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 ….