What its like to experience the coronavirus outbreak in China
Want to know what it’s like living in China during the novel corona virus outbreak? Below I will recount my time travelling across the country during Chinese New Year and arriving in my deserted city of Luoyang.
I have included photographs from local photographer Li Yongjian taken around my city since the start of the outbreak. I would have liked to snap my own pictures, but as a foreigner here, didn’t think it wise to head out with my camera with the security situation as it is.
I was on holiday in Tibet when I first heard news of the virus outbreak. The tour was mostly made up of expats living in China and as each day went by we saw more and more messages about the outbreak on group chats. As the situation in the rest of the country deteriorated, Tibet remained the only place in China with no documented cases (as of 13/02/20 there is still only 1 confirmed case).
After returning to Lhasa from Everest Base Camp we saw many people on the streets wearing surgical masks. There was a hospital across from our hotel and for the next two days there were queues outside stretching all the way down the street. One of our guides said that they were waiting for some sort of medication, but to the best of my knowledge there is no vaccine for 2019-nCoV.
As the tour drew to an end people started to worry about making it back to their homes in China with some deciding to escape Asia for Europe. By now it was clear that some cities were beginning to go into “lockdown”, meaning that entry and exit of these cities would be impossible. The problem was that there was a lot of misinformation being spread (unwittingly rather than maliciously by the looks of it) so no-one really knew what the situation would be until they attempted to return home.
I had a train booked from Lhasa to nearby Xi’an, where I would need to take a connecting train the final 350km home to Luoyang. My train had not been cancelled and I knew I could get most of the way home. Although it was the safest place to be, staying in Tibet wasn’t an option as you must have a special permit to visit and mine was about to expire. Visitors to Tibet are tightly controlled by the Chinese authorities so we had no option but to leave.
I have travelled during Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) many times over the years and the trains are always packed full. This time however the trains were perhaps 30% full, something I have never experienced in my 5 years in China. I was conspicuous as the only person without a mask on the train. I was lucky that it was still early on in the outbreak as I wouldn’t have been able to travel without one and they were (are) in very short supply.
The 22 hour train journey passed without incident. The route between Xining and Lhasa is the highest railway line in the world and tops passes over 5,000 metres (16,400 feet). I had the cabin to myself for most of the journey and spent the time working on the computer.
Xi’an and the Coronavirus
I have been to Xi’an many times and it’s always a busy city. I have been there on national holidays and the streets were crowded unlike anything I’ve ever seen. This time however it was a ghost city; the 12 million strong population confined to their apartment complexes and hospitals. I arrived at 9pm and was unable to find any connecting trains to Luoyang so booked into a hotel for the night.
The hotel was in the middle of a big renovation and resembled a building site. A young guy was sleeping in a makeshift bed behind reception and advised me to go elsewhere. The problem was I had already paid for the hotel and by now it was too late to find anywhere else. Eventually the boy woke his mum who readied a room for me. There was no heating or hot water and the temperature inside the room must have been around 0c.
I decided to have a walk around Xi’an to find some food but all of my favorite haunts were closed and the streets were eerily quiet. Even trusty McDonalds wasn’t open so things must have been bad. I managed to find a convenience store and bought some snacks to eat back at the hotel.
Early the next morning I made my way to the station and caught a train the final 90 minute journey home. Upon arrival I had my temperature checked and took a taxi the short ride to my apartment.
Luoyang under Coronavirus
When I arrived at the gates to my complex there were two security guards sitting at a table outside. Again, I had my temperature taken and had to fill out a form declaring where I had been and the trains I had travelled on. Thankfully I was allowed in to my apartment and nothing was said about quarantine. Colleagues and friends that arrived a few days after me from their own holidays are now being isolated for 14 days.
As I had been away for almost 2 weeks there was not much food at home so the first urgent thing was to go to the supermarket and stock up. I was a little worried that there would be panic buying and not much left. The supermarket still had plenty of food, but there was a marked increase in prices and certain staples like bread had sold out.
At the supermarket one of the cashiers kindly gave a mask (new and sealed) which I was thankful for as the security guard at my gate had indicated I need one and it would be difficult to get anywhere without one.
Again, the usually busy streets were pretty empty and most shops and restaurants are shut. There is a delivery service from some supermarkets to help those who aren’t able to leave, but most days I’ve gone out just to get out of the apartment briefly.
I’ve been home now for over two weeks and work has been cancelled until further notice. My employer has said they will pay 50% of our salary while we are stuck here which is something at least.
As things seem to be getting more serious I’m going to go to the supermarket and stock up on a few essentials to last as long as possible. I’m more worried about a lack of food and drinking water than the virus itself at the moment.
I’ve just returned from the supermarket. The streets are still very quiet. In the 4 years I’ve lived in Luoyang I’ve never seen the place so empty. Upon arrival at the supermarket I was greeted by two security guards in pink plastic overalls, facemasks and electric thermometers.
Now we must wear plastic gloves before entering the supermarket which seems like a good idea. The supermarket is beginning to run out of fresh produce which is a little worrying.
As of February 7th all apartment buildings in the city have now been assigned a police guard. People are only allowed to leave between 09:00 and 11:00 and only one member of the family is allowed out.
I managed to break the curfew and go out for a long ride on the bike a couple of days ago. I was starting to get cabin fever. I said I was going to the supermarket and just went around the city on my bike as it was a beautiful afternoon.
Over the previous 2 nights we have been told to stay indoors and keep all widows closed as they have been disinfecting the city. Large lorries have been spraying disinfectant across the roads and sidewalks. The Foreign Office has advised all British Nationals to leave China if they can.
It’s now been 16 days since I returned from Tibet. How long until things slowly return to normal, who knows?! All vehicles have been banned from the roads now and the only a handful of supermarkets remain open.
Check out this video shot across Luoyang for a closer look at what the city is like right now!
Let’s end on a happy note and remember that although China is suffering right now, it is home to some of the most beautiful places in the world!