In my previous post, I described the process for getting all the approvals to actually board a direct flight to China from the USA.1 In this post I’ll share what we experienced on landing in China until we were clear of all the quarantine and monitoring requirements.
On arrival in China the plane is treated as a contaminated area. American carriers make a technical stop in South Korea to change crews so that the passengers can depart the plane and new passengers board without the flight crew having to de-plane and be subject to arrival quarantine requirements.
All the staff and workers in the international arrivals area are in full PPE with goggles and face shields. The passengers are gradually deplaned and guided through a series of stages—a QR code for customs, an on-site COVID test (both nose and throat samples), immigration (who checked every page of my passport to make sure I had not been to any other countries recently), baggage claim and customs, registration for quarantine, separation by final destination and, finally, a special quarantine transportation bus to our assigned hotel. There is no choice in the quarantine hotel and the locations can be anywhere within an hour and a half drive of the airport. It took us about two hours from landing to get out of the airport.
We arrived at our hotel just as a huge downpour started. The police had cordoned off the road in front of the hotel. Between the heavy rain and getting drenched recovering our luggage from under the bus, the flashing police lights, staff spraying us and our luggage with disinfectant, things were a bit chaotic. Once they got our small group (less than two dozen) people into the hotel, they locked and sealed the hotel front doors. We had another hour to get through the quarantine registration (with the medical team) and the hotel registration to get a room. We were escorted to our room and told not to come out of our door during the next 14 days or our quarantine clock would re-start from zero.
After we got into our room, we were glad to get out of our soaked clothes. We unpacked enough to take a shower and go to bed. The next morning, we unpacked and re-arranged our room to give us the maximum amount of space to walk. The maximum distance we could walk in one direction was ten steps. If we took a detour into the bathroom and out, we could add a few more. I had a goal of getting 5,000 steps in each day, but it took some planning and a lot of pacing back and forth.
We had WeChat groups to communicate with the hotel front desk and the medical team. We had to use WeChat to report our temperatures twice a day (the medical team provided thermometers) and to resolve any problems with the front desk.
One of the biggest challenges was getting information about what happens next. We had been given some information at the airport and at the hotel about quarantine (all in Chinese). I am not sure how a non-Chinese speaker and reader would have gotten through this process. We helped another westerner at the airport who was trying to figure out what to do. Even determining how the 14 days was calculated was not clear at first. Eventually we learned that it was 14 x 24 hours from the time we registered at the front desk of the hotel.
During quarantine we had good wireless internet and were in contact with lots of friends. We found several friends in quarantine at about the same time and the same city as us. We chatted on WeChat and tried to collectively figure out what would happen next.
For example, we knew that after our fourteen days of quarantine (隔离) we had to spend another seven days under observation (观察). We got different information about where we could stay during observation. One friend called several hotels but when they found out this friend was coming out of quarantine the hotel would not accept a reservation. We had another friend who was about a week ahead of us in quarantine and provided a lot of helpful information about their experiences. We were able to use a travel app and book a hotel but could not get any information about what to expect once we were out.
Meals were delivered to our quarantine room three times a day. There was a small table outside our door in the hallway. We could open the door to retrieve our meals and put out our trash but could not step over the threshold (cameras in the hallway monitored us to be sure). We could hear the people coming through twice a day to disinfect the hallway after staff in full PPE had delivered food or picked up trash. We had COVID tests on several days including our last day. The test sample on the last day was quite thorough—both nostrils and throat samples. Fortunately, our test results were uniformly negative. We had to pay for the hotel room and food costs, but the COVID tests were free (small benefit).
Another complicating factor during our quarantine was a COVID outbreak that started in Nanjing but spread to many provinces and cities in China. We watched the COVID numbers with a bit of dismay as we realized if the trend was toward more COVID cases we could be required to stay in quarantine or observation for even longer periods of time. We saw international flights cancelled and many domestic activities scaled back during this time. Fortunately, by the end of our quarantine the trend lines were good, and we were discharged on schedule.
Getting out of quarantine it felt weird to be able to walk along the street. We caught a Didi (the Chinese version of Uber) to our hotel. Checking in required the hotel staff to check our passports, our visas, our quarantine discharge papers, our most recent COVID test results, our health code, our travel code, our arrival information, our departure information. We were glad to get to our room and be able to walk 20 steps across the room. The next day we walked around our neighborhood. After 14 days of having no choice in what we ate or when, everything looked good to eat.
Two days after getting out of quarantine, one of my WeChat friends messaged me and asked if I was out of quarantine. My cellphone step-counting app also shares my daily results with my contacts on my phone. He had seen my steps go from 5,000 a day to over 12,000. There are no secrets in China! I was happy to report I was a few steps closer to getting home.
During our seven days of observation, we had to do two more COVID tests. Our quarantine hotel had not given us any information when we were discharged about where to do these tests or how and to whom to report the results. We asked our hotel, and they gave us the name of a local hospital. We went to the local hospital and followed the normal Chinese hospital procedures (lining up in multiple places to register, have a doctor order the test, pay for the test, stand in line for the test only to be told we need to also pick up the test vial, swabs, and labels, stand in line for the test vial, stand back in line for the test. When we got to the front of the line the nurse told us their hospital could not do COVID tests for those coming out of quarantine and we were supposed to go to a specific testing site. That was a waste of almost two hours.
Back at the hotel we learned they had a sheet of designated testing sites for that part of the city, but no one had given that to us when we checked in. Looking at the list we realized the testing sites were only open from 8–9 am (when we had been at the local hospital). They were helpful in calling another hospital who said they could do the test for us. We spent another two hours repeating the hospital procedures again and finally getting the COVID test. When we came out of quarantine, we were told to avoid crowded places, so it was a bit disconcerting to be in the normal crowded lines of a Chinese hospital.
We had another friend who was out of quarantine ahead of us. They were resident in the city and returned to their apartment. They were told not to leave their apartment for seven days except to do the required COVID testing. We were much freer to walk around. We got more steps each day when it wasn’t raining. We also enjoyed a great variety of food and drink. We were also able to contact several friends we had not seen since before COVID and get together in small groups.
Meanwhile we had to check with the neighborhood committee to see about returning to our city of residence. After we found the right person, we had to provide our travel itinerary, when we arrived in China, where we did our quarantine, our planned time to return and a copy of our quarantine discharge papers. After checking everything they told us it looked like it would be OK for us to return but then we would have another seven days of observation and two more COVID tests. They told us to check back with them two days before we traveled in case anything changed—“every day there are changes.” It was hard to book our flights online since there were multiple warnings about documentation required for our flight. We also continued to watch the local cases. Two days before our flight there were some cases in our quarantine city. Fortunately, they were not in the district where our hotel was located, or our return could have been further delayed.
After our second COVID test we picked up the negative test reports and started packing for the final leg of our return trip. We had to watch the flight status because of the downturn in travel due to the Nanjing COVID outbreak. Travel had plummeted and flights were being cancelled. Fortunately, our flight was on time and relatively full (two previous flights to our city showed as cancelled when we checked in). Getting into the airport required showing two health codes. Checking in required showing our final destination health code and our COVID tests. The COVID tests were checked again at the boarding gate.
We got to our city of residence, collected our luggage, showed our health code to get out of the airport, and headed home. The next day our local neighborhood committee scheduled a COVID test for us and sent a quarantine van to transport us to and from the test center. The test center for our district had more than a dozen test sampling sites setup. They could easily test hundreds of people an hour. Fortunately, our city has not had any local cases and there were only a few returning travelers like us getting tested.
We are still waiting for our second COVID test and then we will be clear and free until the next time we travel. We feel blessed that we were able to return and look forward to re-connecting with our local friends.
One of our friends asked, “Was it worth it?” If you make a trip like this, you need to count the cost. We searched for the cheapest flights and found the round trip was 3–4 times what we would pay pre-COVID. There are also costs for the COVID tests (US$550), the quarantine hotel and food (ours was relatively cheap at US$1200), additional hotel days for observation and testing, taxis for getting around and a flight/taxi back to our home city. From the time we left our place in the US until we arrived back in China free of any COVID restrictions it was a full month. If someone likes quiet and has a lot of books to read the time can be put to good use but it is not my preferred way to travel. As ChinaSource founder Brent Fulton commented, “the days of cheap flights and easy visas are gone.”
Once you get over the COVID Great Wall life looks pretty normal with almost no worries about the impact of COVID on daily life. Travel within China looks very attractive now compared to any international trips.
Useful Links for the Stout of Heart and Financially Able
- Getting invitation documents for visas
- “The Ultimate Guide to the PU Invitation Letter,” Chengdu Expat.com
- “Getting a PU Letter for China—Guide to Invitation Letters,” Vital Consular Blog
- Chinese Embassy and Consulates in the US—notices and announcements
- What to expect upon arrival in China
- Requirements vary from country to country. For example, the European Chamber website provides information specific to European countries, “HDC Code Application Policies,” https://www.europeanchamber.com.cn/en/national-news/3352/hdc_code_application_policies (accessed September 13, 2021).
Image credit: Peter Bryant.
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