A night on the town

A good friend of mine, Thomas Molgaard, picked me up from the quarantine hotel and drove me to my Shanghai hotel where I was going to stay the rest of the 10-days. I was staying at the JW Marriot near people’s square. This is in the center of town with all its shopping centers. The check-in process was easy, I did have to show my health code (more about this in an upcoming blog) and I got a nice upgrade to a corner room with a gorgeous view overlooking people’s square.

A room with a view, peoples square.

Thomas had promised me a night on the town. The first stop was to grab a beer. Thomas has been living in Shanghai for 3 years now (this is his second stint in China) and he lives right in the middle of the French Concession. During the ride over we caught up, we hadn’t actually talked since November 2019, and Thomas filled me in on the Shanghai expat community and the situation in China. Not too surprising most Americans had left China but there was still a large contingent of Europeans. Thomas made it a point of calling out the apparently surprisingly large Dutch contingent who were mostly in finance or manufacturing.

The first stop was the The Bull and Claw. It’s a surf and turf restaurant in the middle of the French concession located in a traditional 1920 style villa with a little courtyard. They had a small but good beer selection, including an IPA from my favorite Beijing brewery 京A. Since I’ll be having ready access to that beer in Beijing, I decided to go for a local Shanghai hazy IPA whose name escapes me (no, it isn’t Boxing Cat). While we were having beers, Thomas looks over at the table next to us, goes what the heck, and walks over. It turned out that the GM of the hotel in Sanya (kind of like China’s Hawaii) that Thomas visited a few months ago was having drinks with his friends. The two chatted for a while and then we got back to our drinks. A bit later Thomas jumps up again and runs after a woman who passed on the street. That was apparently his American neighbor in Shanghai. The expat community seems to be closely knit here in Shanghai and they all gather in the French concession.

First beer after two weeks in quarantine.

The next stop was dinner. Thomas had selected a Spanish Fusion Tapas place called Tomatito on Hubin road. He knew the owner and apparently the chef cook is Dutch. The place was described to me as the unofficial Dutch embassy in Shanghai and it is frequented a lot by Dutch folks, although I didn’t hear any Dutch that evening. Now, I must admit that after the drinks started flowing, I wasn’t paying much attention.

Thomas had brought his wife Joanna along. It was immediately clear that Joanna and Thomas were working on expanding their family. Joanna told me that she was 5+ months along. That got us onto the topic of Chinese citizenship. China is not a birth right country, so her newborn would not become a Chinese citizen. He could become a Brazilian citizen (Joanna is Brazilian), a Denmark citizen (Thomas is Danish) and a UK citizen (because they officially live in the UK). I’ve only met one person before that had collected that many passports. In fact, that person had a 4th passport because she was also Jewish and managed to get an Israeli citizenship to boot.

Thomas and Joanna, great hosts!

Dinner consisted of lots of small Tapas. Everyone swore by the Salmon bombs although to me it was a toss-up between that and the grilled octopus. Since Thomas knew the staff well, we didn’t make a food selection. The staff just kept on bringing little plates of good stuff, some of it off menu. After we finished off the second bottle of wine, Thomas started ordering individual drinks. This is where things got hazy. I remember having a grapa, wiskey, another glass of tempranillo, and some other drinks that I could not identify. All good stuff but perhaps a bit too much. 

After dinner, I think it was 1:30am at this point, we ordered a DiDi (Chinese Uber) and for one reason or another it didn’t show up. The bell boy stuffed us into a waiting car that drove us to my hotel. I don’t think that was our DiDi and at some point, I must have ordered a DiDi too because I vaguely remember getting a call from a very angry Chinese speaking person. All I could utter was 对不起 (sorry).

The next morning it took me over an hour to convince myself to get out of bed to have breakfast. This was not going to be one of my most productive days.

自由 / Freedom!

The release process started last Tuesday when I got a WeChat message that indicated that I’ll get my COVID test on Friday morning 5:30am and that I had to be ready for it. So mentally that started the count down process for me and Friday couldn’t come fast enough.

On Friday 5:30am I was showered, dressed and ready to do this. At 6:15am they still hadn’t shown up so I WeChatted the medical team and they simply told me to wait. Around 6:30am they showed up. As usual, in full PPE and a cart full of glass viles. They were going door by door. By the time they got to me they first took a throat swap. They swapped both sides of my throat and my tonsils. The kicker came with the nasal swap. They stuffed that probe so far up my nostril that I almost felt it in my throat. This was made more uncomfortable by the twisting and turning for what felt like minutes but probably wasn’t more than 15 seconds. I’ve had quite a few COVID test these last few days, but none stuffed that probe so far back in my nostril.

Once the team left it was back to the same monotony where I got onto my morning US calls. Around 8:20am I got another WeChat message explaining the release process the next day. Provided the COVID test came back negative, I would be released at 3pm the next day (Saturday). I had to wait until I heard a knock on my door and then take all my belongings with me downstairs to the reception and settle my bill there. That’s also where I would get my health certificate. They were very explicit that I should not go to the upper floors and go straight down. They probably had some kind of packing order in the hotel because it looked like everyone on my floor (as far as I could tell) would be released on Saturday.

Around 2:45pm I heard the long-anticipated knock on my door. I quickly packed some final things (charger and notepad) and I was on my way. It looked like everyone else on my floor was released at the same time. There was a small queue forming at the elevator because a family who had quarantined with kids and 7 large shipping boxes had to load those into the elevator by hand and it didn’t fit all at once. 

We were all queuing up for a single working elevator.
Even when I was released from quarantine, protection was still paramount.

When I arrived on the first floor it became clear that the Chinese government had taken over the entire hotel. It wasn’t just a couple of floors. Everyone downstairs was wearing full PPE, even though it was the end of our quarantine. I was a bit confused about how to pay for the hotel, I got the impression from all the other folks that the only way to pay for it is by WeChat. That would have been problematic because I didn’t have 7000元 on my Chinese bank account. I texted a friend if he could transfer the money to me in case I needed it, but that wasn’t necessary. I showed them my corporate AMEX card, and they accepted that without any problem. That was a pleasant surprise because not all hotels do in China. See my previous blog.

Once that hurdle was taken, I went on to the next desk, and there they gave me an official certificate that I had successfully completed the mandatory 2-week quarantine. I then walked out of the hotel, a free man, waiting for a friend of mine and his driver to show up to take me to my hotel in Shanghai.

My official release certificate.


Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference – Robert Frost

I didn’t think I would have much else to write about during my quarantine stay because all the days are pretty much the same but last week, I was thrown another curve ball that kept things …. interesting.

It was clear from the beginning that I was treading a new path with my trip to China. I don’t think Microsoft Research Beijing has had many internal visitors for an extended stay. Nor have we had many folks with a Chinese R-visa inside of Microsoft, so our processes are not set up for that. I was reminded of that last week when my admin started asking some questions on my behalf regarding my California tax compliance issues. That’s when the tax folks realized I would be in China until September, and they instructed me to come back within 90-days. This is not what I had in mind.

Before I continue with my China adventure, permit me to briefly rant about California’s tax laws and how it impacts me as a Texan citizen. I’m not a tax lawyer and I don’t claim to understand all the details, but I’m on the receiving end of a new process where for every working day I spend in California I have to pay taxes in California. My company will reimburse me for it and keep track of it but it’s going to be a major pain to deal with this. Especially in this case, because the only reason I was in California was to take my COVID19 tests so I could continue my trip to Shanghai. I’m not sure if this was California’s intention, but I’m going to do my utmost best to avoid going to California for business in the future.

Back to my China adventure. I was told to leave China within 90-day. The initial reason I was given was that it was because of tax compliance concerns. After some clarifications it turned out that the corporate tax folks were fine with anything less than 180 days, which made sense to me. The next concern was whether China would allow me to work for more than 90-days. I challenged that concern because the validity of my visa is a 180-days, and its purpose is to collaborate with folks in China. Limiting that to 90-days made no sense to me at all. This started another clarification round.

I just got the clarification back this morning. I am allowed to stay and work in China for up to 180-days on my R-visa. This is unique to my visa, and I can only engage in the following business activities:

  • Attending internal meetings, discussions and conferences
  • Attending client meetings
  • Undertaking sales activities
  • Attending training
  • Performing urgent repairs

The first two bullets pretty much cover what I intend to do so this is exactly the outcome I was looking for.

Throughout all of this, the tax and legal folks were extremely helpful and responsive. They quickly clarified the issues and resolved them. It did have me worried a bit last week. One of the reasons why I’m staying so long is that I want to amortize my quarantine time over as many effective working days as possible. I was not looking forward to reducing that. It’s another example of how I’m doing something unique (and fun!) that pushes the limits and we all learn from that.

Chinese lessons

One of my requests as part of going to China was to learn Mandarin. Especially conversational Mandarin. I had been teaching myself some Mandarin using textbooks and Duolingo, but the problem was that I didn’t get my pronunciation right. I could tell that when I heard myself back. I had a pretty thick American accent. The result of it was that I mostly focused on learning Chinese characters, a little bit of the sentence structure and some standard phrases.

I was reminded of how poor my pronunciation was when I was in Haikou, Hainan in 2019 and asked for the check:  买单 (Mǎidān). Even in that context, I was holding my phone with the WeChat pay QR code standing at the bar, they had no idea what I was saying. Apparently, my tones and emphasis were all wrong. Now, I’m not sure they weren’t trying to make a point to a crazy foreigner (疯狂的外国人), it can’t have been that complicated to figure out what I wanted, but it drove the point home. I needed help.

For the last week I’ve been taking a 1hr lessons. Every day at 12:30pm, including Saturday and Sunday. I’m not sure I’m going to keep this up for my whole stay, but I figured that during my quarantine time I need all the distraction I can get. The lessons take place over Zoom. My teacher, Lancy, is located in Kunming, a city in southern China. She lived in New York for a while but returned during COVID when New York locked up to be with her family. As far as I can tell she was studying there. Her English is pretty good but it’s clear she is not a native speaker. Quite often we teach each other but hey her English is infinitely better than my Mandarin.

All the interactions are virtual. The face-to-face lessons happen over zoom and our out-of-class interaction happens over WeChat. That’s how I get my homework assignments and that’s how I submit my exercises. Yes, it does feel like I’m back in grade school. Even more so because the material she uses is literally targeted at kindergarten pupils. I get to learn words like baby, fox, rabbit, house, stand up, homework, etc. all accompanied by toddler cartoons. The focus right now isn’t so much on the words yet, it’s on simple sounds and their pronunciation, but these baby words are new to me and didn’t appear in my Duolingo vocabulary. It’s not all baby stuff, Lancy does add details, context and cross connections when I ask for them. I think she figured out that’s how I learn, by placing things in context, so she started to provide more of that which I appreciate.

Right now, all the lessons are focused on Pinyin and its pronunciation. Pinyin is a latinized version of Mandarin that represents the sounds of the characters. It’s easier to learn for Westerners and it’s also how you input Chinese characters on a keyboard on your phone. This is all aligned with my priorities. I asked Lancy to focus on spoken Mandarin first, followed by reading. In the end I want to be able to tell my taxi driver where to go, or order food in a restaurant. Writing the characters by hand, the calligraphy, is less important to me because when I write them, I’ll be using my phone or computer and Pinyin is the input method of choice there.

I had my first test yesterday (Sunday). I passed with flying colors, but I was kind of nervous about it. I was practicing words right up to the lesson. There are still a bunch of words that do not want to stick to my memory. I added these to my Pleco flash card collection so I can practice them on my phone.

Mid-way point

I started my 2nd week in quarantine today. I can’t wait for it to be over. It’s not so much the monotony of my daily life. Having a routine helps with that. It’s the lack of interacting with actual living and breathing human beings. One more week to go! I did WeChat with the medical/security team about when I would be released? They confirmed that it would be Saturday May 22nd, even though I arrived in the hotel on Sunday evening at 2:30am. It’s the day that you arrive in the country that counts, not when you arrive at your hotel.

Last night Shanghai changed the quarantine requirements. Instead of just 14-days in a quarantine hotel it has changed to 14+7. That is, in addition to a mandatory 14-day hotel stay you now also have to stay put for 7 extra days either at home or in a hotel. Apparently, the number of COVID19 cases have been increasing in China after Golden week. Golden week is the time of the year where everyone goes home to visit their family. Fortunately, because I arrived before May 16th this does not apply to me. I’m still a free man this Saturday.

That this extra precaution isn’t unnecessary was made clear to me by a friend. Apparently, the same flight I took but then the next day had one COVID19 case on board. That’s quite surprising to me given the precautions they take. Perhaps it was a false positive. In any event, I’ve been told that if that happens all folks who shared that airplane need to stay in quarantine longer. I lucked out there too.

I’m not quite sure what the release process will be on Saturday. According to the instructions I’m supposed to go downstairs after 7am to settle my 7000元 hotel bill. After that I will get a health certificate and I assume I’m then free to go. A friend of mine has already informed me that a getaway car will be ready at that time and that he has the weekend planned for me. I guess I won’t make any appointments for the following Monday.

The same evening of the day when I posted my working from quarantine post, my VPN to Hong Kong broke. The timing is somewhat suspicious but I’m sure it was coincidence. I suspect Saturday evening is prime VPN time in China. I tried different VPNs on different devices, but they all failed. The WIFI still worked, and I was able to get to local Chinese sites such as Baidu and Bing. I tried my corporate VPN and that worked. This (Sunday) morning (~5am) everything started working again. I was all prepared today to go figure out what’s going on, but I guess I have to do that another rainy day.

Talking about rain, the weather has been pretty impressive lately. With thunderstorms rolling in the last few nights lightening up the entire city. I’m on the 19th floor in a corner room and I have an 180° view of downtown and its quite a spectacle.

Other than that, Saturday can’t come fast enough.

Working from Quarantine

This posting is about me geeking out and describing the gadgets and technical environment I use to work from Quarantine. If it is too much feel free to skip it. 

I love my gadgets. I always tend to buy the latest and greatest, if only just to try it out. When I travel, I take some of those gadgets with me but since this trip lasts months, I brought a lot of them along. This includes my iPhoneapple watchmy iPadmy Macbook air M1my airtags, my AirPods (yes, I’m a fan boy), my Microsoft Surface Pro X2 (which I like a lot too), a Lenovo work laptop, my remarkable2 tablet (great for taking notes), my blood pressure metermy temperature metermy oximeterBose headsets (both in and over my ear), various wireless chargers, and a small 2TB flash stick. Specifically for this trip I also bought a 2nd travel screen that I can hook up to my Surface Pro X2 and to my Macbook. For good measure, I added in a small portable projector to my collection so I can watch movies and project slides. Didn’t I tell you I like gadgets?

My work from quarantine setup.

Most of these gadgets connect to WiFi and since I’m from the US most of it connects to Google. It either uses Google services, or its Cloud, or Google analytics, etc. None of that stuff works here in China because they filter the internet coming into China for forbidden content. Google is on the non-grata list and its services are not available here. This is a real pain for foreigners like me. Apps and tools don’t work or have really long timeouts when they try to resolve google analytics domain names.  For Chinese folks this is not really an issue because they have their own locally produced versions but those are all in Mandarin. While I’m beginning to collect more and more Chinese apps, I’m not fully emerged yet.

To work around this obstacle, I brought along a small travel Wifi Access Point. The GL.iNet GL-AR750S-Ext and this has been a remarkable useful device. First of all, its tiny. It fits in the palm of your hand. It runs the opensource OpenWRT stack (a Wifi access point software stack based on Linux) but they skinned it and made the GUI more idiot proof. You can still get into the full OpenWRT environment if you download the appropriate packages. It even comes with an iPhone app to make configuration easier.

The nice thing about this device is that it acts as a proxy. On the one side it exposes a 2.4 GHz/5 GHz wireless network with a DHCP server and everything else you’d expect. On the other side it can connect to wired, wireless and even a 4G USB dongle to reach the internet. In my case I hooked it up to the wired connection in my room. I had hooked it up to my hotel’s wireless network but wired turned out to be more reliable.

Wired networks are always a challenge in any hotel. I suspect that’s because they aren’t used all that much. I often find broken cables that are inserted into the wrong wall outlet. In this case it wasn’t any different. I had to chase down the cables, unplug everything, and eventually I found the active wall socket (out of 4 RJ45 connectors) that gave me an IP address. I always carry my own retractable CAT7 cables around for situations like this so that I don’t have to deal with cable issues. The network I was on had a captive portal and I had to call the reception for the password. That didn’t work at first but by guessing the appropriate capitalizations I was able to log in. 

With that out of the way it was time to set up a VPN so that all my local traffic is sent to another place in the world before it enters the Internet. While I do have my own VPN’s setup around the world, in this case I chose to use Express VPN out of convenience. My own VPN setup is based on DTLS while my WIFI Access point uses the OpenVPN’s protocols which Express VPN supports. Express VPN provides access to VPN locations all over the world, but I chose to use Hong Kong because in my experience China really clamps down the bandwidth for outgoing traffic to other countries except for Hong Kong. Although Hong Kong is technically part of China, in Hong Kong Google and friends are not blocked.

That’s how I do it. All my WIFI traffic is automatically routed to Hong Kong over a VPN. I also made sure that my WIFI SSID and key are the same as I use at home so that I didn’t have to rekey any of my gadgets.

For the real geeks among us, I’m getting ping latencies of 67ms, a download bandwidth of 6 Mbps and an upload bandwidth of 5 Mbps. Obviously not anywhere near what I’m having at home, but it is perfectly workable, and I can even watch Netflix movies or do Microsoft teams calls. My only gripe is that Express VPN doesn’t provide IPv6 addresses. My own VPN setup does. If I need IPv6, I will actually fire up my own VPN on top of the VPN provided by the Wifi Access Point. After all, it’s all just IP packets.

UPDATE: Well, my VPN fun may have been short lived. This afternoon (Saturday 5/15) after a week of functioning correctly, my Express VPN and my personal DTLS VPNs stopped working. I’ll probably be debugging this weekend.

UPDATE2: It is working again. I found a different working VPN server for Express VPN. I wonder if this is going to be a weekly occurrence of updating my VPN server.

The Quarantine Hotel

My quarantine hotel, the Wyndham Shanghai East Bund, is located in the Yangpu District in Shanghai. It is a neighborhood just east of the city center and I can see the famous Shanghai TV tower and the Grand Hyatt, the hotel where I usually stay, from my window. It’s a 5-star hotel but it has seen better days. It’s carpet and wallpaper could benefit from replacement but it’s overall clean and spacious.

My room in the Wyndham Shanghai East Bund hotel.

As far as I can tell there are only quarantined guests in the hotel. I tried to see if I can book the hotel online, but it was marked as out of service. While in the hotel, you are deprived from all human contact. My understanding is that even couples are split up as well as couples with kids. The kids go with the mom.

I occasionally get to see a glimpse of my fellow inmates when I pick up my meals. The hotel serves 3 standard meals a day. Breakfast (~7am), lunch (~11:30am) and dinner (~5:30pm). Your temperature is also taken twice a day. Around 9am and 2pm. This is the only interaction you have with a human being and few words are spoken. For the meals they just knock on the door and leave those outside. By the time you get to the door, put on a face mask and grab your food from the table outside, the minders are already long gone. You really only get to see them during the temperature check and even that is quick because they are very efficient. They have a runner that knocks on your door, followed by a nurse with an infrared thermometer who takes your temperature by pointing it at your forehead. Its over in seconds and I barely get the words 你好 and 谢谢 in. Of course, they are all in full PPE.

Time for my daily temperature check. The nurse is in the back while the runner is getting everyone ready.

The rules are very strict. You cannot leave your room for 14 days. You and everything in your room, including your luggage, is treated as contaminated. The only thing that can leave your room is garbage and from what I can tell that’s treated like biohazardous material too. They do not service the room or replace bedlinen/towels/etc during your stay. The two bath towels and two hand towels you got at the beginning is all you have for the next 14 days. They provided a tray of 24 water bottles. Again, that’s all you get for the next 14 days. If you run out you can boil water from the sink (yes, that’s what the instructions said) or you can order it online.

I can order things online, but they too come with many restrictions. This is somewhat of a rare privilege because I’ve heard other quarantine hotels don’t do this. The instructions make it very clear that ordering online is a privilege. It is immediately revoked if you try to smuggle in forbidden items such as tabaco, alcohol, prepared meals, kitchen appliances, etc. Apparently, they do check and open up the packages before they deliver it to your room. Since nothing can leave your room once it enters, you cannot return packages.

I have a room with a view.

The toilet, another output, also has a whole routine associated with it. When you check in, you are given a box full of chlorine tablets and strict instructions not to consume those. Every time, after you have gone to the toilet you are supposed to drop in one of those tablets and let it sit there for 1 hour before flushing. While this may disinfect your output, it doesn’t take away the smell. That can linger for quite some time afterwards, so this is not the most pleasant aspect of the quarantine. This may not be the best segue way to the topic of your input: Food.

The food is pretty bland. Breakfast consists of some buns, an egg, a yoghurt or a soy-milk drink, and typically some fried thing with vegetables inside or corn on the cob. Lunch and dinner are pretty similar and typically include a large portion of rice, one or two vegetables, a meat dish (pork, chicken, duck, beef, or fish) and some tofu-based dish. All meals come with a piece of fruit, either a banana, a Chinese peer, or small mango-like fruit that I’ve had before but don’t know the name of it. I knew beforehand that the food would be boring, so I took snacks with me from the US. Some nuts, freeze dried fruits, some salty snack and energy bars to help me get through it. I can highly recommend that.

My daily meals: breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The first couple of days I was pretty much out of it because of jetlag but now I kind of have settled on a routine. Each morning I wake up around 6-6:30am. Every other day I take a careful shower so that I don’t flood my bathroom like I did the first day. At 7am my meetings start with my teams in the US. My admin has carefully arranged it so that most of my meetings have been compressed to a 3-hour window between 4-7pm PST. That is 7-10am my time. It doesn’t always work; I’ve already had a 10:30pm and a 12:00-2am meeting that I couldn’t avoid. Hopefully I won’t have to do too many of those but that’s the price I have to pay. Between 10am-12:30am I do emails and practice my Chinese.  That’s followed by a 1hr session with my Chinese tutor at 12:30pm. That’s one of the first things I got scheduled while I’m here. After that session I go back to answering emails and other work-related stuff until they take my temperature around 2-2:30pm. When that’s done, I’ll try to get some exercise in. Since the room is spacious, I can walk around a bit, like a caged tiger, and I’ll try to put in 45min while listening to a book or podcast. I’m able to walk a distance of over 2 miles. Not much but enough to make my move goals. After that its back to work related activities until dinner around 5:30pm. In the evening I’ll read my book(s) or watch a documentary until I’m ready to fall asleep.

For my next blog entry, I’ll geek out and describe my work from quarantine setup.

Arriving at Shanghai Pudong Airport

Before the plane landed at Shanghai Pudong International airport, we were all instructed to stay in our seats after we arrived at the gate. The ground crew would tell us when to deplane and in what order. We had to keep our customs health QR code ready for inspection. That was the code we got at the airport by filling out the http://health.customsapp.com/ form, not the health code that we got from the consulate. This wouldn’t be the last form I had to fill out or the last QR code I’d receive that day.

Not too long after we arrived at the gate, business class was told to deplane. I picked up my roller bag & backpack and exited the plane as you normally do. The folks at the gate were all in full PPE suits and didn’t really care about the QR code that was on my phone. My first impression was that this was more for show, but I was very wrong about that.

Walking through the terminal I noticed how quiet things were. Typically, the Shanghai airport is buzzing with people but not this time. At the end of the terminal, we arrived at a check point where you had to scan your QR code. You were then directed to a long row of small desks (mine was 31) where folks interviewed you about your health form. Of course, all the airport employees were in full PPE the whole time. Suit, masks, face guard, the works.

During the interview they asked to see my vaccination record and also my tests records. I only had electronic copies of the test documents, so I had to show them on my computer, but they were ok with that. Apparently, in my confusion at the airport I had selected that I had not received the tests. I was surprised I did that, and I could have sworn I selected the right answers. Perhaps it was reset when I was dealing with fixing the Chinese error messages, so make sure you check the form before you hit submit. It wasn’t a big deal though; the official fixed the answers for me.

The next step was to get a COVID test, the nasal swap version. Walking to the testing center was challenging with my heavy luggage. You had to descend many stairs along the way. At the testing center I was again assigned one of the many booths and there a nurse in full PPE stuck a nasal swap far up my nostril. She pulled it out, looked at the swap, wasn’t quite content with what she had collected, and up again it went. I had to control the urge not to sneeze right into her face. She also took two throat swaps and then sent me on my way.

Following the same path up, this time with working escalators, I went on to immigration. Before I arrived at immigration there was another check to make sure you didn’t skip your COVID test. After that they let me into the immigration area. Immigration was very quiet unlike my previous arrivals in China where its typically a madhouse, and I passed without trouble. The immigration officer did want to know my Chinese phone number which was a first for me.

By the time I got to the luggage carousel my bag was already there. I picked it up and walked through the nothing to declare customs lane, scanned my bags, and I was surprised how smooth this all went. Less than an hour. Normally I do it within 30 minutes with my APEC pass, but given the circumstances an hour wasn’t bad at all.

The next step was to find my quarantine hotel. There is a common misconception that the government will assign you to a random hotel and that you have no choice in the matter. That is true if you didn’t select a hotel before your trip, but there is an option to select a hotel. I wasn’t aware of this either until a week before my departure when someone told me about it. I immediately asked my company’s China team, and they were able to book me into a 5-star quarantine hotel. The impression I got is that the government contracted a set of 1–5-star hotels that are retrofitted to handle quarantined travelers. Among this set you can preselect your quarantine hotel.

I got the hotel instructions from a colleague over WeChat, but they weren’t very precise. Follow to signs to Shanghai and find “Yangpu District/浦区” help desk. The staff at the help desk will lead you to the shuttle for Wyndham hotel. Before I even saw a sign to Shanghai, I ran into another check point and you guessed it, I had to fill out another online form. Mind you, all these forms have the same information in them: Name, ID type, ID number, contact info in china, nationality, etc. Each one of them is from a different authority. It would be nice if they’d integrated their systems.  Once I submitted the form I got another QR code, and I could proceed.

Another checkpoint and another form to fill out.

Further down the hallway I did find the signs pointing to Shanghai and eventually I found the helpdesk. The police officer behind the desk spoke very little English which was a bit problematic later on. At this point though she asked for my passport and QR code. She was processing this for minutes and I got a bit worried that I would end up at a different place. I tried to ask her what was going on and all she said in heavily Chinese accented English: “I know who you are”. That sounded sinister enough to me, and I decided to call my Chinese colleague to help with the translation. It turned out I was already in the system and all I had to do was sit on the bench and wait for the shuttle to show up. It was going to arrive soon. At this point it was 8:30pm.

Waiting for the bus to my quarantine hotel.

Two more people joined that needed to go to different hotels but that were on the same shuttle route as my hotel. Still no shuttle though. At 9pm I asked the police officer when the shuttle was coming, and I got the answer between 10-11pm. I sighed and returned to my seat and waited for an hour while WeChatting and IMing folks around the world that I had arrived in Shanghai. At 10pm, no bus. At 11pm still no bus. I asked the official again. The bus was now coming at midnight. You guessed it, at midnight no bus. Around 12:30am, the two other travelers and I were getting restless and started to complain. At that point they told us, the bus is coming and we will take you downstairs. Before they could do that, they had to scan our QR codes again and then we waited for the bus to arrive. Another 25 minutes or so. 

Finally on the bus to the quarantine hotel. Just my luck, I was the last stop.

It turned out that they were waiting for another delayed flight to come in so that they could pick up those passengers as well. All in all, I was dropped off at my hotel around 2:30am on Sunday morning. A friend of mine on the same flight, who had a hotel assigned to him by the government, and left much earlier than I did, told me the next day that the wait was well worth it after I sent him some pictures of my hotel.

The arrival at the hotel was surreal. I was led into the poorly lit back service entrance next to the freight elevator. Remember, everyone is still in full PPE. There they asked me to pay 80元 for a COVID test. I’m still not sure which one but I think it was the one at the airport. To pay this fee they just pointed to a WeChat QR code. I told you WeChat was indispensable here. Once I paid the fee, they pointed me to another QR code and that was their contact information on WeChat. Any request I had, for the room, medical issues, etc. they all needed to be asked through WeChat. They then made me sign a form that I promised that I will pay the 7000元 at the end of my stay. With that out of the way I was given the room number, 1903, and an access card and I was pointed towards the service elevator. I went up by myself, found my room, quickly unpacked some basic things and around 3am I was asleep. This had been a long day.

The trip to Shanghai

The trip to Shanghai started on Wednesday Cinqo de Mayo (May 5th) from Austin. It’s a cumbersome trip because China requires you to take two COVID19 tests. Both the PCR (nasal swap) and antibody (blood serum) test. Both need to be taken at the port of departure within 48-hours of your flight leaving at a Chinese consulate approved testing facility. In my case that was the Bay Area because I was flying out of San Francisco, one of the few places with semi-direct flights between the USA and China.

I had registered with Apostle Diagnostics in San Jose well in advance to do my tests there at 9am on Thursday. I stayed in a hotel nearby and I showed up promptly at 8:30am as suggested in their instructions. I was one of the first ones and as it got closer to 9am more folks started to queue up. These were all people getting ready to travel to China and as you can expect most of them were Chinese and speaking Mandarin. I only spotted one other Caucasian looking individual. Apparently only the two of us were crazy to go through this.

I had signed up for the rtPCR+IgM (targeting the N protein) tests because I had been vaccinated with Moderna vaccine months earlier. The rtPCR test is the regular nasal swap test and the IgM test requires a blood (serum) sample. It turns out that the standard serum test (S protein) can have false positives when you’ve had the Pfizer/Moderna/Johnson&Johnson vaccine, and the special serum test (M protein) does not. Interestingly, when I got the test results back, they performed all three tests (rtPCR, IgM-S, and IgM-M) and they all came back negative.

The tests itself were streamlined. As soon as they had checked your paperwork (make sure you have everything printed or ready on your phone) you started the process of double checking your information, get the nasal swap, and take a blood sample. During the blood test they asked me whether I wanted to have a proof picture. I wasn’t quite sure what they meant by that but apparently its used to show the consulate that you have taken the test at a certified lab. In cases like this I just say yes and go with the flow. I also got a form to fill out that was basically a self-signed attestation that the vaccine form I had was real and not forged. I guess that has become a problem now too: falsified vaccination forms.

Proof that I took the COVID19 tests.

With all the tests done I went back to my hotel room and worked while I waited for the results to come in. It’s a same day test but the lab guarantee is before midnight and usually the result return between 6-8pm. This had me a bit on edge because the consulate stops approving these tests by 10pm and starts again at 9am. My flight was at 10:55am the next day so that was pretty tight. If I had to do it all over again, I would cut it less short and do the test on Wednesday afternoon. 

I got the test results just after 6pm and immediately submitted them onto the consulate’s website, https://hrhk.cs.mfa.gov.cn/H5/ (notice the trailing / its important), including the authentication picture and the certificate that I swore I had gotten the vaccine. Someone warned me that the website was picky about file sizes and I noticed that it didn’t accept the labs results pdf. So, I converted everything to jpeg files and compressed the heck out of them. With everything submitted I received the green code I needed to board the flight after 1.5hr which felt like ages to me.

My green health code.

The next morning, I showed up early at SFO with the expectation that I was fully set. Nope, there was yet another form I had to fill out online at http://health.customsapp.com/. This website is in English/Chinese with the error messages in Chinese. The United Airlines person at the check-in counter, who was already grumpy, was not happy with me that it took me so long to fill out the form. She started servicing other folks while I was working on it. The website rendering didn’t work too well on my iphone so it took me a while to work around its quirks. Eventually I got the customs QR code and then my boarding pass. Do make sure to take screenshots of all these passes and QR codes. Folks ask for them everywhere.

The San Francisco airport was pretty busy but despite that United Airlines had closed its Polaris club and most other clubs. The AMEX lounge was open, so I hung out there instead. Boarding the flight was easy but then there was a maintenance issue that caused us all to deplane and get on another plane that left 3.5hrs later. Sigh! The flight itself was surprisingly full but uneventful. As expected, we all had to wear masks the whole time. We did make a short stop to change the crew in south Korea. I wonder whether that was because the crew can’t stay in China without going through a 14-day quarantine either. By flying from Korea, and never leave the airplane, they can get back and forth on the same day.

15 hours to Shanghai

Saturday, around 7:30pm I arrived, 2:30hrs later than planned, at Shanghai Pudong airport. It had been a long day but it would get even longer.

Wechat and Alipay

WeChat and Alipay are indispensable phone apps here in China. You use it for everything. To pay, to order food, to order taxis, to instant message, to tracking your health, social media, etc. It’s an integrated platform that is pervasive throughout the country. China is effectively a cashless society, and all its payments are done through WeChat and Alipay.

I realized this 6 years ago when I paid for lunch with cash. At first, they didn’t want to accept cash until I told them that was all I had. You have to keep in mind that China has a closed banking system and non-Chinese credit cards are not accepted. It took the waiter 20min to come back with change. He and his colleagues were clearly running around the mall looking for change and they finally found it. This made me realize that I had to get my own WeChat and/or Alipay account if I wanted to be independent in China.

During the preparation for my next trip to China, somewhere in 2016, I mentioned this incident to a Chinese colleague of mine who was going to accompany me. She laughed about my story and told me that during the upcoming trip she would help me get a Chinese bank account and that would get the ball rolling. 

During the next trip we did just that. We had blocked a morning to accomplish this. She had figured out the process: first get a permanent Chinese phone number, then open a bank account. The phone shop and bank were right next to each other, so this was going to be easy … I thought.

Getting a Chinese phone number was straight forward. She got me a plan that was 18元 per month, that’s about $2.80. It gets me free receiving SMS messages, free receiving calls, 100Mb of data, etc. This was fine for me because I tend to use my T-mobile Global plus plan when I’m travelling. The Chinese phone number was mostly used to authenticate myself. Paying for the SIM was a bit of challenge, this is done through WeChat or Alipay, but they accepted cash and I put 100元 on the account just to be safe.

The next stop was the bank. This is a little bit trickier because China has regional banks that are only accepted in specific regions like Beijing, but she had selected the Bank of Communications for me which is an international bank that is accepted everywhere in China. The bank even had English text in their window advertisements, so that looked promising.

Well, it turns out that I was the first foreigner to open a bank account in the last 12 months at that branch. The poor teller immediately got attention from her manager, his manager and 2 other folks whom I didn’t quite understand what their job was but they too were busy looking at all the paperwork. I started with filling out the forms. I had to do this twice because I hadn’t filled out my name correctly. I typically don’t use my second name but when they checked my passport, they got all excited and I had to do it again.

I then had to fill out my US tax information because the US forces every bank in the world who has US citizens as clients to report their bank accounts to the IRS. I tend to keep only a small amount on this account, much less than $10,000, so I don’t have to file a yearly FBAR for it.

Then came the kicker, and keep in mind at this point I had been filling out forms for over an hour. They asked me where my permanent resident status was. I didn’t have that because I was on business travel. They told me that I couldn’t open an account unless I was a permanent resident, or it was for business. I told them that it was for business and that I was on business travel. That’s when they asked me to prove it.

When I asked my colleague what to bring for opening the bank account her response was just your passport. I figured that can’t be enough so I asked a local friend if I could use his physical address (yes, we needed that information) and I brought my APEC card. APEC is an Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation and one of the things they do is issue id cards to business travelers. The main benefit to me is that it provides me VIP access in most countries in Asia and the Pacific rim so that I can run through immigration in no time. It’s a government issued id, the same one that issues global entry in the US, and I figured you cannot have enough identification on you while opening a new bank account.

So, when they asked me for proof, I showed them my APEC card which clearly states: “Business Travel” and looks like an official Chinese ID card. That did the trick. All 5 folks, and if I remember correctly there were more at this point, looked at the card, studied it, and they all agreed that I was opening the account for business purposes.

With that out of the way, I immediately got a bank card, I was able to deposit money on the account, and I setup my WeChat and AliPay accounts. Afterwards, I took my colleague for coffee to make sure it all worked.

Nowadays WeChat and Alipay have made it easier for foreigners to add western credit cards. It’s not exactly the same as having a local bank account but its close.