I’ve been putting off writing this blog post. The last anyone heard from me on here, I was in the midst of travelling in the south of China and having a great, if slightly wet, time. However at the time of writing my last two blog posts, the opposite was true.
I’m sure most people can imagine what I’m about to say. Just over two weeks ago, I flew home from China as a result of the escalating situation surrounding the novel coronavirus. Despite the speed with which the decision to leave was made, it was a very difficult one to make.
I don’t want to write this post to scare or reassure anyone or educate/share information. I am not any kind of expert and there’s enough going on in the media. This is only my experience, my feelings, my thought process.
The coronavirus has been around since December and most people have been aware of it but not concerned. I can pinpoint the day this all changed, at least from my point of view. On Thursday 23rd January I was in Huangshan, wasting time until my overnight train to Zhangjiajie (张家界) that evening.
With Spring Festival (春节, or Chinese New Year) only a few days away, many people had been or were about to travel home. 385 million people leave the urban centres where they live and work to return to their more rural familial homes. This counts as the largest mass migration in the world, to the point that it has it’s own term in Chinese – 春运, chunyun.
On the day that I was travelling to my next destination, I noticed a difference. There had been a change in atmosphere, a slight increase in tension that manifested itself in a few different ways. While people wearing masks is a fairly common place sight in China, there were more people than usual. This was combined with the fact that there were barely any people at the train station, not what I would have expected a few days before the biggest holiday of the year.
My first train was a one hour journey from Huangshan (黄山) to Shangrao (上饶). For the first time ever, I was asked why I wasn’t wearing a mask. Then on to my second train, from Shangrao (上饶) to Zhangjiajie (张家界), 12 hours in total. On this train, only a handful of people weren’t wearing masks.
I arrived in Zhangjiajie on the morning of Friday 24th and after a long night of travelling I just spent the day resting and recovering. After what I had noticed on the way over I started to look in to the situation around the virus and how it had started to spread beyond its starting point in Wuhan. I had also been told some rather extreme rumours by a friend in Shanghai that really spooked me. This combined with what seemed like more solid evidence, the 1000 bed hospital to be built in 5 days in Wuhan for example, added up to something to be more concerned about.
Now, I’m not one for conspiracy theories or someone who will get wrapped up in mass hysteria or a media storm but for whatever reason, this one got to me. Maybe it was the feeling that, as with any official news in China, what I was hearing couldn’t necessarily be totally trusted. If something like this was happening in the UK, it would be fairly easy to tell what is fact and what is most likely just a rumour. But in China, there was always doubt in my mind that maybe this rumour was just fact that had been forced to get out to the public in a different way.
I woke up early the next day (Saturday 25th, Chinese New Year!) in order to catch my dad before he went to bed and talk things through. Overnight I had been considering whether I felt comfortable with the idea of continuing to travel, especially considering I was doing it by myself and that things were probably only going to get worse. It seemed like there were three options:
- Continue travelling but taking all the sensible precautions, for example wearing a mask, making hand sanitiser my new best friend. However this choice was made more difficult by the fact that masks were beginning to sell out across the country.
- Return to Shanghai and hide out in my friends’ flat for a while, even until the end of the holidays, and see how things progressed. One of the other Edinburgh students that I had stayed with while previously in Shanghai, Conlan, was still there so I wouldn’t be alone on this one.
- Go back to the UK, once again at least for the rest of the holidays to see how things progress.
I was surprisingly open to not travelling anymore. I thought it would be the last thing I’d want to do, considering how long I had been planning it and looking forward to it but it had very quickly become an uncomfortable experience. At the same time however, I wasn’t ready to ‘give up’ and go home. That wasn’t something I felt like I could do, give up on the year and on China.
So that only left one option – retreat back to Shanghai. Now that I had decided, I wasn’t wasting any time. I booked a flight back to Shanghai for that evening. It had only been 12 hours or so since I had started to freak out a little but I felt good in my decision. I had a while until I needed to leave for the airport because I had been up early to talk to my dad.
But then (because what this story needs is another unexpected twist) I got a message from Conlan in Shanghai saying that he had decided to go home. Home as in England. It made me rethink because he had some very good points. Already being in Shanghai, he could see what it was really like and that was empty. Shanghai empties out for Spring Festival anyway but banks were shut, restaurants were closed, the streets were empty. Conlan was of the opinion that if we were going to be sat inside watching Netflix for the next month it might as well be at home, right?
I had to agree with him and so four hours after booking my flight back to Shanghai, I was booking one back to the UK for the next morning. I know I’d said I wasn’t ready to let go of China yet but stopping to think about it and taking it step by step made it easier to make that decision.
Originally this was going to be one big blog to explain how and why I came home and how it felt but I think this might be getting a bit long, even for me. It has taken me a while to start writing this blog because there’s been a lot to process (as well as a lot of people to catch up with!) but now that I have it’s acting as a nice moment to reflect and sort through what was, at the time, a real whirlwind. I hope you’ll stick around to see part two, getting home and what it’s like to be back. If you thought this has been a rollercoaster, just you wait!