The massage was the last thing we did that wasn’t affected by the coronavirus, despite there being nearly a week left of our holiday. The hotel had BBC news 24 and CNN news and we had either one or the other on whenever we weren’t out for visits.
Saturday 26th January, we were due to go to Beijing Zoo. We had been told the day before that we wouldn’t be able to go to the Panda Enclosure, but the rest of it would be fine. This was not the case and the entire zoo had shut. But Tracy was a gem and she had arranged for us to go to the Summer Palace. It was the winter and therefore a contradiction of terms, but it was one of the only couple of places in the city left open, because it was all open air. Anywhere that had any sort of enclosed area was shut, because that was the more likely places for the coronavirus to spread. At this point the masks were now compulsory and we were weirdly getting used to them, as well as drying our hands out massively with the amount of alcohol gel and spray that we were using.
The Summer Palace is actually also beautiful in the Winter and we didn’t even get to explore all of it. The lake was frozen and, in the sun, I could see why the Emperors and Empresses liked it. It was also a great place to see the traditional pottery that always gets broken in the cheesy rom-coms where a normal girl ends up in a rich guy’s house and breaks some ancient Chinese pottery, and how it was made. Because we, not being rich guys, couldn’t afford pottery, we instead bought ourselves bracelets made in the same way.
However this was only a morning activity, so in the afternoon we explored the Hutongs, which were very similar to the Old Town in Huangshan, if busier, and the shopping mall next to the hotel, where I lost my hat, and we got very lost trying to find a specific restaurant that Tracy told us about that sold Peking Duck.
I was very disappointed in the duck as it was delicious for about three mouthfuls and then was very oily and greasy. I persevered but much preferred the duck from a couple of days previously. Never mind; at least we had a million sunflower seeds back in the hotel room.
PICTURE OF ME WITH THE DUCK
The next day was far and away the worst day of the trip. Tracy assured us that while we couldn’t see the Terracotta Warriors, the rest of our time in Xi’an would be fine, and there wouldn’t be anything else cancelled. So, we hopped on another 5-hour train to arrive and be told by Milly, the Xi’an guide, that literally nothing was open and we wouldn’t be able to do anything. This was the scary part of the virus that we hadn’t really seen in Beijing. The region that Xi’an is in, Shaanxi, is next to the Hubei province. When we got in the car, we and our suitcases were disinfected. We were given more masks and told that we needed to change them every four hours. We were very worried that we wouldn’t be allowed to check in to the hotel, and indeed it felt like the hotel tried very hard not to let us check in. we had a temperature check, we had to sign a form saying we had not been to Hubei, we had to provide our train tickets to prove this.
Eventually we were able to check in, but had to eat in the hotel restaurant as it was the only restaurant open. Milly tried to persuade us to only stay in the hotel room, but we rebelled at that. While we wanted to be safe, Lauren would never be coming back to China, so we wanted to do as much as possible. The problem was that there was literally nothing to do. So, Milly booked our train back to Beijing for the next day, the Monday, rather than the Wednesday. And we had cocktails after dinner, because what else could we do, plus we needed to relax as best we could.
As the train was in the afternoon and against her better wishes, once we’d checked out, we got as close as we were allowed to the Wild Goose Pagoda, and got told off more than once for taking pictures. The streets were deserted and it honestly looked like those scenes that you see in apocalypse movies. It was surreal and something I know I will remember for the rest of my life, simply because it’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I know the quiet of a deserted street at three in the morning, and it’s kind of peaceful. This was at midday and it was a frightened quiet. You could sense the fear in the air. You could see it in the half of people’s faces that weren’t covered by masks. You could hear it in the hurried exchanges between restaurant chefs and those who were buying their produce from them, as there was only one supermarket in the entire city of 12 million people, and the restaurants had stocked up for a Chinese New Year that basically hadn’t happened, and so needed to shift the produce. It was visceral. It was fright inducing. It was something that I never want to experience ever again.
We went back to Beijing and were met by a very apologetic Tracy, but she had only known what we had known. We didn’t blame her at all, and made her aware of that. We were very appreciative of what she was doing for us. She got us back into the same hotel, although that was a very stressful experience too, not to mention all the train travel, which is almost guaranteed to be a hotbed of infection, especially for Lauren. For some reason, she was running a little warmer than usual. Stress, layers of clothes, and having gone from a warm car to a warm hotel meant that the temperature was running above 37°C and while that is a perfectly standard temperature for a human to run, they wouldn’t let us check in until it was below 37°C. even 37.1 was too high. We finally managed it, but it took a good half an hour, and we bought out the shop next door’s entire stock of masks, even if they were fashion masks and not medical ones because there weren’t masks for sale anywhere else. And it was essentially law to wear them in public places now.
Beijing was less scary than Xi’an. It still felt somewhat normal. They were fewer people in the streets and the malls were still empty, except for the supermarkets which were heaving, but it didn’t have the air of fear that Xi’an had. And restaurants were shut for Chinese New Year, and not for the virus in many cases.
On Tuesday, Tracy picked us up in the afternoon, after I had purchased myself a new suitcase. I’d been literally dragging the old one around for the past few days, but it was unmanageable and I was worried it would break further. Plus, it was at least fifteen years old so it had had a very good run. And I got a fancy new one with four wheels rather than two, and a solid shell, rather than fabric. It was very nice. And cheaper than I had feared too, thanks to the shops’ desperation to make any sales at all.
We went to the art district of Beijing, which like the rest of the city, was nigh on deserted, but the shops that were open were our kind of shops. Tracy told us that it was where all the young people hung out, and it was true that it had that vibe and Lauren and I would have been very comfortable hanging out there too, you know, if there had been more people. This was where we could truly shop for souvenirs too, in a way that we had desperately been hoping to do in Xi’an. I got my parents’ requested tea set, and a miniature set for myself, and Lauren was able to get gifts for her whole family, something she was getting slightly concerned she would not be able to do.
My virtual pocket very much lightened, we then were whisked off to the Olympic Stadium and the famous Bird’s Nest. It was a stupendous piece of architecture, as was the bubble-esque water park, which excitingly is being repurposed for the Beijing Winter Olympics 2022. They’re turning one of the pools into the curling rink and possibly also an ice-skating rink will be in there as well.
On the way back to the hotel, we drove past tomorrow’s attractions; the Temple of Earth, and the Lama Temple (yes, I did spell that right. Think Dalai Lama but not as awesome) where we wouldn’t be able to go in, but we would be able to look at from outside, and at the hotel, we started packing everything up as we would be moving to an airport hotel for our final night before we headed home.
Or at least, that was the plan. Lauren says, no calls that wake you up are good calls. we were woken up at 7.30am by her company contact. The Foreign Commonwealth Office had advised against any unnecessary travel to China, and so they were bringing her home a day early. Tracy would pick us up and we would go to the airport pronto. I would have to change my flight and bring it forward a day if possible, with Tracy’s help. All systems were a go, and we were both a little panicky.
It wasn’t as frightening as Xi’an but I would be lying if I didn’t shed a few tears, as we were on the phone to our parents to tell them the news after we’d got it ourselves, and again as I said goodbye to Lauren at her security check. I was able to get a flight that day, and for only an hour after Lauren’s took off but it wasn’t a great way to end my holiday.
That said, I saw some amazing things and after we’d had a few days in quarantine to calm down, Lauren and I did agree that we had done a lot even if hadn’t quite been the holiday we wanted or planned. And hey, it’ll be one heck of a story to tell our kids and grandkids.
Quarantine and Return
I was in Shenzhen for four more days before I decided it was time to come back to the UK. I was concerned; Guangdong region was the second most affected after Hubei, and quite honestly, I wanted to see my family for real rather than over the phone. I had planned on staying out there for much longer without coming back to the UK, but this was something beyond our ken and I wanted the security of being in my home country, where, if I did contract the coronavirus, I would not be hindered by a language barrier.
I flew home on a very expensive flight, and I want to thank everyone who donated to help get me home. I appreciate each and every penny donated.
Lauren welcomed me into her home for two weeks, where we served out our self-imposed quarantine as, if in the worst-case scenario, we had contracted the virus, we didn’t want to pass it on to anyone. Lauren happened to have a friend who was a journalist and who wanted to talk to us about it. We decided to do that interview, and it spiralled. We ended up on different local radio stations multiple times and even made it onto BBC Midlands Today to talk about the fact that we decided to self-quarantine. We didn’t want this fame, if you can call it that, but we did want to stress that we were doing it to be better safe than sorry.
Towards the end of the quarantine, we did get tested for the coronavirus, and it increased my agitation and need to leave Lauren’s house more than ever since as soon as we had negative results, we would have been free to leave. Eventually we did get the results. Officially, neither of us have the coronavirus, or Covid-19 as it is now being called. And while quarantine was boring in a way and claustrophobic in others, Lauren and I are still best friends, and are grateful to our families for helping us out during, and after.
This is my last post now until I go back to China. This blog is primarily about China and my experiences there, and while I am back in the UK, nothing too much of note is happening.
This is also my 25th post, being posted on the anniversary of my arrival in China, so it feels fitting that for now, it goes on hiatus.