I put my hand in my pocket and realised that my pocket had been picked. Considering that I had to cross over to mainland China from Hong Kong as soon as possible, this was the third event which could be termed “unfortunate” in a matter of two hours. Also, the fact that this was my first trip to a foreign land made me think that it was all a part of some grand design.
It all began when I was asked to rush to Beijing immediately to help a customer. The short notice meant I did not have time to get a visa, so after discussions with my colleague and clients I decided that I should apply for a Chinese visa at the Shenzhen border when in HK. I left for Hong Kong the same night while a driver and car was arranged for me at HK airport, a room was booked for me in Shenzhen and I was booked for a flight to Beijing the next day of my arrival.
After an uneventful flight, once I reached Hong Kong, the aforementioned events unfolded with clockwork precision. Immediately upon arrival I was politely whisked away by custom officials. Upon reaching the interrogation room, I was told by the officials in halting English that they have caught a Pakistani and need help on translation. I had nothing pressing at hand, moreover, the request was more like an earnest order and I obliged. The Pakistani was caught carrying a large quantity of drugs and it was a grave situation. I still remember his eyes. I was told he might be executed and I shuddered. After about 20 minutes, I requested to be excused since I could not tolerate it. I was allowed to leave.
The rifles were not AK-47 but were gas operated, most likely a Chinese replica cocked in full auto mode, fully capable of puncturing me at a rate of 100 bullets/ minute each.
I reached my highly anxious driver who had almost given up on me and was about to leave assuming I’d not turn up. Soon we were speeding towards Shenzhen and everything seemed settled now. I finished my exit formalities at the Hong Kong border checkpost and dozed off, trying to forget the Pakistani. After some time when my driver asked for my passport, I gave it to him, turned and slept again. In a moment, I was pulled out of my car and 12 Chinese Border Policemen had their guns on me at a distance which is known as Point Blank. I cannot put in words the feeling I went through but my mouth went dry and my eyes almost popped out. And to say, I was pitying the Pakistani only a couple of hours ago.
I put my hands up and said “English Please”. My voice came out as a squeak and I barely heard myself. I felt that this was surely my end and what would make it more tragic was the fact that I had no idea what was happening. The Border Police promptly opened up my luggage and its contents were strewn everywhere in the car and on the road. I did not care and only kept repeating “English Please” over and over again. What had happened was that the driver, assuming that I had a Chinese visa, had taken me into Chinese territory, leaving the Shenzhen checkpost some 15 kms behind, and now here I was, staring at the wrong end of numerous Chinese rifles. I was within China without a visa !! The rifles were not AK-47 but were gas operated, most likely a Chinese replica cocked in full auto mode, fully capable of puncturing me at a rate of 100 bullets/ minute each. I almost shouted, “You pigs, get me somebody who can speak English, I am an engineer out here to help a Chinese customer”. I am not sure if it was the word “pigs” or “engineer” or something else, but the commander’s eyes softened and he powered up his wireless. After a brief conversation he commanded that I be taken to an interrogation room. This time, ironically enough, I was the victim needing a translator. My driver who seemed equally scared refused to translate and stayed put in the car.
Finally some high ranking Chinese military official came in and I spoke with him. He saw my passport, saw my tickets, spoke to my driver and then told me that what I had done could be punished severely but he will make an exception and allow me to return to the border where I can get my visa. But to ensure I am out of China immediately, an escort car will accompany us. I breathed and realised my bladders would burst but never gathered the courage to ask for the wash room. I ran, picked my luggage content spread all over and scooted and we were at the border at breakneck speed – the driver was trembling and I could not feel anything. I was detained for 45 minutes and it had seemed like a lifetime.
I arrived at the border checkpost at 5:03 PM and was told it closes at 5 pm so I should come again next day. I inquired if visa is issued to Indians, and was stonewalled. I asked my driver to take me to some hotel – he said he will drop me at some metro station and I should fend for myself. And all this will cost me US$100. He had made his judgement – I was a bad man and should be avoided. I did not say anything and he dropped me at some metro station. I stepped out, went to the loo and then went to buy some sandwich, I put my hand in my pocket and realised my pocket had been picked …
I ran, picked my luggage content spread all over and scooted and we were at the border at breakneck speed – the driver was trembling and I could not feel anything. I was detained for 45 minutes and it had seemed like a lifetime.
I turned back and ran like mad towards the only man I knew there – my driver. He was sitting in his car and maybe planning to turn back. I almost begged him, with the crowd staring at us, to take me to some hotel and told him that my wallet had been picked. He looked in his car, muttering there are no pickpockets in Hong Kong, found my wallet, and drove me to one of the best hotels in Kowloon.
I had survived.
Inquiring at the hotel travel desk I was informed that China does not issue travel visas and I should return back to India. The next day I with my driver reached the HK border checkpost where the official was staring at me, for what was I doing entering, leaving, re-entering and now again leaving HK within a day. When I recounted my story, he said Indians are welcome as many times as they want from whichever end of HK and I smiled – I knew what it meant. At the Shenzhen checkpost, visa was a mere formality and about 15 kms away at the border patrol station, the same border patrolmen from the day before, looked at my visa, spoke to each other, laughed and called me for some tea. I politely refused and sped away for the airport.