A Return to China

A personal blog about my return to China in March 2020

Welcome to China!

Travel day: Monday, March 9th

On a clear and sunny March Vancouver morning I arrived to a sparsely occupied International terminal at YVR. There was a noticeable difference between the USA departures section and the International area with the usual traffic and bustle present at one end of the departure gates which not nearly matched at the other. There was no lineup at any of the check in lines and the China Eastern boarding agent was happy to see someone coming who required his assistance. I asked for my usual aisle seat and was given the option of getting one in either of an empty row of three or of two. I took the two seater.

The waiting sign at the Security check said 0-5 minutes and I whisked through usually tedious process very quickly with only my plastic container of “wet ones” disinfectant wipes causing a slight delay (the sensor thought it might have been a liquid) and once approved by the agent, I was on the way to the boarding gate.

Having been warned about the lengthy delays upon arrival at Pudong, I stopped by the duty free and a convenience stores to get some water and snacks. I usually abhor those places due to their over-pricing but this time it felt different. The stores were well-stocked with merchandise and staff but devoid of customers. I almost felt that it was an act of charity buying something from them and even agreed to the outrageous “buy two, get one free” scam for both chocolate bars and blueberries.

The boarding gate itself was sleepy, and once called to board the passengers moved quickly to get on the flight. Anyone who has flown to China knows the boarding lines, even with the grouping system, are long and subject to people cutting in at any time. Not so today. There was no need to do so.

I was one of the final travellers to board but had no trouble finding an overhead bin for my carry-on and settle into my “luxurious” two-seat (an aisle & a window!). All of the flight staff had masks and gloves, and every Chinese passenger I could see was wearing a mask. We’ve all read that masks are one of the least important means of preventing the spread or catching the virus, but the pressure to conform to this societal and cultural expectation is immense as China fights the “people’s war” against all things virus. I eventually put on my mask about 30 minutes in.

The flight was no more than half full (certainly less than the 70% estimate by the agent at check in) and I could have had my pick of empty two, three or even four-person rows! After we took off and achieved cruising altitude, the crew came around to conduct temperature checks. I have to admit a moment of panic about this. “What if I have a high temperature? Will I be whisked away to a ‘special area’ for the duration of the flight and immediately handed over to the police to be taken to a dreaded ‘community quarantine’ location?”

Luckily, I seemed to pass this test and the beverage and meal service began. I was certainly much more cautious about not eating with my fingers and using the utensils as I dived into my chicken and rice meal. After that, the flight settled into the usual flow with the lights being dimmed and everyone napping or watching movies. Next stop, Shanghai!

Hazmat wearing staff take health forms from arriving passengers at Shanghai-Pudong airport.

Arrival:

Our thankfully uneventful flight brought us to Pudong, Shanghai’s busy International airport. As we prepared for our arrival, we were given a health form to complete asking us for information and details about our recent travels and about our current health status. The flight crew was also giving out a QR code for those who wanted to digitize this process. Trips to Japan, S. Korea, Iran and Italy were specifically mentioned as locations from which people should identify that they had travelled to. Once the plane landed everyone got up for the usual race to the exit door, but we were politely told to return to their seats because the “quarantine officer” had to board and clear the plane for arrival. We waited for about 45 minutes during which time, we only saw one young foreign family being escorted off the plane. Not sure if this was because they were a family with young children or if they had shown signs of the virus. Or maybe it was nothing.

After being released from the plane there were two new steps that I could identify which had been added to the usual deplaning procedure.  First, we had to line up and hand in our forms.  The line for those who had completed the digital process with the QR code was actually moving a little slower than the paper line.  Score one for food old-fashioned paper-based bureaucracy.  The second new step was a rather fancy temperature taking station, where we each ushered into a “lane” surrounded by newly-installed technology where our temperature was taken and once we had “passed” we were sent to the customs line for the usual passport stamping and fingerprint retrieval.  After that it was to baggage claim and then the final walk through “nothing to declare line” where we were slightly delayed as what appeared to be a group from Japan were being directed to a specific exit line. 

Two things that stood out about the arrival experience.  One was the amount of Hazmat wearing staff which lent a B-level Science fiction movie quality to the atmosphere in the building.  The second was the scarcity of passengers.  Any Chinese airport is usually a hive of energy with lots of hustle and bustle.  This was noticeably absent and while it speeded up the processing time it certainly lent to the overall surreal-ness of the arrival to China. 

A card with the temperature of the food handlers at the McDonald’s at Pudong airport.

While waiting for my ride I saw a friendly McDonald’s in the terminal and wanting to get my pre-quarantine meal wandered in an ordered a Big Mac.  Upon getting my bag of fast-food I noticed a card stapled to the packing with the names and recent temperatures of those handling the food to signal that they were healthy and virus free.  Hadn’t seen that anywhere before.

Arriving at my apartment, it took about 20 minutes for me to get registered with local security guard and get my temperature taken for the fourth time that day. It was a relief to get to my apartment about 4 hours after I landed. All in all, a not too bad arrival day. Quarantine here we come!

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