Post coronavirus – lesser adventures in China

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.


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.

European Jaunts

This week, I am progressing in my little timeline I have made for myself and you are joining me as I regale the events of my short tour of the European mainland, mostly managing to confuse myself as to what language I should be speaking at any one time.

I am a millennial and so the first thing I did when I touched down in Amsterdam was to turn my phone off aeroplane mode and tell those who needed to know that I had landed (Free and my folks). I had an email from ThaiAir and no luck on the key there. Nothing from my AirBnb host. Matt couldn’t find it. And then there was a message from Charlie. It told me that he hadn’t dropped his key off yet and he would leave it in a secure location for me.

My legs went weak. I don’t know if I’ve felt such crippling relief before in my life. I was nearly crying. I thanked him so profusely he probably thought it was completely fake, but he was literally the only way I could get into the flat. I had been lowkey panicking for twenty-four hours and I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that I may have lost five years of my life to it.

Free picked me up at the airport and took me for pancakes which was a fantastic idea and a small hint of what was to come in my next week of exciting Dutch culinary surprises. Pancakes are apparently a Dutch national dish which I embrace wholeheartedly while loosening my belt. And they are not done properly if they are not lathered in maple syrup, sugar, icing sugar or all three. I had to do my guestly duties of course and sample all this.

It was delicious. In fact, all the food I ate all week, even the food I didn’t think I’d like but tried because I had to be polite (beetroot) was so good that I had seconds.

So I had three full days in Delft, a lovely city that seems to be close to a lot of the major cities in the Netherlands (although that might be because the Netherlands is not a very large country) and I realised why a dish the Dutch love is full of sugar and yet there doesn’t seem to be too much obesity problems (I was not looking for it and I didn’t notice it – that is all I know and I’m too lazy to look it up), would be because of the cycling. Cycling is so easy to do here. There are bicycle lanes everywhere and while cyclists don’t necessarily have right of way, if there is an accident involving a bicycle, the cycler is always right. And when you can cycle fifteen minutes into the middle of town, or thirty minutes into a different city when driving would take the same amount of time, plus finding somewhere to park and then walking into the city centre, et cetera, why wouldn’t you?

So the first day, we cycled into Delft, and saw the Leaning Tower of Delft, only slightly less famous than that in Pisa. The thing is, in Delft in the Olde Kerk, they noticed it was starting to lean and so corrected it while building, so instead, it’s more of a bendy tower.

Inside the Olde Kerk, I saw the burial sites of a lot of “Dutch Heroes”, of whom I’d never heard, even though one of them “invaded” the UK by sailing up the Thames into London. Of course, I have forgotten which one did that, as I got distracted by a Dutch name I did know – Johannes Vermeer, who lived and died in Delft, and who, when he died was not very wealthy, and so was buried in an upright position, so they didn’t have to spend so much money on his grave.

Then we went to the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) so named because it was built in the 14th century while the Olde Kerk was built in the 13th. And I saw the OG William of Orange’s tomb in all its finery. This is not the William of Orange that became King of England, since he was the third of that name (and coincidentally the third King William of England as well). This was the first William of Orange of the Netherlands, who led a revolution and was assassinated. It’s actually kind of convoluted and confusing and I had a very interesting time trying to learn about it and giving myself a headache. It also happens to be the tombs of the current Royal family, so whenever any of them die, there is a huge procession and stuff for them to this church in Delft, which is pretty cool.

We broke for lunch, during which I backhanded a wasp by accident and didn’t feel bad as it was trying to eat my pastrami sandwich, and it wasn’t as dazed as the one I yeeted (yote) across the square with a menu for trying to get into my Fanta, before we tackled the New Church tower. It was very tall, and out of my comfort zone in two ways. One; it turns out that I can jump out of a plane no problems, but standing 500ft off the ground in a structurally sound church was not a good thing for me (I channelled Donkey’s mantra: “Just keep moving don’t look down”) and two; steps that have gaps between them cause severe discomfort in the form of hugging the central pillar or the handrail when someone is trying to pass me in the opposite direction and not talking while on the move (although on the way up that might have been due to lack of ability to breathe too) all the while wishing that I couldn’t see through the steps down below where I was standing or up to see how far I had to go.

But comfort zones are there to be scoffed at so I went to the top and marvelled at the view while reconsidering my Ravenclaw house status, since the common room is at the top of a Tower too. Just kidding (mostly).

Incidentally, the tower here is also pretty interesting, as they first started building it in the classic red brick, but they wanted the tower to be fancy, so they continued it in white brick, and then ran out of money, so had to finish it with cheap white brick which over time goes black, so the Nieuwe Kerk tower is a tricolore. The height you get up to is in the black part and it is very high.

After my shaky legs continued to be my biggest fans and supported me back down the stairs of Doom, Free suggested ice cream and I think I said yes before she stopped speaking and it was delicious.

Unfortunately, it also put me into a sugar coma during the boat tour and I ended up falling asleep, despite my best efforts to stay awake. This was much to my chagrin as it was a really interesting tour and I learned a lot during the bits I was awake for.

Then it was time for cheese. I was sad at first because I didn’t think I could take any with me, because China has some funny import laws, but it turns out you can take pasteurised cheese with you, which Gouda generally is. I bought some before you could say cheese and I have enjoyed it immensely.

Then, with a quick detour to a windmill (because Netherlands, duh) it was time to cycle home.

Day 2 was arts day. Today we went to The Hague, and my bottom told me that I was definitely not cycling fit and that it protested against a repeat offence. This may have been due to the fact that Dutch people are tall and the Beerses’ bikes at their lowest levels were still slightly too tall for me. This was only a problem when I had to stop, and nearly toppled a couple of times; I could still cycle fine. But my bottom didn’t like it.

Luckily the Hague wasn’t too far away, and I was rewarded with the possibility that I might have ended up on Dutch TV, as we walked behind a reporter person doing their thing while being watched by cameras as we passed through the Dutch parliament. We saw their PM’s office and then went to a museum and William of Orange’s personal art gallery, during which I saw literally the funniest painting I have ever seen and cannot get over. Even looking at my photo of it makes me laugh aloud.

I also saw paintings by famous artists that I had heard of: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Rubens, and by those who are supposedly famous but I had not heard of: Gerard ter Borch, Carel Fabritius, Jacob van Ruisdael and Paulus Potter, to name a few. It was very interesting going to an art museum with an art historian, something I’d never done before as she told me several things that were actually really interesting. I have to admit that I have never been much for art or art history, but that’s because I realised fairly early on in life that I didn’t have much talent for art and so I wrote it all off in one go. So having someone there who knew their stuff and also knew how to not make it boring was pretty awesome. And I saw some famous paintings up close, including Scarlett Johansson.

But as an art luddite, by the end of the day, I was all arted out, so with aa stop at the supermarket for ingredients for dinner, it was time to go home for more delicious food! The Netherlands food is fantastic and I love it.

In the evening, it was almost compulsory for us to watch The Girl with the Pearl Earring, so we did, and as some of it was filmed on location in Delft, it was somewhat disconcerting to see Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth travel around the same places we had just been the day before.

My final day was much quieter, due to the fact that Free had to work, so I did some work of my own before heading out into the sun and catching some rays of European sun.

The next day we were up bright and early for I was travelling by coach to Germany! I love that I can do this in Europe. In China, it takes me two hours to get across the city I live in. two hours in Europe can get you into a different country.

Ten hours can get you stuck in traffic in Frankfurt, but I’m really not complaining, honest. There’s nothing like being stuck on a warm bus while it’s a beautiful day outside and you are being driven through actual story book countryside. It took me too long to find my camera to get a picture of the most stereotypical German town I’ve ever seen, but the image will stay in my head forever.

Despite all the travel I had a lovely evening with my friends in the Airbnb we were at, catching up and having them ribbing me gently about how often I spoke about China. It was just like old times and I loved it.

The next day was the wedding itself and let me tell you, organising twelve people through the shower wasn’t easy but somehow we managed it and we were all suited and booted and ready to go on time. In fact, the car comrades were early enough to sneak in a quick bev before the other guests started arriving, although Lewis did have a misadventure with alcohol-free beer.

I cried. Everyone cried.  We all needed tissues, seeing our two closest friends express their love for one another, Maggie doing it in a language that was not her native tongue. It was a magical moment, made even more so by the very apt addition of some Lord of the Rings music. And then the festivities began, and much drinking was done. I tried to be careful and not overdo it immediately, and I’m afraid to report I only partially succeeded. I remember the whole night, up until when I fell asleep by the fire, but the clarity of my memories does fade in and out, as attested to by the killer hangover I woke up to the next morning. But breakfast and plentiful water cured it in time for a quick jaunt to a nearby lake for a cooling swim.

The rest of that Sunday passed lazily as we were all fairly tired, and most of us had to get up early the next morning as we all departed to various corners of the planet. I completely unpacked and repacked while we played games and casually watched Hot Fuzz and Ghostbusters.

The next thing I knew, I was getting up at six thirty in order to catch a train, to catch a plane, to catch the MTR, to catch the highspeed train, to catch the Metro, to catch a taxi, back to my flat in China. My European tour was over and it barely felt like it had started. But other than one aging twenty-four hours, I had a total blast that was comp