Kunming, Dec. 19: The rustle of crisp new battle fatigues inside the flight numbered IFC 4707 competes with the whine of the Ilyushins engines. Myanmars special overflight permission for the Indian military aircraft is late and it has delayed departure from Guwahati by an hour.
But by the time the flight is over the rough terrain, cruising above the plaits of water that pour into Myanmars Irrawady River, the company from the Indian Armys 15 Jammu and Kashmir Rifles battalion has settled in — dry rations packed, cooks on board and munitions in safe boxes under lock and key.
Their uniforms are tailored to fit the strapping men perfectly.
Led by contingent commander Brigadier D.S. Dadwal and battalion commander Colonel Jagdeep Singh Budhwar, these 105 men are the first Indian soldiers to step into China for a friendly drill.
It is a venture into the unknown. Exercise Hand in Hand is set to take off 45 years after a war in which the Indian military was handed its biggest drubbing, four decades of tensions on the border that remain unresolved and two hundred other hitches.
At least, this time the Indian army is dressed for the purpose. They have been outfitted and kitted for Indian military diplomacys greatest leap.
The berets are fresh, the uniforms are new, the disruptive pattern on their tunics is the standard that the Indian Army is to follow. Every battalion will adopt it.
Perhaps only when the Indian Army, if at all, heads to Pakistan for a joint exercise will the significance of this afternoons event pale.
The soldiers have been pulled out of active counter-insurgency operations in Manipur and hand-picked for this exercise. Most of the battalions 1,000 soldiers are still near Leimakhong, the military garrison outside Imphal.
We have been preparing and even learning some Chinese, says Col Budhwar. He shows a small book of commonly used Chinese phrases rendered into Hindi that every soldier is carrying. It (the Chinese language) is very difficult; Im told it has 36,000 characters.
As the soldiers prepare to engage, language is obviously going to be a major problem. The Indian Army is more familiar with the ways of the Pakistan troops, both sharing a colonial legacy. Chinas Peoples Liberation Army has a different history.
In Delhi on Saturday, Ashley Tellis, a US military affairs analyst, said the PLA was moving away from the peoples war that gave birth to it under Mao Tse Tung, and falling more in line with the ways of western armies. The Indian Army does not believe that that is happening in a hurry.
Here everything is run by the army, said one officer who was keeping in touch with the planning conferences for the exercise. They have huge establishments and larger numbers. Actually, there is so little that we really know about them, particularly their ethos. At least, now we will begin to get a glimpse.
The biggest factor — apart from the political and diplomatic reasons - that is driving the Indian Army to this exercise so enthusiastically is curiosity. Chinas economic boom has the world going round. Its opening-up of the market is a huge experiment in changing political economy. But compared to that, little is seen of its military beyond the nervousness that Taiwan often betrays.
In trying to learn about the Chinese army, the Indian Army will also show some of its own peculiar characteristics. In the company that is here, there are hardy boys from tough terrain who tackle insecurities at home and insurgencies far away. Soldiers like Bilal Ahmed and Sardari Lal, Tilak Rai, Nisar Mohammed Wani, Surjeet Singh and Showket Ahmed have been recruited from Jammu and Kashmir.
Many of them, like Bilal, are from the insurgency-ridden region of Bandipora in Kashmir's Baramulla district. They have been active in fighting another insurgency in the Northeast.
Now they are here, representing the Indian Army at its best. They are also here representing an Indian diversity rivalled by few countries, but among them, surely, China. Kunming is the capital of Yunnan, the province that has probably the most complex of ethnic mixes in all of China.
Kunming is not among China's top-grade cities but even on the short drive from the airport, its gleam and its orderliness is alien to Indians.
When IFC 4707 parked at Kunming International Airport's Wujiaba military terminal, the tarmac was already crowded. The aircraft with the commanding officer of the IAF's Mighty Jets 44 squadron, Group Captain Sanjeev Wasudev Gosawade, made a perfect landing, minus the bumps, that had its passengers applauding.
Gosawade was conscious that the IAF was making history, too, flying the hump route from Indias Northeast to Kunming for the first time since the Second World War.
As the troops marched out in two files, a band of the Peoples Liberation Army struck up a number with wind instruments, cornets and trumpets of metallic concentric circles. There were women in the band, too.
Outside the terminal, police of the PLAs air force stood in two rows and saluted as the convoy carrying the Indian soldiers drove past to the Kunming Military Academy, their camp for most of the week before they move into the mountains for the war game.