, who was a guards here 500 years ago...." No thanks!). I can't quite remember the details, but there were ramps all around the palace, I think this was so that the queens (there were 9 of them, plus concubines) could be wheeled around as they couldn't walk when they were dressed in their finest finery!

The way back to town was punctuated by a stop for a photo opportunity in front of the "Bagpiper english wine-shop" and a trip to an extortionate craft shop for tourist that we agreed to go to for our driver as he admitted he got some sort of comission (it seemed most people go to a lot more of these!). We had the driver drop us and made our own way around Jaipur as we were trying to be more independent by this point. We first went for lunch, in a place memorable for being about the only time India I saw "glamorous" women (appart from the ubiquitous pictures of bollywood actresses in any paper). Anyway, I digress.... went up a big minaret thing affrording great views accross thr city. We then went to the Jantar Mantar, an ancient observatory built by one of the Mughal emperors (see photos). The english captions on the instruments were minimal, but I found it very interesting and so different from everything else we saw. Sarah found it a bit, in her words, " another restaurant for tea before getting an autorickshaw back to the hotel. Walking to the restuber-boring". The palace/museum we went to afterwards was a bit samey after previous palaces and museums, it had a large selection of weapons, and some very impressive minature painting, but by this point we had walked a very long way that day. We headed toaurant we walked along a huge street lined with sari shop after sari shop. Thankfully these were not aimed at tourists so hassle was minimal!


Pushkar is about halfway between Jodhur and Jaipur, near Ajmer on the map. It's a holy town and a bit of a hippy/backpacker hangout. It was the first time we were really aware of people backpacking, rather than on tours. This meant that though you were still hassled by the locals, they were not as persistent as they realised that we were not loaded, and there were lots of cheap places to eat, unlike the Indian equivalent of tourist motorway services, where we often stopped for lunch when driving through Rajastan. The Pushkar tourist cafes also had "western dishes" which pleased Sarah, with her desire for a change from spicy food. Unfortunately everything was strangely Indian and spicy (spicy pasta, spicy pizza, etc). I'd also began to find it weird how they served pakora. It was generally not as spicy as in Scotland, and was often made from slices of potato, but that wasn't the weird part. While I was used to pakora served with a spicy yoghurt based sauce, or something more delicate, in India it comes with tomato ketchup, even in non-tourist places. Disappointing!

On the way to Pushkar we had an stressful incident where our driver stopped at a dodgy roadside local restaurant, and then ended up with a flat tire. I won't dwell on it but it was not a pleasant days travelling, and then we found out hotel had some building work going on. Thankfully the next day we were able to relax a bit in Pushkar, as there actually isn't much to do there.

Pushkar is basically a small lake will lots of temples and ghats round it. However the temples are active and the only concession to tourists in people trying to get money off you to perform a random ritual they've just made up on you. So we had a look at one temple and decided it wasn't worth the hassle to see more, and unfortunately the lakefront is basically taken up by temples. However some of the cafe's have roofs where you can actually see some of the town from. Another thing about pushkar, that you can no doubt see from the photos, is that it has quite a few monkeys around! There were not as evil seeming as those in Jaipur.


Well now there's a reasonable amount of info on here I've started telling people about it. I should point out that these posts still refer to our first few weeks in India, and that I hope to get up to date before I leave Allahabad. (There's not so much to write about now I'm in the physics institute. ) Well I'll add a few more days now while I'm watching text updates of the thistle score over the internet.