Sometimes, the perks are also the punishment I think, as I look around the beautiful vistas of the “Eternal City” complex built especially for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit, on the outskirts of Samarkand - one of many summit venues that we journalists get to travel to, but seldom have the time to truly enjoy. To cover this most recent summit, we had to leave our hotels at 5 a.m., in order to complete security checks in time to cover the day-long summit, only to return to our rooms well past midnight. Little time to enjoy the views, or the rowing canal that also serves as a moat to ensure security for the heads of state living there, or the scaled versions of the many beautiful Uzbek monuments from Samarkand, Bukhara and Tashkent that have been recreated here, the artificially created beaches (in a double land-locked country), or the “volcano” that has been made by drilling a geo-thermal spring 2,000 meters below the ground.
Similarly, I can remember travelling to exotic locales more suited to James Bond than to an ordinary journalist, but have vague memories of anything but the stories we covered: from lush Maldivian resort islands to the sand-scapes of Sharm El-Sheikh, to the pristine Mountains around Thimphu, Kathmandu and Pokhara. The fly in the ointment to being the fly on the wall at such conferences is that we never actually appreciate the surroundings: I barely dipped a toe in the Maldivian waters, never ran across Red Sea beaches or went dune-bashing in the deserts, nor had a moment to indulge in spectacular Himalayan views, as we spent the day working - a regret one shares with other journalists covering similar summits in remote corners of the world. Instead, one’s memories are of scrambling for transport, hunting for batteries and WiFi at media centres, and most of all, chasing leaders for just a glimpse of what may become a scoop: that wink, handshake, or a conversation shared that indicates something bigger is afoot geopolitically.
Such opportunities are rare, as leaders and their teams deliberately make themselves scarce…at the 2015 CoP21 summit in Paris, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had a “chance” encounter in the waiting lounge that was off limits to journalists, and it wasn’t until an obliging official leaked video of their chat that reporters realised its import- resulting in a visit by Mr. Modi to Lahore a few weeks later.
In Hamburg for the 2017 G-20, a corridor conversation between Mr. Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping turned into a detente at Doklam after weeks of a military standoff. (It was perhaps to avoid even the chance of a meeting that both Mr. Modi and Mr. Xi avoided the Pre-summit dinner, tree planting and boat ride planned in the Eternal City for the SCO summit.) Of course, it is much easier these days for the leaders than in the past: in his memoirs, Israeli leader Shimon Peres writes about having to don a big moustache, a wig and a fedora hat when travelling across to Jordan for secret negotiations, in order to escape the press.
As leaders now prefer to deal with their own publicity teams and state-owned Television, it is particularly difficult for independent private media that is relegated to the outer rim of the conference venue. In such situations, I always remember the words of my professor at journalism school, who said, just keep walking… if a door is closed, go down the corridor to the left or right…just keep finding your way through open doors, but don’t stop trying. At the eternal city, those words proved useful, as we found doors that opened into a hall where we bumped into several dignitaries, and even got an interview or two as we looked for the elusive possible meetings(that officials then confirmed didn’t take place) between Prime Minister Modi and the leaders of China and Pakistan. Nevertheless, we all know that at the next summit in the next beautiful setting, the chase will begin all over again!