Since it looks like I may be stuck in China for longer than originally anticipated, I thought I’d share what it’s like being here whilst the outbreak of the new form of Cornona Virus develops across China and tSincehe World.
The trip was intended to be a 20 day visit to see my friend James, who moved to China to teach English in the city of Hefei, Anhui Province. We had made plans to travel together around the province during the spring festival and to visit neighbouring cities and Huangshan “Yellow Mountain”, one of the most famous mountains in China. These plans were quickly put into doubt only hours after my arrival into China when it was announced that the city of Wuhan had been put into lockdown due to the outbreak of Coronavirus.
Our plans for Chinese New Year were not put on hold though, within an hour of landing I was in a car on my way to the village of Feixi, about an hour away from Hefei, where we would stay with a family and have a tradional New Year’s celebration. To say we were well fed and watered is an understatement. We ate what felt like every type of meat and to my great surprise, my chopstick skills were pretty good. That evening, we shared stories and toasted ourselves into the New Year with many glasses of Baijiu (the national 55% liquor), a really great way to start my adventure in China.
The following day we woke up to a New Year’s Day breakfast that seemed bigger than the dinner the night before. Once again there was an array of meat including chicken feet and chicken organs and of course, we had to wash this down with more Baijiu. After consuming half my bodyweight in Chinese tradional breakfast we decided to venture outside and burn some of it off. Walking around the village it seemed for the entire duration almost every villager stopped to take a look at us. For some it was the first time they’d seen foreigners in their village. It’s a surprise that no one crashed their cars with the amount of slowing down without warning to catch a glimpse. This along with the spray painted pink dogs running around and a tannoy on top of a car announcing a ban on fireworks made for quite an entertaining first morning.
We were then invited by our Chinese friend to visit their family graves to take part in a New Year’s tradition, paying respect to their ancestors. We were welcomed by the family to the tombs as the first foreigners to meet their ancestors, this felt like a great privilege. The small ceremony consisted of burning special papers and money, and next we were asked to bow to the graves to give us success in the year ahead. Following this, we made our way back through the village, stopping at our friends grandparents house for tea where we shared more stories and discussed our cultural differences. One difference that was immediately clear was that the Chinese have a great skill at being able to eat sunflower seeds without any problem, de-shelling them with their teeth in seconds. This was a skill that James and I lacked to the great amusement of the family. After visiting a few other people, we made our way back to the family home to have some more food before leaving for Hefei shortly after.
The next morning we would awake to the news that the UK government had advised against all but essential travel to China, this news felt a little strange to receive, I had only just got to China and now the advice is I shouldn’t be here? Should I leave? But judging from the reports we had access to here, the virus was not spreading that quickly and we were going to be safe here. The news certainly meant that our plans to travel outside of Hefei were to be cancelled; this was mainly out of fear that if we left Hefei we may not be able to return if the virus were to suddenly intensify.
For now, we are following advice, staying mainly inside and hoping that things calm down soon.
After feeling almost fully recovered from the jet lag I woke up feeling pretty good and the weather had also changed here, the smog was lifting and you could almost see the sun. After some breakfast, we ventured out to the supermarket to stock up on food and water to make sure we had enough food to sustain us for the coming weeks, just in case.
We walked to the shop where upon entry we had our temperatures taken and access to alcohol wash for our hands. We filled our baskets with long shelf life food and a mixture of fresh meat and veg, not the really fresh live toads though, we gave them a miss. We knew that if we were going to be stuck inside, good food was going to be important and luckily for me, James is a pretty decent chef.
Leaving the walls of the community for the first time was my chance to see what the city of Hefei was really like. To my surprise, the streets were totally empty. This isn’t a small city, far from it. The population of Hefei is close to 8,000,000 people and it is usually full of traffic and people going about their daily city life, but not today. The streets were empty, the few vehicles on the road were mainly busses and they too were empty. This was the first real wake up call that something really wasn’t right.
On our way back we had a message from one of James’ friends. She’s away on holiday out of China and wanted to see if we could take care of her cat as she didn’t know when she’d be able to return. Since we’d cancelled all our travel plans and were facing the prospect of a few weeks mainly inside, a cat seemed like a great addition to the flat. A short taxi ride across the city and we had collected Coco along with cat food and supplies.
We spent the evening at our friend Steve’s house to have a meal, it was great to catch up. I hadn’t seen Steve since we were at Uni together in Cardiff. It was really nice to get out of the flat again to get some semi fresh air, even if it is through a mask.
Steve also decided to join and stay with us in the flat for the next few days to avoid being on his own, and of course to make FIFA a bit more tasty.
Today I woke up to news bulletins, messages from home and conversation in the flat about the increased spread of Coronavirus. The new that the World Health Organisation had now declared the situation a Global Health Emergency also filtered through to us, this was extremely alarming. I had slept relatively well but even with a fresh head, all of this varying news and rumours was certainly a lot to try and process. Knowing what is true and what isn’t is extremely difficult. There are all sorts of stories about the Cornonavirus flying about, everything is up for debate; the source, how many victims, where those cases are, the incubation period and how the virus can be passed on. News then started to filter through about airlines possibly cancelling flights in the coming days, something which was immediately alarming. Coronavirus has reached Hefei, and there are a number of cases in the city, the actual figure was unclear but it certainly made things a lot more real.
With all of this information, I decided to book a flight to the UK for the 3rd of February and just try to get out of China as quickly as possible. It didn’t take long to find a flight, this one via Warsaw. Ten minutes and £370 later the flight, train hotel were booked. I would be leaving Hefei in two days.
This brought real positivity to the flat. Although Coronavirus was getting nearer and increasing in cases, we’re still laughing it off a little and joking about it. You have to I think, otherwise it would really start to drag you down. We we’re all in good spirits and watching some films whilst keeping one eye on our phones for updates. The positive mood was soon interrupted by a notification announcing that Coronavirus had been confirmed in the UK.
Two hours after I had booked my flight home, two cases of the virus had been discovered in the UK. This along with the information from the foreign office that anyone returning from China should self quarantine for two weeks upon arriving home really added fuel to the fire. The messages we were recieving increased dramatically and the various news stories false and true were like a constant stream of scaremongering and worry. But, I was flying home in a few days, I could relax.
Dear Passenger, flight LO 92 on Feb 3, 2020 has been cancelled. Sorry for the inconvenience.
Inconvenience. Definitely inconvenient, I could think of a couple of other words to describe it. The text was greeted by an outburst of laughter by the three of us, it was a clear mixture of emotions. On the one hand the whole thing appealed to my sense of humour, of course the flight had been cancelled, did I really think it was going to be that easy to leave. On the other, I had very much got used to the idea that on Monday I would be at home and now had no idea how or when I would be able to leave. The idea of leaving anytime soon seemed almost impossible, not only had my flight been cancelled, but airlines around the world had announced they would not be flying in or out of China until at least the 10th of February.
Today we decided to venture out of the community and have a ride on the e-bikes. If we were going to be stuck inside most of the time over the next two weeks we wanted to have an hour outside to get some air and at least see some of the city. This may sound high risk, but with no one really on the streets there was very little chance of coming into contact with another person. We put on our masks and gloves and heading out in the sunshine to see the cities main feature, Swan Lake.
Riding round the city on the back of James’ bike, what really struck me was the size of the city and how many tall buildings there are. This is a huge place, with 4 lane roads and cycle paths along every street it is well equipped for the large population it holds. This then made me realise how few people were actually out in the city. The roads empty, the shared bikes all available and the busses (still running) once again empty. We arrived at Swan Lake where there were a few people taking in the view from the man made beach, quite pleasant and peaceful complete with walkways and a beach gym. I don’t think I’d be finding a Mr Whippy though.
After enjoying the view of the city, we returned back home along the empty streets, stopping at the supermarket to pick up some more supplies. We made sure to get plenty of bottled water as the tap water is not suitable for drinking. That’s one thing we really don’t want to run out of.
Later that evening, we had an invite to another friends house nearby to enjoy some more traditional Chinese food. We were picked up by car and had traditional hot pot with a mixture of spicy foods and a few bottles of Baijiu. We also cracked open a few bottles of Corona; it’d be rude not to.
Today felt like one of the longest days ever. Fitting that the date 02022020 was the same backwards, our day felt exactly like this. The time we wake up is irrelevant, the time we go to bed is irrelevant with nothing much inbetween.
We decided we would venture outside for a little while within the walls of our community and go for a run together. The reason for staying within the community, other than the obvious risk of contracting the virus, was that temperature readings were being taken to get back in. It wasn’t worth risking it, especially being hot from a run. Running with a mask on certainly makes it more difficult, we also realised how funny it must have looked to the locals, three Brits in shorts running around in circles. During the run, we noticed barbed wire had been erected around the community walls and gates of which all except one had been closed off. As we ran suddenly the cabin fever seemed to leave, just for the half an hour or so, everything felt normal again.
Despite the mask, I completed my first 5km run. This felt like a big victory. We returned to the flat feeling good, our heads free of negative thoughts. This feel good vibe lasted the rest of the day despite time passing ever slowler and the choice of films we hadn’t watched dwindling. However, we noticed that there were a few Premier League games on in the evening and we had a way of accessing them. We stayed up and watched the Spurs Vs Man City game which started at half past midnight here, but it was well worth waiting up for, what a game.
Watching the game really helped us feel normality again, for the two hours it was on we’d all completely forgotten about the virus. We now had something new to talk about. Some fresh content.
We woke up this morning, well more like the afternoon, to the news that the UK government has advised all British citizens to leave China. This sort of news really sets the tone for the day especially when you can’t find any distractions. As we read more articles, both Chinese and British, the combination of rumours and official announcements led to a quiet state of confusion and worry amongst us. The big question on all of our minds is, how are we going to leave? The advice to leave is there but the flights home are not.
After already having one flight cancelled and still awaiting the refund, trying to book onto another flight out of China seemed pretty much impossible. We have had no further information from the UK Government other than the advice “leave China if you can”. The options of travelling to another city like Beijing or Shanghai via train in an attempt to catch a flight from their airports seem too risky. If the flights don’t leave then I’ll be stuck in a different city alone with nowhere to stay, not what I want in the middle of an epidemic. At the minute, the idea is to wait it out for my original planned flight home on the 11th February. The feeling here is that this flight probably will not leave China, but I haven’t lost all hope on that yet.
On the plus side, we’re eating well and we’ve found some good Netflix series to watch after we managed to get it to work here. Coco is doing well and keeping us entertained, he’s helping keep the mood positive, that’s for sure.
This morning we awoke to the news that Coronavirus has been discovered in a neighbouring community in the city. New live maps are now freely available to view here showing updated locations of discovered cases as they happen. Its feels rather similar to the red cross on the door during the great plague, but in modern day instead of a red cross you get a red pin dropped on a live map.
Following this already unsettling news, I received information from my airline suggesting that all flights out of China would be cancelled until the end of February, not ideal when the virus is now literally just over the road. I decided to immediately contact the embassy in the hope that after many failed attempts to gain some useful information, they might be able to help me in some way. After a short phone call, I was given a list of Airlines still currently operating out of China which is something at least, other than that there is no new information for UK citizens in China unless you are in the Hubei province, (the neighbouring province to us, of which Wuhan is the capital). The official advice from the UK Foreign office remains, “Leave China if you can”.
A list of Airlines leaving China was a really useful piece of information, I began searching for flights to the UK and anywhere in Europe that I would be able to catch in the coming days. Quickly I found a direct flight to London from Shanghai, a direct flight would mean less risk of being stranded somewhere and facing the large possibility of being quarantined in a foreign country. I began the booking process whilst James worked on getting me a train to Shanghai from Hefei, a relatively straight forward trip home was filling me with relief.
That was until just moments before I pressed confirm payment. James had found that no trains were leaving Hefei for Shanghai and in fact, there are now no trains travelling from Hefei to either Shanghai or Beijing. This problem, perhaps naively, didn’t even cross my mind when looking for a way back, I just assumed I would be able to travel city to city here, not anymore. The internal transport systems across the country have now been suspended. I had a flight ready to book, but with no way of getting to the airport it was absolutely useless.
For those that were following the blog live and are perhaps wondering where it went: I took the decision to take the blog offline after some advice regarding a citizen journalist who has gone missing after reporting about the Coronavirus outbreak without licence. As it now seems I will be here longer than planned I don’t want to risk any possible trouble so I will be updating the blog whilst I am here and putting it back online upon my return.
The end of my trip.
Today should have seen me return to the UK as originally planned, the end of my break with me returning to work tomorrow. Instead I remain in lock down here in Hefei with security measures being heavily updated, controls regarding leaving the community have tightened significantly. A pass is now required upon entry and exit and it entitles one designated person per residence to leave the community walls once every two days to get food and water. Anyone without the pass is not allowed to enter. James is our designated resident, and rather fortunately, Steve left to stay with family outside of Hefei before this restriction was imposed. These updated measures comes after the recent news of the virus being discovered in a neighbouring community, so far no cases have been discovered in ours. This now means that I am officially isolated to within the walls of the community, not really a surprise as the situation has developed and to be honest, it’s much safer within the walls than out.
As of today, it is now reported that there are a total of nine confirmed cases of the virus within the UK. It is clear from what I can see on social media that the public are very concerned about it, and that there are more serious rumours flying about now than the jokes and sarcasm seen in previous weeks. Some are calling for a complete block on flights from China, regardless of who might be stuck here and others still seem more concerned about catching the virus from a Chinese take away. It’s a strange feeling, of course I want to return to the UK as soon as I can to avoid getting even more caught up in this than I already am, but the potential reaction of people if I do return is unsettling.
As for our day to day life at the moment, we are obviously remaining indoors most of the time, only venturing outside to run and to collect deliveries. Running is certainly keeping us physically and mentally fit, and the confused look of the locals always offers some light entertainment. Inside the flat is like a time warp, I still put my watch on every morning but in all honestly, I have no idea why. Things are getting tough mentally, the situation is beginning to grind both of us down and as a result even deciding what to watch on Netflix or what to eat seems impossible. It’s a really strange sensation, there is nothing to do and nothing to be done about it. Writing this piece is certainly helping focus my mind and gives a place for thoughts to be shared as well as rationalising the situation. I’ve also been reading some books I brought with me, something I don’t make enough time for at home, the strange combination of Peter Crouch’s How to Be A Footballer and Anne Frank’s Diary has certainly been an interesting combination.
Coco, our resident quarantine support cat, is also keeping us entertained and doing well. It’s definitely helping having someone in the flat who is not bothered by anything other than when they will be fed. Thankfully cat food and supplies along with human groceries are available for delivery still, they can be collected at the gate without having to leave the walls of the community. As we settled down for the evening still struggling to decide what to watch, Netflix is still adamant that it suggest we watch, “How To Stop A Pandemic”, think we’ll give that a miss, for now.
Finally some positive news? China has reported a decrease in new cases being discovered consistently over the last five days as it looks like the “stay at home” attitude is starting to see results. It has now been over two weeks since I last left the community and this is a similar case for most people within Hefei, with the vast majority of people staying at home and avoiding any form of human contact with outsiders. As a result, today is the first day that there have been no new cases discovered in Hefei, great news for the city and for everyone living here. I am hoping that this news will be the beginning of the control of the outbreak, I am under no illusion that this will suddenly be a quick ending, but at least it shows a level of progress and gives some sense of optimism.
The last few days have begun to get increasingly mentally difficult, focusing on anything productive is nearly impossible and despite making it outside every day for a run, the sense of cabin fever is really kicking in. We are both finding it hard to keep the negative thoughts out at times, which isn’t too surprising, but we’re keeping well and after today’s news, a beer delivery and some decent Netflix series, our moods have been lifted.
The virus seems to be spreading around the World, more now than it had previously with countries including South Korea really struggling to deal with it. We are reading more about the virus again now after the lull in news over the past week, it seems it has certainly picked up again. Questions over what will happen when I do return remain unanswered, from what I can gather I will self quarantine for 14 days as a minimum, however I am sure that as things develop and undoubtedly get worse in Europe and the UK, I will go into controlled quarantine. This would be a fair and appropriate response to controlling the spread of the virus, I would have no issues with entering forced quarantine should I be required to.
There’s still no update from the UK Foreign Office and their advice hasn’t changed. As it stands the airline I am due to fly with, Lufthansa, should resume flights at the end of the month, so until then I’m just going to sit tight and wait for a re-booking. With the travel situation being so unstable, trying to get home seems far to risky as getting caught out in another city at this point would be a disaster and cause all sorts of problems.