Do I call him a singer? Or would actor and television host suffice (damn, he even sketches and is pretty good)? Or should I just stick with the hackneyed hyphenated qualifier? That’s the kind of problem Meiyang Chang—who is trained professionally as a dentist—can put you in. And now, the 36-year-old, having just hosted The Lost Essence of India, a one-of-a-kind travel show that aired a few days ago, is making me grind more of my teeth even as I keep getting excited about the prospect of watching it. Quite a conflict I’d say.
Naturally, I decided to have a go at the man and quiz him on what the show’s all about, what the deal with the envy-triggering travel pictures on his social media is, and his thoughts on the subject in the wake of the pandemic. He was holidaying merrily in Mulshi, Maharashtra, and dashed all my hopes of annoying him. And the best parts of the conversation are thus:
It must feel really special to have got the chance to travel to some of the most thrilling and pristine corners of the country at such a time…
It was just the perfect time for me to see these places. Travel is one of the best releases—it is food for the soul. The lockdown didn’t affect me that much. I kept myself occupied with music, a lot of writing, performing a few bits here and there… but I was definitely missing travelling a lot. I was so hungry for it that I’d crave chances to just get outdoors and move locally. I’d consider myself very lucky that this show came at such a time. Initially I was a little stressed out prepping for the show, which mainly comprised taking care of all the precautions, addressing the how-do-you-travel-in-such-times questions—something like this (the pandemic) has never happened before, you see.
But my team, who had been shooting in Assam just before this assured me that they were following all the protocols and there was nothing to worry about. Once I was out of here, we first went to Goa and then to Kashmir. As the show’s name and concept goes, we were headed to mostly isolated places, pristine locations where there weren’t too many people anyway. Also, these were cities where COVID-19 cases weren’t that many. All of that played a huge role in freeing my mind. And I hope everyone watching will feel the same, because there’s only so much when you’re travelling according to a set itinerary. After a while, you want to go off the beaten track, take your own sweet time and savour each moment. I was kicked about it all. I really loved it.
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Your social media feed is a content consumer’s dream—from your own renditions of yesteryear classics, glimpses from your life and of course amazing pictures from your travels. One wonders what kind of quirks you have as a traveller…your thoughts on travel as part of culture?
This switch (to the travel-loving him) has happened in the past few years. Earlier I travelled a lot of gigs, where I would just stay back for a day or two and just see a place if time permitted. I wasn't the kind of person who would set out and explore. I would just do the tried and tested things or thought there should be someone for company.
The switch happened in 2015 or 2016, when I was in Spain for an awards event. After that, a friend of mine and I, we just set out to do 10-15 days in places like Venice and others in Europe. We were two entirely different kinds of travellers—I was very conventional and rigid, and she, much more free-spirited and ready to absorb everything. We had a lot of fights about the kind of places we would go to. That changed my perspective. I have been lucky to have friends who believe in wandering off the trodden path even in popular destinations.
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à¤§à¥ÂÂÂà¤ÂÂÂà¤§ • Ø¯Ú¾ÙÂÂÂØ¯ . Monsoon in the #WesternGhats = ðÂÂÂÂÂÂÂÂÂðÂÂÂÂÂÂÂÂÂðÂÂÂÂÂÂÂÂÂ . Driving around the beauty that lies between #Mumbai & #Pune (and beyond) used to be an annual ritual with my school mates. Now that all of them are married, à¤¬à¤¿à¤ÂÂÂà¥ÂÂÂà¥ÂÂÂ à¤¸à¤à¥ÂÂÂ à¤¬à¤¾à¤°à¥ÂÂÂ-à¤¬à¤¾à¤°à¥ÂÂÂ ðÂÂÂÂÂÂÂÂÂ I'm single and still valiantly forging ahead, in my #FordEndeavour @ford @fordindia ðÂÂÂÂÂÂºðÂÂÂÂÂÂ» . ðÂÂÂÂÂÂ¸ : @nishchaygogia #Mulshi #Maharashtra @maharashtratourismofficial
I also believe in trying cuisines that are endemic to a place, ingredients that I can find only there. That is what travel has started to mean to me. It really changes the way you think. For instance, I did not know Goa had caves and waterfalls and backwaters and not just beaches and shacks. Kashmir was also an eye-opener for me—my mindset about the place changed a lot. The average traveller usually sticks to a set itinerary once there. Most of us have probably not had the time or the inclination to interact with a local to try and understand their perspective on a lot of things including politics, history, identity—the differences and similarities between them and others. A lot, really.
Kashmir seems to have become your favourite place…
I would think so. I would certainly think so. Most people talking to me recently were excited to go to Goa (after the first episode of his show aired), but when it came to Kashmir, the first question invariably was: ‘Is it safe?’ And they're not referring to the COVID-19 situation. When I was there, even I realised that one does have to be careful. Yes, the vibe is slightly different because I don’t know if there’s another place in India that has so much CRPF and Army presence. There are barricades everywhere, barbed wires everywhere. In fact, a local told me that there was a time when either the shikara or the chinar tree symbolised Kashmir. Now in many people's minds, the barbed wire has become a new symbol for Kashmir. That is a way to get their perspective.
This time around, a lot of our crew was also local in order to lessen the chances of spread of the virus, both in Goa and Kashmir. As a result, I got to interact more with the locals. My DOP and line producer were locals. We ate with them in their favourite restaurants, sampled local food. Somebody's father is known as one of the biggest names in Wazwan cuisine out there. We got to taste that. Of late, I have also become very observant of how people speak—the accents, the tones they use. And when you go to Kashmir, there is a huge difference in the way they pronounce words. And that is what makes me so fond of the whole experience, about the whole prospect of visiting the place. It's definitely one of my favourite places.
Since the spread of the pandemic has meant we’re going to be travelling more extensively within the country, what other places in India are your favourites?
I love Rajasthan—there is so much history and culture there. I have travelled a lot there for friends’ weddings and for work. Then, I have a huge soft corner for the northeast because it remains unexplored and which is also why it is so unspoiled. I have had quite a few adventures there, long, arduous journeys because of the bad roads, to some really inaccessible places. There is so much to see in places like Nagaland and Arunachal. And just like Kashmir, I love the people there. The language—well, we don’t understand each other but the love is just mutual.
We’ve all been cooped up in our homes for more than the past six months. Even visits to the grocery store have been like a privilege. Once it becomes relatively easy to travel, what is that one place you’re aching to visit? Could it be Dhanbad, your hometown?
The prospect of visiting Dhanbad is actually interesting. I never thought I could travel there like I do in other places. It was where I grew up—but I was always in boarding school. But there's always a lot to do in any place as long as you're open minded. Who knows how much more there is to the city? Back in school we used to do this commerce project where we were asked to make scrapbooks of any business, even chai tapris. Dhanbad is known for its coal mines, and for the project, I wondered if I could somehow get into one. I remember going close to the quarries and close to where coal is hauled over large distances. I saw coal being heated and then cooled. But that's all I got to do. I'm still curious about it and I'd like to believe I may have more access to it now than I did earlier. It is an adventure I really won't mind going on. I'd also like to explore the hidden and lost aspects of Bengal and the northeast.
What other places close by have you been discovering – like the rest of us?
I have been very pleasantly surprised as to how much beauty there is just between Bombay and Pune. Or even a little beyond Pune. We have all of this right here but we keep running off to everywhere in the world. There are places like Malshej Ghat and Vaitarna Dam and a lot more. Right now, I am in Mulshi. One of these past days, my friend declared, ‘Enough of the working from home—I am going to work from Lonavala.’ On a whim, I joined him, and we spent all of yesterday cycling around in Lonavala and last evening we came to Mulshi. Right now, I am standing in front of the lake, and it’s just amazing. A couple of years ago, sitting in Switzerland, I had thought, ‘Damn, there’s no place in India like this!’ Right now, I am feeling like I am there.