* Aug 6:
More than a year ago, I was having my lunch in the Mumbai Press Club. There was some programme in the main hall so dinning arrangements were made in the conference room instead. As the conference room is small, it was crowded.
I had already placed an order and was waiting for my dish. The kitchen staff is notorious for taking a long time to prepare the order. They take up to 25 minutes to ready an order on a regular day. When there are too many orders, it takes more than an hour. On some occasions, people have left without being served a meal. The good part is that they serve fresh food.
That day, I knew the staff would take an hour to serve me. So, I opened a newspaper to get some reading done. I then noticed someone standing at the entrance to the room, searching for a table. There were two empty chairs at my table. So, I waived my hand and offered him a seat. He came and waited for a moment before taking it.
I quickly realised he was new to the Press Club. He looked like he was from the north east. I thought he too had come to Mumbai to earn his bread and butter, just like I had from my village. He sat down with some reluctance and kept his small handbag between his legs. I said ‘Hi’ to him as a courtesy and continued reading my newspaper.
“My Name is Li. Li Min,” he said. “That’s a strong name. But it is small and easy to remember, Li,” I replied. I had no idea if he found my remark offensive. “I’m from CCTV,” he continued. I assumed he had come to repair electronic surveillance cameras at the Press Club and did not bother.
“That’s China Central Television,” he continued. My meal had arrived and I was too hungry to pay more attention to him. As an Indian custom, I offered him to join me for lunch. He was very shy and reluctant but joined me later. I noticed that he ate too much onion. He said that Indian onion was different from Chinese or South East Asian onion. “Indian onion is sweet and can be eaten raw,” he said. Soon, his meal arrived and he requested me to join. But as it was Chicken and I’m a vegetarian, I politely declined. After bidding him farewell, I went off for my work.
A few months after, I was at the Press Club again for a meal. This time, it was my turn to search for an empty chair. That’s when I spotted Li having his meal. He offered me a seat at his table. That day, we exchanged our phone numbers. We met on a few more occasions thereafter. We had an agreement to never broach the topics of politics, corruption or defence. Both of us loved food and tea. He liked a special tea served at Moti Bhai’s stall, opposite Manora MLA hostel. Moti Bhai enjoys a special status in the city. Once civic employees pulled down his stall and at least three MLAs called up the Ward Officer to build it back.
Once, I was talking about Japan when Li said he did not wish to discuss about Japan. It was later that I read about the sour history between Japan and China. Most of our discussions were related to food, different kinds of tea and journalism in India vis-a-vis China.
I told Li that I would like to visit China someday. He thought I was joking. Not many Indians go to China for tourism. Besides, the Chinese government does not give a visa easily. Lastly, means of transportation from India to China was not easy and cheap, like going to Thailand or Singapore from India.
Li and I met on several occasions over lunch and tea at Moti Bhai’s stall. One day, he sent me a text message that he had to go back to China for a new assignment. I felt a little sad. During his last few days in Mumbai, we met again over lunches. I took him around the city. He wanted to go to the top of the Rajabai Tower. I convinced the authorities and fixed up a date for our visit. But we climbed a few storeys and started to feel suffocated. We then decided to go back down.
While leaving from Mumbai, he gifted me two beautiful t-shirts and two packets of export quality Chinese green tea. As Facebook is blocked in China, we lost touch. As journalists, we meet several people everyday. We lose contact with some of them. Something similar happened in this case too.
One day, he suddenly posted on Facebook, “Hi world! Long time no see.” Several Indian friends of his replied but not a single Chinese one did. I had no idea that Facebook is banned in China and I found his comment odd.
Last month, I was stuck in Vietnam. My visa was about to expire and my plan of sailing to Australia was not working out. Cambodia had already denied me a visa. There were only two options__ either fly to Australia which was very expensive or to end the journey and return to India. Neither were good options.
A friend suggested I ask Li for help. I was sure China would never grant me a visa but decided to give it a try. I went to the China embassy for making inquiries and got a visa application form.
One of the points in a visa application is providing a local reference. I remembered Li. I was not sure if he would be reachable. Knowing the bilateral relations between India and China, I was doubtful if he would give me a reference. But my motto has been to keep trying.
I was proved wrong as Li replied immediately. He sent me his address and contact details. Until then, both of us thought I would never be able to reach Beijing.
A train ticket from Hanoi (Vietnam) to Beijing (China) is 330 USD (an odd Rs.22110). I had a total of 350 USD only. I decided to cross the international border and carry on hitchhiking. My resolve was to reach Beijing in less than 100 USD, including food and travel.
I took a bus from Hanoi to Nanning, a Chinese border town. The bus charged me 21 USD for a seat. I boarded it at 7 am and reached Vietnam-China border around 11 am. There were some immigration problems which took half an hour. Again, I got into the same bus and reached Nanning by 4 pm.
One of my Indian journalist friends, Ateeq Shaikh, spent a weekend researching on how to travel from Nanning to Beijing at the lowest possible cost. He sent me screen shots of train numbers, timings as well as tickets. He also recommended the best train for me.
I went straight to the railway station (bus ticket was 2Yen/ Rs 20). I bought a standing ticket for my Nanning-Beijing journey as I couldn’t get a reservation for a ‘hard seat.’ The ticket was 268 Yuan or 42 USD. It was a 24 hour journey but due to floods it took 31.5 hours. I reached Beijing at midnight. That night, I slept at Beijing railway station.
The next day, I searched for an inexpensive hostel. As soon as I got free WiFi, I texted Li that I reached Beijing. He was sorry to hear about my troubled journey. He said he could have sent a vehicle had I told him in advance.
In the evening, he came to my hostel 10 minutes before the scheduled time. He came in a luxury Mercedez Benz car and took me for a late night drive around Beijing. He gave me Yen 1,000 (Rs 10,000) for paying hotel bills as he could not accommodate me at his house.
On one occasion, he took me to a luxury authetic Indian restaurant in Beijing. We had rice, dal tadka and paneer. It was delicious food. For the first time in three months, I had set my sights on Indian food. I kept aside the fork and spoon and ate with my hands.
After dinner, the waiter asked us in Hindi, “Sir, would you like some tea?”
Both of us replied together, “Cutting chai one by two!”