This has been a tumultuous week in China. From widespread unrests to the passing of Jiang Zemin.
Right after I posted my previous blog entry last Saturday, things boiled over in Shanghai. A vigil that evening on Wūlǔmùqí road for the 10 burn victims in Ürümqi turned into a protest. This was followed up the next day by various vigils around the city. On Monday the police squelched these vigils by showing up in a large presence across the city. Even a week later there is still a lot of policy presence across the city. Much more than usual. As a result, the city has been quiet for the last few days, but everyone is tense. The unusual cold weather 2C/35F no doubt played a role too why it was so quiet.
Wednesday evening, I had dinner at a friend’s place near Wūlǔmùqí road, the epicenter of the protests in Shanghai. There were parked police cars with flashing emergency lights at every street corner in that neighborhood. I jokingly remarked to my host that they must feel very safe now. While it was quiet in that neighborhood, it wasn’t the weekend before and we’ve all seen those videos in the Western media. It was interesting to me that while these videos were hard to find inside of China, they were readily available on the US version of Tiktok. It makes me wonder whether Tiktok is using this as an example to show the US regulators that they are independent from their Chinese holding company.
The police presence is not just in the French concession, the area around Wūlǔmùqí road. It is all throughout Shanghai, including people’s square and Xīntiāndì (an affluent dining and shopping area) which are close to my hotel.
The city is restless and one way this is noticeable is through the never-ending rumors going around the grapevine. On Wednesday the two main rumors were that the Shanghai government was going to shutdown Pudong airport and that they were going to mandate a 60-day lock down. Both turned out to be false. Now at the end of the week things have turned a bit more upbeat. Various cities around China have reduced their anti-COVID measures, from stopping required daily COVID test results for entering public spaces (grocery stores, subways, etc.) to releasing buildings from quarantine. While Shanghai didn’t reduce its mandated COVID tests yet (currently every 48-hours), it did release many buildings across the city from quarantine and you no longer have to show your health code to enter the subway and city parks.
On Wednesday afternoon it was announced that Jiang Zemin passed away. This is interesting timing. On the one hand it gave the government a story to draw attention away from the unrests, on the other hand, Jiang Zemin was responsible for opening China and its resulting prosperity, something the protestors could use to amplify their message. So far everything is quiet is Shanghai, but I don’t have the feeling this is the end of it yet.
It was very interesting to see how China is mourning. Obviously, there is an outpouring of sympathy messages on social media, but popular Chinese apps such as Alipay and even banking apps all turned their usual colorful front pages to grey. When I first saw this, it was very confusing, and I wondered whether there was something wrong with my phone but when other apps started doing the same, I made the connection.
This is my last weekend in China. I’m flying back on Tuesday. It’s been a different visit than I had imagined but still a very good one. I met with many friends and business relationships, I saw many new companies that I hadn’t been exposed to before that have fascinating business models such as Xiaohongshu (小红书) a retail/review/streaming company, I spent a lot of time with my company’s engineers who loved having an engineering leader over to interact with. Finally, I saw history in the making. I got to experience what the Chinese people must endure to comply with zero-COVID, how it is boiling over, and how the government is responding to their grievances. I doubt China will ever become a democracy according to our Western model, and these protests won’t make it change, but that doesn’t mean China doesn’t evolve and that the Chinese government doesn’t listen to its people. While I still think China has a rough 4-months ahead as it gradually opens up to more COVID exposures, I am more hopeful now than I was a few weeks ago. Only time will tell …
At the beginning of this 2nd trip blog, I mentioned that I wasn’t sure what was going to happen and that I had to be flexible with my plans. Well, that flexibility is being tested.
I was originally going to Hangzhou and then on to Beijing this weekend. I had planned to take a car from Shanghai to Hangzhou, have my meetings there, and then take the high-speed train from Hangzhou to Beijing. Despite most folks around me having the infamous popup #3, a health code warning that explains that they are blocked from entering Beijing, I was still fine. However, I was getting more and more alerts on Monday that restaurants in Beijing were going to take-out only. Once I began getting messages from friends, whom I was planning to meet in person, that they were leaving the city I really began to doubt whether I should go. The last straw for me was a message that the internet companies (Baidu, Bytedance, Kauishou, etc.) were going to a work-from-home regime and that I had to do a video conference call with them from my Beijing hotel room instead. At that point I had enough and cancelled my trip to Beijing.
This all happened on Monday evening. If the events leading up to this hadn’t been bad enough, on Tuesday morning I too got the dreaded popup #3. I was no longer allowed into Beijing, so whatever hope I still had of making it to Beijing disappeared. Why you get a popup #3 is a complete mystery and it appears random to everyone I asked. I got one on Tuesday and on Thursday it was gone, only to reappear on Saturday.
This still left me with a trip to Hangzhou to visit companies there (Alibaba and others). Hangzhou is a moderately large city about 100km from Shanghai. I was going to stay in a gorgeous hotel near Hangzhou’s famous West Lake and I was looking forward to that. Even though my schedule was busy in Hangzhou, I had planned to hike around the lake. However, on Wednesday evening the Shanghai government announced new COVID-19 control measures for folks entering the city that would go into effect 24-hours later: Everyone arriving in Shanghai would not be able to visit public places such as restaurants, bars, movie theatres, etc. for the first 5 days after their arrival.
That announcement pretty much sealed it for me and I decided not to go to Hangzhou and stay put in Shanghai. Since I’m a visitor, I pretty much rely on public services such as restaurants for business dinners and meeting people, so a 5-day moratorium would really eat into my quality time here in China. It’s unfortunate because I was looking forward to visiting Beijing, Shenzhen and possibly even Chendu, but I’ll have to save that for a next time. I did decide to reduce my trip by one week so that leaves 10 more days which the local team has already packed with plenty of new meetings. They really enjoy having an engineering executive visit after 3-years, so while this trip isn’t what I had originally in mind, it has still been worthwhile.
I’ve been getting more and more inquiries from folks in Europe and the USA about the situation in China. Especially now that videos have been leaking of protests against the COVID-19 control measures across China. These pop-up protests typically happen in the smaller cities, but everyone is worried and afraid. It is the topic of almost every conversation in every in-person meeting I have. An interesting phenomenon that I’ve noticed, is that people are live streaming these protests on WeChat. Of course, the censors are shutting down these streams as soon as they can but there are so many of them that they cannot keep up. So, when strolling through the Wechat live stream catalog you are bound to hit on a few of them.
The total number of COVID-19 infections in China is higher that’s it’s ever been, and the infection rates are rising. One of the rumors I heard at an expat Thanksgiving party was that the (local?) government had decided to let it [COVID-19] rip and get it over with. If that is true, and who knows there are so many false rumors going around, then China is in for a brutal 4 months.
It is clear something needs to happen. Chinese people are fed up with the COVID-19 control measures, they see the rest of the world without facemasks (especially with the soccer world championship which is big here), and their economy is tanking. It’s quite telling that Alibaba didn’t report its earnings after their Singles day on 11/11. This is one of China’s biggest sales events, like Black Friday in the USA, and Alibaba always proudly presents its year-to-year increased sales numbers at the end of the day. That they didn’t do that this year is quite telling, The Singles day sales numbers are good indicator for the Chinese economy. Again, the rumors are rampant, and I’ve been told by different sources that this year’s numbers are down by anywhere from 60% to 1% compared to last year and that the Chinese government blocked Alibaba from publishing their numbers. If you add to this the complaints from friends that many companies closed their shops and that even entire malls are closed, it is clear something needs to change soon.
There is a strange vibe hanging over Shanghai. People are afraid. The two-month long COVID-19 lockdown in the Spring of 2022 has left its mark. It comes up in most conversations I have, and the biggest concern people have is the lack of rhyme or reason. Lockdowns can happen spontaneously with no reason given and you may find yourself without food or medication quarantined into your apartment for days. This is making folks very jittery, and a lot of foreigners have left China because of it.
During the Spring lockdown things were especially perilous because nobody was prepared for it. During the first two weeks the government was adamant that citizens shouldn’t hamster, but folks ran out of food quickly and couldn’t order it anymore from their local supermarkets. Even if you could order, you weren’t guaranteed that your order would show up. I heard tragic stories about folks trying to get medical help for their newborns and because the newborn had a slight fever (over 37.1c/98.8F), as babies often do, they couldn’t be treated in a regular hospital and a doctor wouldn’t see the kid. This is all because fever is one of the symptoms of COVID-19. I also heard that over the counter medication like ibuprofen and aspirin are not available because they can be used to suppress fever and circumvent COVID-19 detection measures such as the temperature sensors that are installed at malls and offices entrances.
After a few weeks of the Spring lockdown folks got together and started putting together bigger orders that were worthwhile for local farmers and suppliers to fulfill. It was a stressful time during which you weren’t always guaranteed where your next meal was coming from.
The part that made people fearful weren’t the actual government rules. It was the additional rules set by the compound or building masters. They have a lot of autonomy and implement their own rules based on their interpretation of the COVID-19 situation at hand and often without any Legal backing. This causes a lot of randomness and uncertainty. Some folks got so fed up with these local regulations that they started breaking them on purpose, like going for an outside stroll, just to see what would happen. They were threatened by the block elder with calling the police but those were empty threats and folks were ok.
There is also another form of social disobedience that has become popular, and it consists of taking as many COVID-19 tests as you can. With over 5000 free test points across the city, folks are stopping at each test site to get tested. I heard of one person who managed to get 17 tests in a single day. The idea behind this protest is to overload the testing system but I seriously doubt it is effective, the Chinese government can easily increase the batch size from 10 to 20 or even more if it were a serious problem. I guess it makes the perpetrator feel good because it’s something they can do to frustrate a system over which they have no control.
Right now, the situation is mostly fine in Shanghai. It is buzzing as usual, and restaurants are open for business. However, folks are worried that things may return to the full lock downs in an instant notice. Yet folks are also hopeful that the regulations will change soon, and they clasp on to just the slightest rumor. I’ve grown skeptical of these rumors because I’ve been hearing them since I was in China last year. They always state that things will get better soon yet they keep getting worse.
I have one more week in Shanghai and then I’m going to Hangzhou followed by a highspeed train ride to Beijing. Beijing is almost impossible for regular Chinese citizen to go to. They can’t get a Beijing green health code. Interestingly, I can, and I’ve been told that is because I’m a foreigner. Beijing does have about 100 new cases a day and I keep getting messages on WeChat from my favorite restaurants that they are changing to delivery only because of COVID-19 prevention rules. I’ll keep monitoring the situation, if things get too crazy, I may stay in Shanghai.
It does make you wonder how long this situation can go on. It certainly feels a lot less upbeat than last year.
As I alluded to yesterday, my first twelve hours of freedom were occupied by grabbing a beer with a friend, followed by dinner with a few other friends. I hadn’t seen these folks for over a year. For beers, we went to my favorite Shanghai beer place, Beer Lady. The vibe of this place very much reminds me of the now closed Malt and Vine in Redmond, which is well known to the Microsofties. It’s the same idea, a rotating collection of beers on tap and an endless row of coolers with bottles of beer from all over the world. My understanding is that like so many other businesses in Shanghai, it is suffering. Its business has been dwindling because of COVID lock downs and the huge exodus of foreigners who made up a significant part of their clientele.
For dinner I went to a North Korean restaurant that is state owned and run by the North Korean government. I guess that it is used to generate foreign income for North Korea. My friends selected this place, and it was largely a novelty visit. Apparently, the hermit kingdom is even a mystery to Chinese people.
The entire staff at the restaurant was made up of young women (I didn’t see any men) from North Korea. They smiled the whole time and spoke Chinese with a strong accent that even I could detect. One of my friends tried to get the WeChat address of one of the waitresses and she told us that she wasn’t allowed to have an individual one, and she gave him the restaurant one. Dinner was also accompanied by a show where the waitresses turned into quite skilled performers playing various North Korean and Chinese songs. Curiously, you weren’t allowed to take pictures of the staff, but I managed to sneak some in anyway (I blurred their faces because I don’t want to get folks into trouble). Clearly these folks were under tight control of the North Korean government.
The food was probably best described as a less fancy version of South Korean food. My friends felt the food was so so, but to me the food was great. Especially after 8 days of quarantine food. Apparently before COVID the ingredients were all shipped in from North Korea but nowadays it is sourced locally.
By 10pm I was back at my hotel. During quarantine I got into a schedule of going to bed early (9pm) and waking up early (4am) and I’m still adjusting so I didn’t want to make it crazy late. Besides, for my unplanned extra day I had two activities planned: figure out how to get a COVID test and fix my bank account.
To control COVID, Shanghai has setup over 5000 COVID test points across the city. You are required to take a COVID test every 3 days to keep your health certificate valid. That is the current situation, apparently two weeks ago you were required to get tested every day, so things are fluid. While my last test from my quarantine was still valid, my health code showed that it was 48-hours since my last negative test, I wanted to see how this process worked. If I ran into any trouble, then I could always ask for people to help me on the next day.
It turned out that there is a testing site next to my hotel, about 80 meters away. I walked up there around 10:15am. There was a small queue, but it went fast. The test is free, so all they do is scan your health code and give you a cotton swab and/or vial. When I showed up and the person scanned my code, his first comment was that it wasn’t necessary for me to get a test. I knew that but I just played dumb. That’s when he gave me a cotton swab and told me to get in line for testing. This confused me because the person in front of me had also gotten a vial. I pointed to a vial, but he was clear that I didn’t need that. The person behind me just got a cotton swab too and that’s when it dawned on me what was going on.
Someone had told me a few weeks ago that to improve testing efficiency, they batch 10 tests together. That is, 10 swabs from different people are put together and all the samples are tested as one sample. Clearly this improves testing throughput by 10x but if someone in that batch has COVID then all 10 are assumed to have COVID because they cannot discern between the individuals. This is exactly what was going on in my case. My sample was put into the same vial as my predecessor and my successor (I checked).
Later that afternoon I was playing with the health code App. It has a set of extra buttons/functions that I had not figured out yet. In my defense, its all in Chinese. In doing so I stumbled onto a log of all my COVID tests. I could see all the tests that were taken during my quarantine (all negative) and I saw that the test I took in the morning was still pending. While I was fooling around with the App, my test result came in and it showed up as negative. I was quite impressed at the efficiency of taking these COVID tests and tracking the results. Yes, these 3-day COVID tests are invasive, but they are administered very efficiently. A friend on mine who works in Shanghai mentioned that its even easier for him, they just come into his office every 3 days.
Now that I had mastered the art of regular COVID testing it was time to address another problem, My Chinese bank account (see this page on how I acquired that) was linked to my expired passport. As a result, my bank account was blocked from doing any transactions until I updated it with my new passport. Since having a bank account is a necessity in China, everything is linked off that, it was my highest priority to remedy that.
To prepare for this, I had asked my Chinese teacher to write a letter explaining that I needed to update my ID associated with my account. With that letter in hand, I went to the nearest branch of my bank. After the health scan ritual to get into the bank, I was greeted by a bank employee who spoke English. That was a huge relief because when I opened my account originally no one spoke English. I gave the clerk my letter and he immediately led me to a counter and assigned someone to help me. I gave him the letter, my old passport, my new passport, and my bank pass. I’m not quite sure what all happened, he needed help from 4 different people, and I had to approve things a few times over, but after 45 minutes they had updated my account. Between the letter, my broken Chinese, and his broken English we managed to figure it out. They even asked me to transfer 1 RMB to my Alipay account so we could test that everything works again.
With these necessities out of the way, I’m ready to take on China again!
Things were very chaotic this Saturday. On Friday afternoon 11/11 the Chinese government announced that they had changed the quarantine requirements from 7+3 (=10 days) to 5+3 (=8 days). I was excited on Friday because the next day, Saturday 11/12, would be my 8th day in quarantine. I had my Chinese admin call the hotel on Friday and it turned out the hotel hadn’t received any new updates yet. Friends also tempered my enthusiasm by telling me that it would take days for the new regulations to be implemented and that I probably wouldn’t benefit from them.
Much to my surprise I got a COVID test on Saturday and they swiped my room and bathroom for COVID traces. They had never swept the rooms before, and I wasn’t scheduled to get a COVID test until the 10th day Monday. My head was spinning. Either this was the preparation for my release, or they had detected COVID in the hotel and were sweeping the rooms. The later would be bad because it would certainly increase my quarantine period.
I Wechatted with a friend who had gone through this recently and he was surprised too. The swiping of the room is what they do on the last day, but he was also the one who told me not to get my hopes up. At least my concerns about a COVID outbreak were reduced. I called my Chinese admin on her day off and asked her to reach out to the hotel. She did and while the hotel still hadn’t received any directions from the government to release people under the new guidelines, they had received orders to prepare folks like me and do an environment test for us.
Now my hopes were up. I immediately started packing and the rest of Saturday I was anxiously waiting for a call telling me that I was good to go. Dinner time came but no call. 9pm came, the original time I checked into the hotel 8×24 hours ago, but no call. At 11pm I called it quits and went to bed. Clearly, I wasn’t going to be released today.
At 1am I was brutely woken up by a buzzing hotel telephone. It was the operator, and I was told that I was free to go. Of course, I wasn’t ready, I didn’t have a driver waiting nor did I have a hotel reservation. This was all planned for Monday. After some back and forth the operator agreed that I can leave at 8am the next day, Sunday. I then checked my health code, but it was still red. A red health code makes you essentially persona non-grata so clearly the COVID tracking systems hadn’t kept up with the new regulations.
When I woke up at 6am, my health code was still red. Obviously this is going to cause an extra set of complications. I did check the app and found a way to complain about its status, but you had to submit evidence with that. That would have to wait until I checked out and got my release papers. Needless to say, all these instructions in the app were in Chinese, so I was taking screenshots on my phone and piping those into translation apps to figure out what was going on.
At 8am I was fully packed and ready to go. As instructed, I was waiting for a quarantine hotel employee to pick me up, but nobody came. Around 8:30am my admin texted me that the release had been delayed until 9am. Again, at 9am I was ready. I saw folks leaving from the hotel front door, my room overlooked the hotel entrance, at a slow trickle. Around 10am my health code turned green. That was huge relief, I didn’t have to file a complaint.
However, at 10:30am still no one had come to my room. I was getting anxious, and I asked my admin to call the hotel. Apparently, they were very busy. With the new regulations they were releasing many more folks than originally planned and I was asked to be patient. Slowly more guests left the hotel until at one point there was only one car waiting by the gate. That was my car as far as I could tell from the picture the driver had sent me. I called the hotel operator and was put through to the doctor’s office, who didn’t speak any English and I was told to wait. Around 11:30am I asked my admin to call the hotel again. Guess what, they had forgotten about me. So finally, around noon I was escorted out of the building. As I walked out, I was given a piece of paper that said I had successfully finished my quarantine and that was it. What can I say, excitement until the very last moment.
Once I was in my car (yes, my car, I have a car and driver assigned for the duration of my stay in Shanghai for some reason) things went smoothly. I checked into my non-quarantine hotel, and I had to show the familiar health and travel codes (see my previous blog entry).
The health code has been updated though. It now also shows the time of your last negative COVID test. I’m expected to get a COVID test every 3-days and the government has distributed more than 5000 free test points across Shanghai for this. I’ll talk more about this in a future blog entry after I’ve taken my first non-quarantine test. For now, I’m going to enjoy my freedom and grab a beer with a friend and have dinner with another friend at a North Korean state-owned restaurant (I guess it’s the experience?). It’s good to be back!
These last 12 months have been a roller coaster. After returning from my 5-month stint in China last year (2021) I was focused on launching Azure’s ARM service and I was also exploring my next role since I had accomplished what I came to Microsoft for. I had quite a few conversations and multiple offers, both inside and outside of Microsoft, but eventually I decided to join Qualcomm as their Senior VP of engineering responsible for Datacenter and Software strategy as well as running their AI software team. During my conversations with Qualcomm, I made it clear that I was passionate about China and that I wanted to keep up my network in China, and that is why I’m now finding myself in quarantine in Shanghai Pudong preparing for my next trip at the end of 2022.
Going to China is not for the faint of heart and certainly not during COVID. While certain things are easier than last time, others are more complicated, and I decided to document the steps I took to get to China in this blog entry. I also plan to blog about my experiences in China this time around as I run the COVID outbreak gauntlet. With outbreaks popping up left and right and the Chinese government trying to control it, it’s going to be a very different experience than last year when there was hardly any COVID. Like last time, this blog is going to be a combination of practical advice interspersed with anecdotes from a 老外 (laowai, foreigner) running around China for 6 weeks.
First things first, how did I get to China? Last time I flew with United from San Francisco, and there are companies near SFO that provide executive services that take you through all these steps, but I flew from Dallas with AA127 and I couldn’t find a similar service. Even if I could, I figured I should be able to figure this out myself, it can’t possibly that hard, can it?
The exact instructions on what it takes to travel to China are available from its USA embassy here. These are the instructions from July 1st, 2022 and these rules continue to change so make sure you have the latest version.
The process is still pretty much the same as last year. To be able to board a flight to China you need to have a temporary health QR code from the Chinese embassy and a QR code from the customs app (this is new). Both have a time limit of 26 hours, although you can reapply for you customs QR code to reset the timestamp in case your flight is delayed along the way. Your health QR code is only necessary to board the plane, nobody really looks at it afterwards.
To get a valid health code, you need to have the right paperwork: A valid passport, a valid visa (issued after March 2021), a valid plane ticket, and 2 negative COVID test reports from a CLIA accredited testing facility. You also need to submit your CDC vaccination card(s) and a form attesting that these cards are valid. Much to my surprise when I submitted all this information on the embassy website (here) it also asked for a personal health form which I hadn’t seen before. I quickly googled it and downloaded the first form I came across and filled it out. I was a bit surprised that it had all sorts of questions about Singapore in it (which I wasn’t planning on visting) and I submitted it with the rest of my paperwork. Within two hours my submission was approved, and I got a health code (take a screenshot when you get it). Only then I realized that I had submitted the form I got from the Chinese embassy in Singapore. Apparently, it had the information they were looking for but to this day I have no idea where I can get a similar form from the Chinese embassy in the USA.
The RT-PCR test results are very particular. You need one within 48-hours before your flight departs, and one within 24-hours. The labs need to be CLIA certified. I used Ayass biosciences in Frisco, TX and Realtime Lab in Lewisville, TX. Both are close to the DFW airport. Interestingly, Ayass had its test result back within 4 hours, Realtime labs, which I used as the 2nd test, despite its name didn’t return it until 9:20pm that evening. It’s quite frustrating to get the results that late because you still need to submit them to the embassy to get a health code. The embassy apparently stops approving these requests at midnight and without a health code you cannot board your flight.
Of course, check the latest requirements. As I write this, I just got an update that there are new rules that require only 1 RT-PCR test with 48-hours of departure. The amount of time in quarantine in China has also changed from 7+3 to 5+3, more about that later.
Apart from the health code, you also need a customs QR code. That is different from the last time. Previously I had to fill out many on-line forms when I arrived in Shanghai, this time I just had to show my QR code. Getting the customs QR code is easy, in WeChat (you need that for anything in China) search for “China customs” and install that app. Fill out the health declaration form, take a screen shot of the QR code, and fill out the consent form for sampling. That’s all, with this QR code I was out of the airport within 25 minutes and that included taking a COVID sample and passport control.
Like last time, I had arranged for a special quarantine hotel. This time I got a suite in the Hilton Double Tree in Pudong. This is more expensive but well worth it because it feels less like a prison. I used the living room area for work calls in the morning, the dining room area for eating and the bed is there for sleeping. It brings a little more structure to things and having dedicated functional areas keeps me sane.
The longest wait in the airport is for the shuttle that takes you to your hotel. Last time it took many hours, and I didn’t get to my hotel until 3am, this time it went faster. Our plane arrived around 3:15pm, we deplaned around 4pm, and I got to the hotel shuttle counter for Pudong around 4:25pm. Then the wait started but I was prepared for it. Eventually we got the signal to board our shuttle around 7:30pm. It then still took a one-and-a-half-hour shuttle ride to drop me off at my hotel and that included making frequent stops at other quarantine hotels before we got to mine. The entrance at the hotel is as you would expect, everyone is dressed up in hazmat suits and after you scan your QR code and get your passport back you are taken to your room.
The quarantine period is currently 7+3. That is 7 days in a hotel and if you live in Shanghai you can stay (depending on how your district feels about it) the remaining 3 days at home. Since I don’t have a home in Shanghai its 10 days for me. However, the late breaking news is that the new requirement is 5+3 but I’m not sure yet it will be applied retroactively.
What is different this time around is that you must pay separately for food. They serve food 3 times a day and its centrally prepared. For Chinese food its 100 RMB per day and for Western food its 350 RMB per day. I picked the Chinese food option because I suspect its more popular and therefore less prone to food borne illnesses because of its high turnover. Of course, you must pay for this with WeChat or a (Chinese?) bank card.
The hotel has internet, and it was fine the first few days and then on Monday it went horrible bad. I couldn’t do conference calls or even web searches. That’s when I realized that I now work for a communications company, and I asked the local office to send me a 5G mifi with unlimited data. I got it the next day and I haven’t looked back since.
Even though quarantine is bearable, I can’t wait to be out. Hopefully my next blog entry is as a free man, and I’ll have to figure out how to take a COVID test every 3 days.
It is November 2022 and as I’m sitting in my quarantine hotel in Shanghai preparing for another visit to China, and by popular demand write another blog, I realized that I never finished the blog from last year. That was in part because that last one and half month got very busy with visiting friends, giving talks at universities while I was still in Beijing, an excursion to Qinghai and then a few final days in Shanghai before flying back to the USA. Between saying goodbye to friends, whom I wasn’t sure when I would see them again, and my family who were eager for me to come back it was an emotional roller coaster where I didn’t want to spend time keeping up my blog.
The last few weeks in Beijing consisted of many dinners with friends and two talks at Chinese universities. In both cases I talked about modern datacenters and the open research problems we need to solve. This was a version of a talk I had given internally to Microsoft Research although there too it only contained public information because of the large number of interns that attended my talk. I did that deliberately to make sure I was in the clear from an US export control perspective, something you have to be aware of as a US citizen who is working on leading edge technology.
The talk at Xinhua university was well attended but was fraught with COVID concerns. For one reason or another I wasn’t allowed onto the campus because I didn’t have the right COVID vaccination credentials. Instead my talk was held in a building just north of the campus. For my talk at ICT there were no COVID concerns, and I was allowed into the building and mingle with the students and their professor and my friend Yungang Bao. In the afternoon Yungang and his students took me through their opensource RiscV processor (XiangShan) that they are building, and I was quite impressed with how quickly they were learning.
RiscV has been all the rage in China. With China slowly loosing access to high end silicon technology because of US sanctions they are determined to stand up their own capabilities. Since RiscV is an open technology, albeit an immature one, it’s a very attractive starting point for academic teams and companies in China. They are quickly developing an elaborate ecosystem around it. From open synthesis tools to compilers, operating systems, and the rest of the software stack.
One of the things I did in early August, was to extend my stay by a few weeks until October 1st. However, I missed the fact that this included a week-long mid-autumn holiday (中秋节) in September. I used this opportunity to visit Qinghai (青海), a land locked province in western China. I picked that destination because it’s a place I had never been to before, so I got to see something new, and it had zero COVID cases at that time. I didn’t want to deal with the COVID concerns I had to deal with in Yunnan.
Qinghai borders on Tibet and most of the landscape is equally wind swept interspersed with salt lakes and deserts. It also had a place that reminded me of Utah with beautiful canyons and bright yellow/red colored sandstone rock formations. The Tibetan influence is quite noticeable with Tibetan writings and Buddhist monasteries all over the place. Qinghai has one main city, Xining (西宁), which was on the silk trade route but not much remains of that. Nowadays it is a modern metropolis like most large cities in China.
Xining does have a gorgeous Thanka museum. A Thanka is a Tibetan Buddhist painting on silk or cotton, typically depicting some religious scene. Similarly, one of the largest active Buddhist temple complexes is Kumbum located in the Huangzhong (湟中区) district near Xining which is well worth a visit.
I’m glad I visited Qinghai because it was something different and off the beaten path. It showed me the non-urban side of China, all the way from a tier-4 city to literally mud-house dwellings in the middle of nowhere. I’ll refrain from posting the rural “bathroom” pictures which were nothing more than slits above a compost heap.
After Qinghai I flew back to Shanghai. Here I spent the last few days meeting with friends, investors, and on the last day I took one more iconic picture of the Pudong night skyline while I wandered across the Bund wondering when I would return to China and what state it would be in.
About one month ago, the COVID-19 delta variant escaped from Nanjing airport into the wild. Apparently, the cleaning crew of an airplane from Russia didn’t handle the security procedures correctly and got infected. This highly contagious variant spread around like wildfire to Nanjing, Shanghai, Beijing, Yangzhou, Wuhan and even a resort town in southern china. Eventually it penetrated 17 provinces and 50 cities.
One month later there is almost no domestic infestation of the Delta variant left. There are still some infections in the border areas, but those are not related to the Nanjing escape and well contained. So how did China do this?
A big part of it is the action that the national and regional governments took, but that’s not the only thing. The people themselves were panicked too and as a result very cautious. For example, when I got stuck with a * behind the Beijing location on my travel code, hotels cancelled my reservations and a private family where I was going to have a local dinner didn’t feel comfortable hosting me anymore. I’ve seen similar things in Beijing. When Beijing was in COVID-19 war-mode, the subway, malls, and restaurants were much less crowded. Clearly folks were staying home. With facemask you saw the same. A month ago, folks were getting lax with face masks, when the war-mode went into effect everyone immediately abided to the face mask rule, even when just walking on the street.
Of course, the most impactful were the official measures. Beijing reinstated temperature entrance checks everywhere: subway, work, malls, hotels, restaurants, etc. It also enforced location tracking. Everywhere you go you have to scan a QR code identifying where you have been. You need to do this when you enter a taxi or a Didi, when you enter your work, when you enter a mall, and even when you enter a restaurant in that mall. There is no exception. To leave and enter Beijing you need to have a COVID-19 test, even if your health and travel codes are green.
For some restaurants in Beijing, especially the ones frequented by foreigners, you now have to show your vaccination status before you are allowed to enter. If you got your vaccine in China, it shows up in your health code but for those who have been vaccinated overseas it is not entirely clear how this works. I haven’t tried any of these restaurants yet since they put that rule into effect. I will have a go this weekend because I’m kind curious how they handle foreign vaccination cards.
Other provinces, like Yunnan, enforced a no out-of-state tourist guideline during this out break. This happened while I was there and I was allowed to continue until I too was hit with the dreaded * on my travel code for Beijing. Does this mean you are completely stuck? No, but it does mean you need to get a COVID-19 test ASAP in order to continue. I’ve heard that some provinces require you to take a COVID-19 test every two days until the star disappears from your travel code (locations are only kept for the last 14-days). Of course, these rules vary per region and per company. For example, my apartment complex warned me that if I had a * behind any other city name than Beijing, then I could no longer stay there per their company policy.
Of course, once they detect a COVID-19 case the measures are draconian. Fortunately, I haven’t had to deal with this, but if someone gets diagnosed on your block, the entire block is immediately quarantined. Folks who have been indirectly exposed, need to self-quarantine and report themselves. Not that you have much choice, your health code immediately goes yellow, and you can’t get anywhere anymore.
So how many cases did we have in Beijing? For one day we have 6 new cases in a single day, but most of the time the people infected were 2, 1 or 0 per day. These are case counts, not percentages as someone from the US asked me during a call. On a city population of 25 million that is insignificant, but as I said before: Folks in China do understand the power of exponentials and they try to squash any outbreak as soon as they can and as hard as they can.
On Monday August 23rd, Beijing declared itself COVID-19 free and it dropped the * behind its name on the travel code. That means I’m a free man again and I can travel around the country. I have to be careful and avoid contaminated places because then I risk getting stuck again. For example, Shanghai is still considered a high-risk place and it has a * behind its name so for the time being I will not be travelling to Shanghai.
Some Chinese folks feel that the local government is too heavy handed and should be more relaxed about it. My perspective is a little bit different, especially after having lived through the COVID-19 mess in the USA, which is on the other end of the spectrum of how to deal with COVID-19. I kind of prefer the Chinese way. It’s a brief inconvenience but the pay off is that things are back to normal quickly.
Let’s hope there isn’t a new flare up anytime soon …
On Friday morning 4am I woke up in Shangri-La and I did what I typically do, check my health and travel codes and take screen shots of them. Sometimes the internet is slow or the systems are overloaded during the day so its good to have back up copies of them. If you don’t have green health/travel codes then you are stuck and cannot go anywhere.
Unfortunately, my travel code at 4am showed the dreaded star behind Beijing. While this doesn’t mean you are infected (the travel code even says so in Chinese), you are effectively persona non-grata at this point. Nobody wants you in their hotel anymore and what’s more, random road checkpoints can send you back to where you came from. I forwarded a screenshot to Yuwen (my tour guide), who was no doubt still deep asleep at that time, and I went back to sleep as well. That is, I tried to but too many scenarios were running through my head. Should I stay in the hotel I was currently in until Beijing was purged from my travel list (only the regions from the last 14 days are recorded, so this was an extra 5 days), should I ask my colleagues to pack up my apartment in Beijing and send it to me in Kunming, prematurely ending my Chinese adventure, or just ignore all of it?
At breakfast, Yuwen decided that we should continue the trip as we had originally planned and we went to our next destination: Potala palace, or at least the Shangri-La version of it. When we arrived at the entrance of Potala palace it became clear that I wasn’t going to get in. The * behind Beijing, despite my health code being green, was too high risk. Instead, I was told to get a COVID test before I could enter. We argued but they wouldn’t budge. So, off we went to get a test. We tried various hospitals but none of the places could get us results before 8pm that evening. On top of that, our hotel for that evening at Lugu lake canceled our reservations because Yunnan had just shut down all new tourist travel.
This meant we had to reset our plans. Our sightseeing was over and we needed to plan how to get back. Rather than staying in Shangri-La we decided to head closer to Dali where our driver had many connections. So a new plan was formed, we would visit Shaxi old town instead for that evening and then get a COVID test in Dali the first thing tomorrow (Saturday). With that test result I could go places as well as fulfill the requirement to board my flight to Beijing on Sunday.
Of course, this left Friday. The driver ensured me he knew people in Shaxi so getting a hotel wouldn’t be a problem. I remembered that there was a road checkpoint between Dali and Lijiang on the way over that checked for health codes but I decided not to ask about that. I didn’t want to get folks to become more worried.
On our way we went. The driver followed the old Burma road that the Americans constructed in the 2nd world war to provide supply lines to airports and military bases around Dali. I also suspect that he took this small country side road rather than the nearby highway to evade checkpoints. I think we spent a good 5-6 hours in the car to reach Shaxi and then we hit a road checkpoint. Fortunately, we were behind a dumb truck and we were waved through. Yuwen has been referring to me during this trip as lucky 老外 (laowai, foreigner) and that time I certainly did get lucky.
The next stop was the hotel. I was told to show my travel code from the previous day, which I dutifully take pictures of every morning, without the star. I was also advised to show it quickly so that they wouldn’t notice that the arrow wasn’t pulsating like it does in the app. When we arrived all the attention was on Yuwen, who was very nervous. They checked her health codes, checked travel codes, etc. This is where I lucked out the second time. They never asked me. They took me to my hotel room, initially assuming that Yuwen and I shared a room, but Yuwen quickly corrected that, and that was it. For the next 30 minutes I was expecting the hotel owners to recognize their mistake and ask for my codes too but nothing happened. Lucky 老外 indeed!
That afternoon Yuwen and I then visited Shaxi old town. Perhaps it was the relief that everything was over now, but Shaxi was by far the best old town we visited. Shaxi is a small town with many of its old buildings still intact and most important it is not overdeveloped or touristy. What also helped was that we ran into the proprietor of Peter’s kitchen. Peter serves draft beer, which I like, and we struck up a conversation. He runs a small western style food restaurant and small B&B in Shaxi. He decided to get into a new line of business after his import-export business in Beijing got to a virtual standstill during COVID. He is originally from Canada, and he lived in Europe and Costa Rica where he also ran a restaurant. Peter was very friendly, talkative and even showed us to his favorite local restaurant in town despite the fact that he had his own business to run. I love these chance encounters and I especially love people that keep reinventing themselves and take life in their stride.
After a wonderful dinner, it was a great recommendation, we headed back to our hotel for a good night sleep. The next morning, we left early to drive to Dali’s hospital to get my COVID test. We were told that there was a long line at the hospital and that we had to prepare for a wait. Nothing was further from the truth. Because of the * behind Beijing on my travel code I was considered high risk. I was not allowed to set a single foot in the hospital. Instead, I was directed to a separate section for high-risk patients, which fortunately didn’t have a line at all. After they took the test, a simple throat swap, I was free to go, and I would get the results of the test between 4-6pm. It was a bit bizarre that on the one hand I’m super high risk inside the hospital, yet I’m free to move around outside it.
We took advantage of this hiatus to visit Weishan, another lightly developed old town near Dali. The highlight of this town was a private museum of a local caravan leader. It was an old traditional building and the owners had collected many old artifacts from local lives and the trade caravans.
Around 4pm we headed back to Dali to get the test results. By then I had figured out how to check in with a wechat miniapp (the trick was that my western names were all concatenated without spaces) and around 5pm it showed I was negative. We still headed for the hospital for a paper copy with a stamp. You can’t have enough official documents with stamps in China. This time around I was no longer considered a high risk patient and I was able to visit the hospital and print the test result.
To add insult to injury, when we checked into our Dali old town hotel, I had to remind the checkin staff of my COVID test results. Only then did they look at it. After all the effort we went through to get it, I wanted to make sure folks examined it 🙂
The next day we travelled to Kunming by high speed train. This time I was able to show my health codes, travel codes and COVID test so everything was fine. A few days before I’d gotten a notification that my flight was cancelled and we rebooked it to a later time. This gave us some time to have lunch, explore the big lake in Kunming, see its sleeping beauty and drink 30-year old Pu’er tea in a place nearby. It was a wonderful wrap up of a spectacular vacation.
That afternoon Yuwen dropped me off at the airport. The check-in process was easy because we had everything they asked for. The flight itself however was seriously delayed because of weather problems. When I arrived in Beijing we landed with lightening all around us. That was quite scary. We also had to deplane on the tarmac. Not sure why, its a very modern large airport. Still, we had to wait for over an hour for the thunderstorms to subside. Once they did we could get off the plane. I had never been to this new airport before, it’s far south from Beijing, at least an hours ride from my appartment. What really surprised me is that I could walk out of the airport without showing my travel code, my health code or my COVID test. It was only when I got to my DiDi (Uber) where they told me to scan a tracker QR code that I realized things were different in Beijing now it was under a COVID watch ….
The next few days were a long travel days. The distance as the crow flies is not too far, but Yunnan’s mountainous terrain with its many hairpin turns slowed us down a lot. The trip from Baisha to Tiger leaping gorge (虎跳峡) was about 2:30 hours, followed by another 3:30 hours to Balagezong (巴拉格宗) which is best described as Yunnan’s grand canyon. From Balagezong it was another 2:30 hours to Shangri-la (香格里拉), so we had lots of car time.
Our first stop on this part of the journey was Tiger leaping gorge. Tiger leaping gorge is a narrow canyon where the main tributary to the mighty Yangze river (长江), the Jinsha river (金沙江), forces itself through a narrow fissure. It’s an overwhelming spectacle with a torrent of water coming through the canyon. In the middle there is a boulder and according to the legend a tiger used that to jump over the gorge. That’s highly unlikely though.
The road to tiger leaping gorge is, in places, cut into the rock face with sheer drops on the side. At the visitor center, about 500 meters above the gorge is my guess, there are two options to go down into the canyon. One is by foot, another is by escalator. We decided, in the interest of preserving our energy, to walk down and take the escalators back up. With almost 83F (~28c) and the sun beating on our head that was a wise move. At the bottom of the canyon there is a boardwalk that goes right by the gorge itself. It offers a spectacular view of the fast-flowing river next to it. It is surprising that you can walk only a few meters away from a raging torrent of water.
After our visit to Tiger leaping gorge we headed for Balagezong. Balagezong is a park based around a deep canyon on the Tibetan plateau. You enter by car at the canyon floor and follow the river. After the park entrance the road starts to meander up into the mountains. Our hotel was in the middle of the park, perched just below a Tibetan temple complex. We arrived quite late, after 7pm, and were immediately ushered into the dining hall to have dinner. The dinner was just general Chinese food, unfortunately nothing specific to the region. I wanted to sample some of the local alcohol but Yuwen (my guide) strongly discouraged that because of the high altitude.
The next morning I got an early phone call from Yuwen urging me to look outside the window. We both had separate rooms but we looked out over the same patch of forest. When I looked outside I stared straight at an adult male monkey that was grooming himself and who was probably waiting for hand outs from the hotel guests. It was a gorgeous and unexpected sight.
After breakfast we took the guided tour-bus from the hotel up the mountain to a Tibetan place place of worship called Gezong holy mountain. After many hairpin corners we crossed a mountain pass and reached the plateau’s summit. The top of one of the mountains looks, with some imagination, like a natural pagoda and its considered a sacred place. Its part of a set of peaks that includes Balagezong snow mountain, which at 5545 meters is the highest peak in Shangri-La. These mountain peaks are flanked by 40 stupa’s which are covered in prayer flags with Tibetan script on them.
On the way down we were dropped off at a scenic site with a great overview of the river that was working its way through the canyon below. The site also included a zip line over a deep canyon, but that was not for me. I can’t stand heights when I’m support by only a thin wire. Closed cable carts are already a challenge, let alone dangling in a flimsy harness on a wire hurdling over a canyon. No thanks!
We then continued to visit a restored Tibetan village. After that we had a quick look at another sight, the hand of Buddha, a large tree which has a small set of roots that look like a hand embedded in the rock, afterwards we travelled to Shangri-La. Another 2.5 hour ride.
In Shangri-La we stayed in a relatively modern hotel about 1.5km outside the old city. We walked to the old city to get some miles in. With all the walking over the last few days we had not met our move goals that day yet.
Shangri-La old town was a surprisingly nice place. It too was burned down recently after a major fire (2014) and fully restored. I was surprised about the number of westerners I saw walking around. Not just young couples, but also families with kids. I suspect these folks were all living in China already because otherwise its hard to get here. Probably because of these foreigners, Shangri-La had a decent share of pubs and local microbreweries which I obviously had to sample. After a nice local dinner we visited the temple complex that was downtown near its central square.
So far we had stuck to our original plan and COVID, while a threat, had not impacted our trip. The next day everything would be different.