Another trip to China

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.

The coveted health code. Without it you cannot board the airplane.
Customs Health Declaration QR code.

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.

Does this picture need a caption?

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.

With the customs QR code getting through the airport is a breeze.

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.

Like last time, waiting for the hotel shuttle takes the longest. This time it only took 4 hours, I was in my hotel at 9pm instead of 3am last time.
Some people do NOT travel light.

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.

Dining room and kitchen of on the side.
Living room. This is where I work in the mornings.
A surprisingly comfortable bed. The desk is rarely used.

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 food is edible but not exactly gourmet.
The instructions are all in Chinese, except for the payment instructions. Those are in English too.

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.

View from my hotel room.

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