Two weeks ago today, I got my passport back from immigration, and got ready to leave China for good. I would be lying if I said I did anything other than hit the ground running. We went out for dinner in the Old Quarter the night I arrived, started work 4 days later, and started motor biking around the city within 10 days (don’t worry, we’ve bought proper helmets and face masks to save us from the pollution). We’ve also been to dozens of cafes and restaurants around Hanoi, and have gotten to know the city quite a bit! The last 2 weeks have been filled with adventure, experiences and newness; exactly what I crave in my life.
There’s so much for me to write about, but for today, I’ll start with a short introduction to the city where we are living!
People have been settled in the Hanoi area since the 3rd century BCE. More than 2000 years ago, people began creating communities along the Red River, which flows through the city. With so many little lakes and rivers flowing through the city, it’s no surprise that the area has a long history. The settlements eventually grew, and in 1010CE, Hanoi (called Thang Long at the time) became the capital city of Vietnam.
Vietnam was a French colony for many years, and was later occupied by the Japanese during World War 2. The American invasion in Vietnam in the 60s and 70s also had a profound affect on the city, with many buildings and bridges being bombed. For a while, after the war, Hanoi wasn’t a very welcoming place for foreigners, which is understandable. It’s come a very long way since then.
Our experience in Hanoi has been magical so far. People are very friendly, polite and helpful. People have offered us directions when they saw us looking for something, and all our Grab drivers have been very nice. English is also WIDELY spoken here; much more so than in Suzhou. Although many people study English in China, it seems that very few are willing to speak it with foreigners. In Vietnam, our experience has been quite different.
A Lively City
Hanoi is known as the introvert city, and Ho Chi Minh City is known to be extroverted. Anyone who thinks that Hanoi is introverted though, should really visit Suzhou! This city is SO alive! There are cafes, restaurants, pubs and bars everywhere. People seem to love being out, walking around the little ponds and lakes all over the area where we live. On any given night of the week, there will be groups of people enjoying beer and a great meal at the tiny restaurants that are scattered across the city.
We went for a little cruise on the motorcycle Sunday night, after dinner, and couldn’t believe how many were out cruising around the lake as well! The roads in Hanoi are almost always chaotic, but as long as you stick with traffic, and move with cautious confidence, it all seems to be ok. Traffic doesn’t move quickly, but it does move at least. Having a motorbike saves you a lot of time on the roads, so we didn’t wait long before getting one!
I’m planning several posts about Vietnamese food in the future, but so far, we’ve been enjoying a lot of the international food that we missed so much while we were in China.
Vietnam is much more open than China, and as a result, they seem to be more adventurous here. In Suzhou, many of the ‘international’ restaurants had to make major changes to their menus in order to appeal to local tastes. One chef we knew in Suzhou actually left his job because they wanted his food to be more ‘instagramable’. He made incredible home-cooked style Italian food but the restaurant wasn’t doing well enough because appearances is what sells. He actually left the restaurant because he didn’t agree with the mentality, but the reality is that restaurants need to do this in order to survive in China. As a result, you get less authentic cuisines.
It’s also more difficult for foreigners to open restaurants in China. Rent is expensive and there are a lot of hoops to jump through to make it happen. This doesn’t seem to be such a problem in Vietnam because there are international restaurants EVERYWHERE, and they all taste and feel authentic.
Some of the cuisines we’ve tried so far:
West African – Sierra Leone
So there you have it, my first post about Hanoi (since we moved here, anyway!). We visited this gorgeous city back in 2017, and I knew I wanted to live here right away. I’m so glad we listened to our guts and made this move. So far, it’s an incredible adventure!
I sit between 2 officers who neither look at me, nor speak to me. We race through traffic, with lights on, as though we are in some sort of emergency. We nearly crash once.
It starts to hit me then. This is really happening. This is the turn my life is taking.
10 minutes earlier, I was on stage, finishing the chorus to Zombie by The Cranberries. I closed my eyes while I played the chords and took a vocal break to let my guitarist shine. When I opened them, a moment later, there were a dozen immigration officers telling us to stop playing. Some were in plain clothes. Others were in uniform. None looked friendly.
He walked up to the stage and called me by name. The wrong name, but close enough.
“Maria, you’re coming with me”.
I put down my guitar and tried to call over the owner of the bar, Jack. He made eye contact with me, and promptly looked away. He backed into a corner.
My drummer called over to our band manager, who was in the audience. The police noticed him, and all swarmed him. He’d recently had surgery, and I could hear him telling them not to push him, he was in pain. They continued to push.
I jumped off stage and walked over to my friends, who were sitting wide-eyed in the audience. My husband was over at the bar, but I knew I couldn’t make it over to him in time to say anything. I knew I couldn’t run either. Cameras are everywhere in China. They’d find me before I could even get home.
I laughed and said ‘this isn’t a noise complaint’, when my friends said it was too early for them to already be complaining. I downed the half pint of cider I had left in my glass, as I see them manhandling my manager and pushing him towards the door. One of the officers spotted me, suddenly remembering that I was there. She looked angry. She shouted at me to get moving with them. I complied, but it didn’t matter.
She grabbed my arm, pushing me along. I said ‘you don’t need to force me. I’m compliant and I’m coming with you’. She pinched the fat under my arm and kept pushing me ahead.
I remembered that my phone was in my hand, and I lifted it to check the time. As soon as the woman noticed, she tried to grab it right out of my hand. Instinctively I held on and pulled away. What would you do if someone tried to grab your phone? It’s a lifeline. A man grabbed me from behind and lifted my arm into the air with one of his hands, grabbing the phone out of my hand with the other. 8:08pm.
We got to the police vehicles. There were many. My husband later told me that there were at least 6 or 7. I wasn’t in the mind-frame to count. I heard our manager asking to be put in the police car with his son, who plays drums in my band. They refused and led him to a separate car. I was escorted into a police truck.
It all seems funny. My farewell party. I was arrested for singing at my farewell party. At 8 o’clock at night, long before noise could be an issue. I wasn’t even paid to be there. It was my farewell party, after all. A wonderful send off and a great way to end 9 years living in a country I have loved for so long. A country I’ve called my home.
Then I think of my husband. He had tried to hand me his phone as I was being escorted into the car. I told him to keep it, and that they already had my own device. He looked worried. This is what makes me break down and start to cry. The idea that Dave is hurting. The idea that I have caused him pain. I am lucky enough to be married to someone who really loves me, and who always has my back. I know that this ordeal…however it turns out…will be as hard on him as it is on me.
I don’t allow myself to break down. Tears stream down my face, but I refuse to sob. Instead, I try to reach out and remind these people that I’m a person. And also to show them that I’m not arguing with them and that I’m not combative. My instincts tell me that I should make connections.
I wait a few moments. I can tell he’s a little uncomfortable, but at least he hasn’t shouted at me, pinched me or grabbed me. I tell him ‘this was my farewell party. I’m leaving China in 6 days. I’ve lived here 9 years’. His response is short, but it says a lot.
“I’m just following orders”.
When we arrive at the police station, I’m told to get out of the car. I look around immediately to see if my bandmates are there as well. They are. Some relief. They look as grim as I feel, but at least I’m not alone.
Once in the station, I’m told to sit on one end of the room. My guitarist is sitting all the way at the other side of the room. My drummer and the band manager are standing near the police desk at the front of the room. The officers are asking them something. No one pays any attention to me.
Suddenly, I remember a piece of luck. My guitarist recently got his green card. Before I can think it through, I say out loud ‘He has his green card!’. Chaos ensues as we’re shouted at in both Mandarin and English to be quiet. We aren’t allowed to speak.
They call me over to the desk at the front of the room. That’s when I see the stack of files on the desk. They rifle through the stack, and I can see so many of my friends in there. Visa photos, addresses, phone numbers, passport numbers…It seems like half of the people I know are in that stack. They find my file and pull it out of the pile. They say they want my passport. I tell them I don’t have it, which annoys them again. Everything I say annoys them. They tell me I’ll need to have someone bring it to them. I remind them that they have my phone, and they say it’s not a problem. No further information.
They put a big black tracking bracelet on me and lock it. It seems like overkill, with the 2 giant metal doors that they closed behind us, but I was also just arrested for singing, so overkill seems to be the theme of the night.
They take me to a room where I remove my shoes and replace them with a pair of prison issue slippers. Things are starting to feel real. And scary.
The woman who kept pinching me comes over my way, once I’m seated again. She has my phone. My lifeline to the world. She holds it in her hand and demands to know my password. I give it to her, and she writes it onto a sticker, which she sticks to the back of the phone.
She then opens up Wechat, and finds my husband in my list of contacts. She tells me to tell him to bring my passport and that she’ll send him the location. She puts the call into speaker phone mode, and holds it in front of my face. Dave picks up. I hear his voice and it sounds worried.
“Are you ok? Are you safe?”
I respond that I am safe and that the officers are being very nice, but that I need him to bring my passport to the location that will be sent to him.
Her finger hovers over the ‘end call’ button throughout our 10 second conversation, and she promptly hangs up on my husband as soon as I’ve finished my sentence. Then, my phone disappears once again.
A while later, I’m being escorted through a metal detector. I’ve removed all my metal accessories already, but I still beep. My manager has trouble going through. He’s in a sling, and they make him take it off. He’s obviously sore. He’d only had surgery a week before. His shoulder must be aching from the way they pushed him out of the bar.
I motion to my chest to indicate that it must be the underwire in my bra. I don’t know why I think of that particular excuse…I’m not even wearing a bra with underwire…but I really don’t want to be strip searched, and that’s what pops into my head as an excuse. They accept it. We move on.
Then I’m brought into my interrogation room. My bandmates are moved further down the hall into rooms of their own. My previous experience in interrogation rooms were dark, quiet and scary. China upgraded since 2006, though. Now, interrogation rooms are bright, florescent, and bare.
They sat me down in a boxy wooden chair. It had to be at least 40 years old. It was uncomfortable, which was the point. It also had a wooden bar across the top, that they folded over my lap when I sat down. It is designed so that the person being interrogated can be locked in, with a simple padlock. As they lower the wooden bar over my lap, I feel like I am being locked into a roller coaster that I had no desire to be on.
The questions start off simple enough. “Why were you at the bar?” “Do you have an entertainment visa?” “Was the bar owner paying you to be there?”
My mind races. I know there is no point lying. They have my phone and they can see my transactions, ads about our shows, videos of our music. It might seem silly to an outsider that I would have all of this on my phone, but I had been playing in China for 8 years without issue. In my last 6 months, I probably got a little too cocky. Surely, I’m not going to get in trouble now.
I try to answer in ways that allow me to be honest, without throwing anyone under the bus. I feel the need to protect the bar owner, and my band manager. They are my friends. The last thing I want to do is rat them out. “I was at the bar because it was my farewell party. I’m moving in Vietnam in 6 days”. “No, I don’t have an entertainment visa. I’m a teacher. I just sing for fun”. “No, Jack has never sent me money to play music at his bar”.
All 3 statements are true, but they don’t make them happy. They open my phone and start scrolling until they find my chat with the bar owner, Jack. There are no transactions in that conversation, because Jack has truly never paid me. I always received my small performance payment from my band manager. They realize that quickly and find our list of transactions. I can’t protect him now.
They ask why he sends me so much money and I laugh and say “Because we’re friends??” in a funny kind of way. They don’t find it funny.
The man in the baseball cap, who keeps calling me Maria, enters the room as I say this. He comes right up to me and shouts in my face ‘THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE! DON’T LIE TO US!’
I admit that it is payment for some of my performances but that I was not being paid for tonight’s performance. Looking back, I find it funny that I thought that this would somehow make a difference.
The evening continues this way. They ask me questions. I answer the questions directly and honestly. Any time they think I’m lying, I get screamed at. I think they just like screaming. I also think that they’ve watched to many episodes of Law and Order. This all seems like something from a bad TV show where a rogue cop is trying to get information from a bad guy who is holding back answers.
Then, they come in with the stack of files that I’d seen an hour earlier. They go through each file and ask me which people were musicians.
My husband is in the file. I laugh and say ‘no no, trust me, he is NOT a musician. He tries to play guitar, but he’s horrible”. I immediately feel guilty for saying something that is neither true, nor nice, but I feel a little better knowing that I am protecting him with my bad joke.
I keep making jokes. Looking back, I think it was a coping mechanism, but at the time, I just wanted to keep things as light hearted as possible. They shout at me more than once, but I can’t seem to stop.
The woman who translates for me appreciates my humour and I can feel her softening towards me. She knows that I’m telling the truth, even though I’m not being as serious as I should be. I think she understands that I’m just scared. She shows me kindness, and I cannot overstate how grateful I am to have her there with me. She’s the closest thing I have to a friend at the moment.
She gives me a smaller stack of files. She asks “Do you know these people and are they in your band?”. I feel sick to my stomach. I’m being asked to rat on some of my favourite people in Suzhou. People who have done nothing wrong, other than share my love of music. People who have made my life in Suzhou a richer place.
I go through the files and admit that I know them all, but also state that none of them are in my band. This enrages the person I have now decided is my nemesis. The man in the baseball cap, who keeps calling me Maria.
He comes right up to me once more, screaming in English: “Stop LYING to us! I can legally incarcerate you for 30 days! I will do it if you keep lying!”
I choke back a sob and say with alarm in my voice ‘I’m not lying! There are only 3 people in my band, and they are all at the police station here with me!’.
My translator realizes her mix up and corrects herself. “Do you know these people, and do they perform in Suzhou?”
They bring me a red ink pad and make me put a thumb print on each of their files, as a sign that I acknowledge that they too are criminals. I feel sick each time I press my finger down on this stack of papers.
I tell them that I don’t think any of them make money, because they only perform occasionally, but the man in the baseball cap laughs again and says ‘it doesn’t matter’.
The interrogation is over, and all that’s left to do is sign my statements. They translate them into Chinese and print them up. My translator goes through every page with me and tells me not to worry, that they’re going to let me go tonight.
I thank her and ask her when I can get my passport back, because I already know that it won’t be returned to me tonight. She looks uncomfortable. The man in the baseball cap comes in again and says “we will be keeping your passport and your phone”. I explain that I’m leaving for Vietnam in 6 days, and he laughs at me.
“You’d better cancel your flight!”
That’s when the floodgates open. I begin to cry inconsolably. I sob as I sign my statement. Page after page. Fingerprints on top of every signature. I can’t stop crying now. My translator hands me a tissue and tells me that it’ll be alright. She says: “You’ve been honest and behaved well, it won’t be too bad”. It doesn’t make me feel better.
When I’m finally allowed out of the interrogation chair and lead back into the room with the metal detector, I sob in relief when I see my drummer sitting at a table, looking bored. He’s young. He doesn’t realize how serious this is. He also doesn’t have a flight to Vietnam in 6 days.
I see a small clock and realize that 2 hours have passed since I arrived at the police station. It takes another 3 hours to process the 3 of us. I learn that my guitarist had been saved by his green card and was released.
Fingerprints. Palm prints. Mug shots. Footprints. Retinal scans. DNA swabs. It takes 3 hours because, in true Chinese fashion, the internet keeps dropping.
We sit in the room together. Now that the interrogation is over and they’ve gotten what they wanted from us, we are allowed to speak. We make bad jokes. My manager assures me that I’ll be on my flight in 6 days. My drummer complains that he’s hungry.
Then, they tell me I can leave. I am startled because my two friends cannot leave yet. They aren’t finished with their processing. I ask if I can use my phone to call a taxi. Nothing is done with cash in China. You call a taxi, and can’t just flag one down. You pay with your Wechat wallet. I realize that I don’t even have my keys.
I’m told that I cannot use my phone to call a taxi. I explain that I have no way to get home. The officer in charge of processing laughs and says to me in Chinese “That’s not my problem”.
Luckily, I know Dave’s phone number by heart and they have a landline that I am allowed to use. It turns out that he’s waiting outside the police station for me.
I’m lead out of the processing room, and back into the room where my shoes are waiting. I see an old black chair with restraints built in. My heart stops for a moment, and I’m grateful that this wasn’t used on me.
They remove the tracking bracelet from my wrist and give me back my jewelry and belt. Then, they’re opening metal doors and letting me step into the night, where I can see my husband waiting for me, along with a few other friends of the band. He wraps me in his arms and I break down once more.
The aftermath of this night was truly a roller coaster. I was let out of the interrogation chair after just 2 hours, but my mind stayed restrained there for 6 full weeks. There was a total lack of transparency throughout the ordeal, and the immigration officers broke many of their own laws throughout the process.
I wasn’t given any paperwork or even a business card when I left the station that night. They had my phone and my passport, but I was given no information about how I should proceed, or what I could expect. And although we made several trips to the immigration office, trying to get answers, we were told over and over that ‘someone would be in touch within the next 3 months’.
It was an infuriating situation, made worse by how helpless I felt. I tried to write a letter of apology to the immigration office, and even had a friend translate it into Chinese for me, but they refused to take it. I tried talking to several different people, and had many friends call in on my behalf, but no one was told anything. In fact, when we came looking for information, most of the people working in the immigration office seemed to think it was all very funny.
Eventually, we got in touch with the Foreign Affairs Bureau. They were very surprised that several protocols had been breached by these officers and they promised to get in touch and try to get some information for us. Immigration called us and asked me to come in to sign some paperwork within 30 minutes of my departure from the Foreign Affairs office. The next day, I went in and signed post dated paperwork that should have been given to me the night of my arrest.
At this point, you might be wondering why I didn’t go straight to the Canadian Consulate or embassy, but in reality, there is very little the embassy would have been able to do for me. And of course, by getting the consulate involved, we would be escalating things, and possibly embarrassing the officers, which is really something you don’t want to do in a situation like this. For this same reason, I did not get a lawyer directly involved. We did, however, get some very good advice from 2 lawyers, but they never represented us officially. We were told over and over that we just needed to be polite, apologetic and humble, and that this was the best chance we had at a speedy resolution.
I learned a lot about the SIP Immigration people in those 6 weeks. I learned that they actually have a lot less power than they would like. They wanted to deport us and they couldn’t, likely because the offense was too small, and Beijing rejected their request. They wanted to charge me a higher fine, but once my paperwork went up the chain of command, the fine was lowered. Once more, my infraction was so small that they couldn’t justify such a big punishment.
I learned that the people in charge of SIP immigration truly have a mean streak, and that they enjoy their work a little too much. Whenever I had to go in to sign paperwork, the man with the baseball cap (who’s name was James, I learned later) would smile at me smugly as I signed paperwork and heard the charges being laid against me. He continued to use every opportunity he could to shout at me and be rude to me each time I had to go in to sign more paperwork.
They also found various ways to make things worse for us. The lack of communication was bad enough, but they also did other little things as well. They refused to call the bar owner themselves, and insisted that we should be the ones to bring him in. They accused us of not being apologetic enough, and used this as a reason for all the delays (keep in mind that I tried to write a letter of apology and it was rejected). They knew I was losing my apartment and would very likely lose my job due to their delays, but their response was always the same: “that’s not our problem”
Eventually, Dave had to leave the country without me, because his visa was up, and getting the cats to Vietnam was becoming complicated. That was a devastating blow to both of us, because it was bad enough dealing with all this together…never mind in different countries. He flew out on July 26th, and landed safely in Hanoi with Hugo and Poe later that night.
I had to move into a hotel on August 7th, because new tenants were moving into my apartment. I didn’t lose my job, in the end, but I did get moved to part time, which affects us financially. I’m enrolled in an online program at the University of Sheffield starting in September, and if I had lost my job completely, I would have also had to leave the program. It was an enormous source of stress for me.
But, having said all that, I am truly grateful for all the people who helped me out during this horrible time. I had friends emailing me many times every day to check in, during those first 10 days, before they gave me back my phone. So many friends called in on my behalf and told immigration about all the animal rescue work I do in China, pleading that they be lenient with me, because I’m a good person. And of course, so many people got together with Dave and I, to distract us from the situation, and sometimes to just listen while I cried in frustration. We have many beautiful, wonderful and kind people in our lives, and for that, I’ll be eternally grateful.
Even people who hardly knew me checked in when they heard about what had happened. I was surprised how many of my acquaintances had their own stories about Suzhou Immigration. Sometimes for simple things, like forgetting to register with the police within 24 hours of returning to Suzhou after travel. Others were fined for working at a different branch of the same school. Some were even locked in that interrogation chair for 4 days, only allowed out when they went for COVID tests, and for 8 hours at night when they were given a blanket and told to sleep on the floor. It seems like everyone I know either has a story about immigration, or knows someone who does.
You might be wondering how I didn’t know this could happen, and the truth is, I did know that singing while on a teaching visa was an infraction. Having said that, I had been singing in Suzhou for 8 years without issue. I had even performed at the request of the government at several events. One of my performances was aired all across Jiangsu province. Many police officers in Suzhou know me by name and have come to my shows as well. One night, a few months ago, we actually drove a police officer back to his station after I performed. He was too drunk and we saw no problem giving him a ride.
So why was this a problem now, you might ask? Well, it was all about timing. Dozens of expats were arrested in Suzhou the same weekend I was. As it turned out, Xijiping, the president of China, was visiting Suzhou later that same week. No one knew about it, because his visits are always kept very quiet ahead of time. It’s very likely that the immigration bureau wanted to look productive when he arrive, so it’s plausible that the only reason I was arrested, was to make them look good.
I was finally allowed to leave China on August 16th. I was scared they’d pull me aside at the airport and interrogate me again, or that I could get in trouble for my expired visa, but none of that happened. When I finally made it through immigration at Pudong airport, I had to sit down and cry in a bathroom stall for a while, because I was so relieved to be out.
Needless to say, things are much better now. I’m in Vietnam, back together with Dave, Hugo and Poe. The 3 weeks Dave and I spent apart were full of video calls, and frustration, but we’re stronger than we’ve ever been. I had to pay a 10,000rmb fine (about $2000 Canadian) and sign my name about a hundred times, but that was my only ‘real’ punishment. Really, the time I lost this summer, and the stress of it all was a much bigger punishment. I can always make more money, but I can’t get those 6 weeks back, and I can’t forget everything I went through.
So there you have it. That’s the story of my last 6 weeks in China. It was a horrible time, and if you’re reading this because you’re thinking of moving to Suzhou or to China in general, I’d honestly discourage it. I had many amazing times there, and a few years ago, it was a great place to live. But now, foreigners are feeling less and less welcomed by the government. The people are still lovely, and it’s a beautiful country with so much to experience, but it’s impossible to know when they’re going to arbitrarily enforce a rule, and make your life illegal.
To all my friends and family who got me through this tough time…thank you.
It’s been a long time since my last post. So much has happened. I’ve been focusing on living life, and haven’t had much time to write about it. You may have also noticed that I’ve moved over to a new platform. Luckily, we were able to move over all my previous posts (by ‘we’, I mean my wonderful tech-savvy husband), and now that I’ve figured out the new system and gotten it looking the way I want it to, I’m back!
The 2022/2023 school year can truly be divided into two parts. In the first half of the year, Suzhou was still in and out of lockdowns due to COVID. They were stricter than ever about entering buildings and it got to the point where we were cooking at home, just to save ourselves the hassle of trying to get into the mall. Volunteer trips to the shelter became nearly impossible because I needed to collect phone numbers, passport numbers, green codes and proof of tests for every single volunteer (usually around 25 people). If I didn’t have these things, we weren’t allowed into the village where the shelter is located.
Chinese citizens had enough, and protests started to erupt all over the country. I haven’t talked much about the worst parts of the COVID measures in China, but many people did die due to those measures. 10 people died in the western province of Xinjiang, when their building managers locked them in with chains during lock downs. A fire broke started, and people couldn’t get out. 27 people died in Guizhou province while on their way to a quarantine hotel. The bus lost control and went off the side of a cliff. At that point, only 2 people had died of COVID in all of Guizhou province, but it didn’t change the crazy measures they were taking to keep people ‘safe’.
In addition to all the deaths caused by COVID measures, lockdowns were getting worse all over China. Dave and I were watching the news in horror as violence was breaking out in factories all over the country, where hundreds of thousands of people were being locked into their places of employment. There were food shortages, and anyone testing positive was taken into horrible quarantine camps. People had had enough, and they started to fight back. Things became very physical, and we were seeing videos popping up all over Chinese media. Of course, they were taken down within hours (sometimes minutes!) of being posted, but everyone saw them anyway.
It was a very scary time to be living here, and it took a toll on our mental health. My classes were interrupted daily for testing. We were being tested nearly every day in autumn, and as winter approached, things were looking grim. I didn’t want to spend my last year here in and out of lock downs. I didn’t want my memories of this beautiful country to be tarnished by a virus that was going to spread regardless of government actions. I just wanted things to go back to normal.
Then, on December 7th, it all changed. Codes were no longer needed and testing was halted. The city was no longer full of ‘Da Bai’ (the term for people dressed in the white safety suits that China used). The country stopped posting daily number for infected individuals. It was one of the strangest things I’ve ever experienced. A switch was flipped and suddenly, we could breath again.
It was impossible for them to track how many people got sick in those first weeks, but the numbers were certainly in the hundreds of millions. Hospitals were overrun, mostly because people in China go to the hospital for even the smallest thing. Fever clinics were opened up all over Suzhou to help with all the people coming in, demanding IV drips. There were certainly deaths, but they weren’t announced. I caught COVID on December 18th, and Dave started showing symptoms on the 19th. By Christmas, we were right as rain and able to go enjoy a dinner in nearby Kunshan. Most holiday celebrations were cancelled though, because so many service workers were catching the virus and recovering at home or in fever clinics.
By mid January, it was estimated that 80% of China’s massive 1.4 billion citizens had had caught COVID. Eventually, quarantine measures for flights were reduced and then disappeared, and life got back to almost normal. Masks became optional. People started to live again. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was living in fear. I was scared it could all start up again at any point. When Monkey Pox started hitting the news, we were worried they were renew virus management measures.
A lot of ridiculous things were posted online during that time. Superstitions were rampant. People in China were terrified of doing any physical activity for months after they caught COVID, because they were sure it would cause them to have heart attacks and die. I was told by all my coworkers that I shouldn’t be taking walks, because physical activity could be deadly. Long showers were also risky, I was told. When Monkey Pox started hitting the news here, news articles were being published telling locals not to shake hands or come into contact with any foreign people because we might infect them.
But, eventually, things sort of just went back to normal. People started going out again. We weren’t all living in fear that we might be put back into a lock down. Events started happening again. We could go places freely. We didn’t have to worry about getting COVID tests daily, and I didn’t need to show any codes when I came into the school or went to the store. I went from having my temperature checked 5 times a day, to never having it checked at all. We all started LIVING again. It was wonderful.
Our last few months in China were incredible. It made me very sad to leave this place that I’ve called home for the past 8 years. I accepted a job in Hanoi, Vietnam, in spring, and as the date came closer, I felt sadder about leaving. I knew it would be hard to say goodbye to all my friends here. I know it would be especially hard to say goodbye to the music scene. In my last 6 months in China, I performed nearly every weekend, sometimes by myself, but often with various bands.
Sadly, the thing that made me happiest in my last 6 months in China, also cost me a lot. Although Dave and I were supposed to arrive in Vietnam on July 7th, everything changed at my farewell party on July 1st. But I’ll be telling that story in my next blog post. It’s a doozy. Be sure to check back to hear all about how I was arrested in front of all my friends, and spent 6 weeks trapped in the country I once loved so much.
After a wonderful trip to Canada, where we got to see friends, family and so much of what we missed, we headed back to China, where COVID is treated like ebola, and where measures often don’t make sense and seem in excess. The trip back was a nightmare, especially at Pudong airport, where we queued and walked kilometers across the airport, going from one check point to the next. By comparison, quarantine wasn’t actually as bad.
When we booked our trip, back in March, we knew it meant 2 weeks of hotel quarantine, followed by 2 weeks of home quarantine. We booked our tickets knowing this, but were very relieved in June, when we learned that the government was reducing this time to 7 days in a hotel + 3 at home. With Omicron having a shorter incubation period than previous strains of COVID 19, the government finally loosened up a bit.
Now, I should start by saying that I’m not actually opposed to the mandatory quarantine imposed on people coming into China. With such a dense population, it is very easy for case numbers to grow very quickly, overwhelming hospitals, and leading to a lot of deaths. I believe in protecting the vulnerable, and I know I would feel AWFUL if I caused an outbreak by unknowingly spreading COVID.
Still…I can say, some of it was pretty ridiculous, but hey, it makes for good reading, so at least I can blog about the experience!
The current quarantine regulations for people entering China involve 7 days in a hotel + 3 at home. It can vary a little for residents of cities close to Shanghai (like Suzhou), because Shanghai simply can’t handle that many people quarantining all at once, for 7 days. So, our Quarantine was actually broken down into 3 parts instead of 2.
Part 1: A hotel in Shanghai
Part 2: A hotel in Suzhou
Part 3: Home quarantine in Suzhou
Now, I should begin by explaining that you get 0 say in which hotel you’ll be sent to, and wherever you end up, you have to pay for your room, regardless of the price. Couples are not allowed to quarantine together either, doubling the already inflated costs of these rooms. This was a pretty scary reality for us, but we hadn’t been home in 3 years, so we decided to just hope for the best, and prepare for the worst.
We had heard of some people in Xiamen having to spend $300 Canadian per night, per person. There are currently 7 days of mandatory hotel quarantine (+3 at home), which could have ended up costing us $4200 CAD if we’d landed ourselves in one of the expensive boarding facilities. This was on top of inflated flight prices and the $700 we spent on tests before we could even board the plane. Again… we would have had virtually no say in it if we ended up somewhere that was charging $300 per night.
Fortunately, the bus that transported us from Pudong Airport brought us to the Mercure Hotel, which was far more reasonable than the ones we had heard of in Xiamen. Still, we had no idea what we’d be paying until we reached that check in room, and they charged our debit accounts.
Part 1 of our quarantine cost us a total of $720 Canadian. The fees included our daily testing and meals, but was still quite a bit more than we would usually spend on a hotel in Shanghai. In a typical situation, we would spend about $250 to stay there for 3 nights. Still, the hotel was nice, and we had desks to work at, so we were relieved with the situation.
Part 2 of our quarantine was in Suzhou. We stayed at an older hotel there, located on Yangcheng lake, where Suzhou’s famous hairy crabs live. This hotel wasn’t quite as nice as the one in Shanghai, but the rooms were much bigger. Plus, the situation was much better for us in Suzhou because I managed to get a note from my doctor that enabled Dave and I to stay together in the same room. You can get doctor’s notes for a few things; in my case, it was for anxiety (turns out being cooped up alone for days is bad for the mental health.. who knew!?)
This meant that we still had to pay double for food, but we were only charged the cost of 1 room, instead of 2. Our Quarantine hotel in Suzhou came to $464 Canadian, which was a big relief. Our total cost of hotel quarantine came to just under $1200 CAD, which is a LOT better than we had actually expected to pay when we booked our trip to Canada.
Part 3 of quarantine is done at home. Of course, home quarantine is still supposed to be done solo, and without my doctor’s note, 1 of us would have had to stay in the hotel for those last 3 nights. Many people in Shanghai actually can’t do home quarantine at all, because it’s up to the compounds on whether or not they’ll allow it. Lucky for us, our compound was fine with it (thanks to my doctor’s note), and even let us order in groceries. We couldn’t go outside and we were only allowed to open our door for deliveries, but at least we were home!!
Once you are brought to your room, you close the door, and are only allowed to open it again for testing (once per day) & to get your food (3 times per day). If extra necessities need to be delivered (my first thermometer didn’t work, for example), they are left on the table outside of your room, and you can pick it up when you get your next meal.
There are monitors on every door, so if you decide to open it when you shouldn’t, hotel staff know. There are also cameras in all the halls. It’s all very strict and I’m sure it wouldn’t be pleasant if someone were to break the rules. We all had to sign contracts on arrival, stating that we would abide by all government laws and COVID protection measures.
Day 1 wasn’t actually too bad. I was so relieved to be done with the airport fiasco, and sitting in an air conditioned room, with access to plenty of water… it was honestly a relief! Of course, I kept busy by reading, getting a bit of work done, and by messaging my friends to let them know we landed safely.
Day 2 was more of the same. I journaled, blogged, read…. anything to stay busy. By day 3 though, I was like a tiger in a cage… Pacing my room, stretching, exercising and basically just doing anything that requires movement. There was just enough room for me to walk around my bed, so I spent a lot of my day doing exactly that.
When you’re alone that much, you have a lot of time to think. Our dear cat, Ollie, died while we were in Canada. Of course, I thought about this a lot. Also, many of our friends moved away in June, having put up with enough of the restrictions…I thought about that a lot too. It’s difficult to be positive when you’re alone, anxious, and worrying about all the lock downs that will likely be happening during our last year in China.
I called my doctor on day 3, and got the note that allowed me to be with Dave for the rest of our quarantine. 3 days alone was bad enough…10 would have been unbearable for me.
When you’re trapped in your room, unable to go out or even open the door outside of meal time, food become a really important part of your day. Even though I wasn’t really looking forward to EATING the food, it was something to break up the monotony, so I looked forward to each meal regardless of what they served.
Just as our 2nd hotel stay was coming to an end, we got a message from a government official in Suzhou, informing us that Dave had been flagged as a close contact to someone who tested positive on our flight. We were given an extra day of mandatory quarantine, and were required to do blood tests “just to be safe”. The woman who had been sitting next to Dave was also flagged as a close contact, but as a resident of Shanghai, she wasn’t given extra time in quarantine and didn’t need to do blood work. As is often the case, Suzhou was just slapping on extra measures.
Of course, there’s nothing we could do about it, so we did our extra day in quarantine, did the blood tests, and looked forward to being able to go home.
The (Extra) Strange Stuff
On our last morning at the hotel in Suzhou, they came to do throat swabs, as usual, and then handed us half a dozen wet swabs, with a sign explaining that we were supposed to test various areas of the room, and then give them back the swabs for analysis. Keep in mind that this was after we had already had 12 COVID negative tests and had no symptoms.
For some reason, when we left our hotel in Shanghai, we were made to put on latex gloves for the bus ride and trip to the hotel. This is still a mystery to me. We already had 7 negative tests at this point, and it definitely felt like more theatrics.
Ok, this one sort of made sense to me. Bleach kills viruses, so of course you should find it in a quarantine hotel. The abundance of bleach was extreme though. All our luggage was sprayed down with it upon our arrival to the Suzhou hotel. At other hotels, they were DRENCHING people’s luggage with the stuff.
The bleach is also never actually wiped off, just sprayed on, layer after layer. The buses, hallways and hotels were covered in residue. The halls in our Suzhou hotel had carpet, and therefore covered with tarps and plastic… Which were also coated in bleach. It made everything look kind of gross.
At the Shanghai hotel, we were allowed to order things online, even coffee from Starbucks. We could order food and really whatever we wanted, as long as we only opened our door to receive them at meal time. In Suzhou, however, we could only receive things if family members or friends dropped them off. No food was allowed, and anything that came in had to be left overnight in a special room, and…. You guessed it…sprayed with bleach. Furthermore, our hotel would only deliver these things on Wednesdays and Sundays. We arrived on a Wednesday and left on a Sunday, so even if we wanted to, we couldn’t have had anything dropped off.
Every hotel has its own rules. Last year, when a friend of mine was quarantined after being in a high risk area, I was able to bring her cake from Starbucks, yogurt, fruit and bread. As long as it wasn’t home made, it was fine. Every hotel makes up their own rules, and once more, we were left feeling like it was far more about theatrics than safety.
So… That was our quarantine experience. Overall it wasn’t too bad. I do have to mention that the staff at both our hotels were VERY kind and helpful. The rooms were also very clean and comfortable, and all our food was edible. It could have been SO much worse. Especially if we’d tested positive while in quarantine. We know a few people who did, and they were shipped to special COVID hospitals, where they were given a wide range of drugs to ‘combat’ COVID. If you end up in one of those hospitals, you have to stay there until you test negative multiple times. It’s a nightmare, and I’m so glad it isn’t one that we had to experience.
I’m planning on doing quite a bit of blogging about Suzhou over the next year. One thing that the quarantine experience taught us, is that we definitely don’t want to be doing it again. So, at the end of this school year, we’ll be moving onto our next adventure. Until then, we’ll keep living it up (and they’ll keep locking us down… I’m sure).
I have travelled to many countries and eaten many meals. I can’t say I’m a terribly fussy eater, and I’ll try most things once! From scorpion in Thailand, to pig tongue in Korea, I’ve tried some interesting stuff!
When you think of Winnipeg, you might not actually think there’s much for food. You can find great barbecue, and burgers are everywhere, but there is certainly more than Poutine to eat in Canada! People have immigrated to this lovely country from all over the world, and lucky for us…they bring along their food with them!
Chinese food isn’t hard to find in Peg City. Chinatown is an obvious place to find it, but if you travel down to the University of Manitoba, on Pembina Highway, you’ll find lots of great stuff too! Our favourite down that way is called Sun Fortune restaurant. You’ll hear more Mandarin than English when you’re there, so you know it’s authentic! If you want to order the Peking Duck though, make sure to call ahead! It’s very popular, and sells out fast!
Corydon Avenue is also a great place for Foodies in Winnipeg. Colosseo is a top notch Italian restaurant, located at the corner of Corydon and Hugo. Whether you love pizza, pasta or tiramisu, you’ll go home with a full belly!
Today I want to talk about a couple of my favourite ‘hole in the wall’ restaurants in Winnipeg. Dave and I rarely eat at chain restaurants, and instead tend to find ourselves at little places, that are always full, but don’t have many tables. Here are a few of my faves!
I’m going to begin with something local and unique. Feast is a great little restaurant on Ellice Avenue. They make traditional Indigenous cuisine, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s the perfect place to go if you want a taste of Manitoba!
Bison Chili, Pickerel Sliders and saskatoon pie…what more could you want from life? They use local ingredients and everything we’ve tried there has been fantastic. I am usually WAY too full for dessert, but this year, I ordered some to go. It turns out that I like bannock donuts better than regular donuts, and it’s easy to see why! They taste as good as they look!
The atmosphere in the restaurant is great too! Service is good, and the restaurant is filled with Indigenous art. It’s the perfect place to stop for breakfast, lunch or dinner. We’ve never been there for breakfast, but since I learned that they do Eggs Banny (using bannock instead of English muffins), I know I’ll be swinging by there to start the day on my next trip home!
Dave and I have always been very fond of Thai food, even before moving to Asia, and our love for this cuisine only deepened once we visited. Bangkok Thai (on Osbourne) is always a favourite, but the one restaurant we simply CANNOT miss when we’re home is a little hole in the wall restaurant on Marion Ave, called Vientiane.
Their food is unreal! If you like spicy, this is the place for you! They say that ‘medium’ is 3/10…and they mean it. We order a 5 or 6, and it’s a bit of heat. If you order a 10, prepare for your eyes to water, because it’s an ASIAN 10!
I LOVE their fish green curry, and their Crab Rangoon is OUT OF THIS WORLD! The Massaman is also always a hit. They also feature Laotian dishes at Vientiane (the restaurant is named after the capital of Laos, actually), and there’s a great variety of food to try.
The restaurant may be small, but the food is great, and the staff have always been wonderful to us! The food also comes out quick, because curries are often prepared in big batches. It’s the perfect place to stop for a quick bite!
We were away for 3 years, unable to visit Canada due to China’s strict travel policies, and I can honestly say, the food I missed most was definitely Ethiopian cuisine. It isn’t available anywhere we’ve travelled in China (trust me…we’ve checked!), but of any food on earth, I think Ethiopian is my favourite!
Winnipeg actually has quite a few Ethiopian Restaurants. There are about 2500 people of Ethiopian descent living in Winnipeg, and are quite a few little restaurants that serve their cuisine around the city. This is great, because Ethiopian food is actually quite difficult to make, and unless you’re willing to spend HOURS in the kitchen, getting the injera and wats ready, restaurants are going to be your best bet.
I was CRUSHED to learn that my favourite place, Massawa, shut down during the pandemic. We were loyal customers for years, visiting several times each summer, and more frequently when we lived in Canada. Alas, it caused us to try out some new restaurants, one of which is in the same location where Massawa was previously located.
The restaurant that really impressed us this year, though, was Gojo, on Sargent. The place was small, but when we walked in, we were hit with all the gorgeous smells of Ethiopia!
The staff were SO kind, and the food was fresh and fantastic! Their bathrooms were clean, and I could see into the kitchen (always a good sign) and everything was spotless in there too! I’m really looking forward to being able to go back to visit Gojo again, the next time we’re in Winnipeg!
Honourable Mention: Sushi Ya
I was lucky enough to live right behind this little gem of a restaurant when I was a poor student. I love this place, not only for their fantastic sweet chili sauce, but also for their prices. You can get a great lunch without breaking the bank! Many of their rolls are quite small, so you can stop in for a snack, or just try a wide variety of sushi! This has been one of my favourite restaurants in Winnipeg for about 15 years, so if you like Sushi, you should definitely give it a try!
Honourable Mention #2: Maggi’s
The last place I want to mention is a great little restaurant owned by a family of refugees. Located in Transcona, Maggi’s makes fantastic wraps, shawarma and other Syrian delicacies! Service was good, and it’s a great place to enjoy a quick bite in nice weather!
I ordered a falafel wrap, and Dave and my mom both ordered the chicken shawarma. The large ones are HUGE and great if you’re really hungry! If you want something a little lighter, go with the the smaller sized wraps.
So there you have it…some of my favourite restaurants in Winnipeg! I wrote this post while still stuck in quarantine, where the food is…less good. Now, I’m hungry and I only have myself to blame!
My next post will be all about the 13 days of quarantine that we faced (and are still facing) upon our return to China! It’s been a bit of a wild ride, so stay tuned!
Having grown up in Manitoba, it’s very easy to take for granted what the province has to offer. Fields are common place, local attractions aren’t a big deal because you can go any time, and you have no idea what you have there unless you travel and see what other places lack. After 3 years stranded in China, without the opportunity to go home, I got to see Manitoba with new eyes. I’ve been planning this post for a long time, so I think it’s time I finally write about the place where I grew up.
Manitoba is known for harsh winters, mosquitoes and construction, but if you visit at the right time of year, there’s actually plenty to do! Here’s a list of some of my favourite things to do when visiting home!
Take a Drive
I’ll start with the simple beauty of the province. Located in the prairies of Canada, Manitoba is the perfect place to visit if you want to see huge skies, beautiful fields and stunning sunsets.
We bought an old 1981 Honda motorcycle years ago, and one of our favourite pastimes is cruising around and just enjoying the views. Taking the back roads and smaller highways can be a great way to take in lots of natural beauty, and this was honestly one of the things I missed the most in my years away.
Sunsets are especially beautiful in Manitoba. The days are long in summer, and if you go out from 9:30 to 10pm, you’ll see the most beautiful sights. The whole sky becomes colourful, and the prairies make the skies look endless, with no buildings or mountains to hide the view.
No trip to Winnipeg is complete without a trip to Winnipeg’s Zoo. I have seen zoos all over the world, and I’ve grown to be very weary of them because, too often, the animals are given cramped spaces that are very different from their natural habitats.
Assiniboine Zoo is wonderful. The animals are given plenty of space and the zoo is involved with helping many injured species of birds. The polar bear exhibit is stunning and if you’re lucky enough to be there when they’re swimming, you can even watch them swim by overhead, from an underground tunnel.
The park around the zoo is the perfect place for a summer picnic as well. It’s a great place to bring kids and spent time with the family. Going to the zoo with my nieces and nephews is always a must-do for me when we are home. Some locals complain about the prices since the zoo was renovated a few years back, but maintaining these large enclosures and giving the animals a reasonable place to live costs money. For me, $20 for an adult tickets is peanuts when you consider these things, and all the fun to be had while you’re there.
The Winnipeg Forks is an important place historically. The Red and Assiniboine rivers meet there, making it a perfect place for trade between indigenous tribes, and later on, fur traders. Now, it’s a cool little place to walk around and take in the sights.
You can go antique shopping, grab some craft beer, get some food and shop for local specialties. My favorite thing to do at The Forks though, is to walk the river path. There are always geese, ducks, chipmunks and squirrels to see, and if you’re lucky you might even see a raccoon!
If you’ve got time, you can also visit the Human Rights Museum, where you can learn about all sorts of social issues, both past and present. It’s a huge museum, and you can easily spend a few hours, learning about everything from Indigenous Rights, to Refugee crices. It’s been a few years since we were there, but we were really impressed when we visited!
Finally, if you find yourself at The Forks in winter, rent some ice skates and skate down the longest ice rink in the world! There are little shacks along the way, where you can rest and warm up. It’s a great way to spend some time during the winter!
Visit a Lake
Manitoba is home to over 100,000 lakes. In fact, 16% of this massive province is covered in fresh water. Lake Winnipeg is our biggest, and the southern tip is less than an hour away from the province’s capital.
Many of the province’s lakes exist due to massive Lake Agassiz, which covered most of the area during the last ice age. We also have a crater lake, Westhawk, which was caused by a meteor. It’s quite deep and even a popular place for scuba diving!
It’s no surprise that plenty of people have boats and cabins in Manitoba, and this year we were lucky enough to spend time cruising around these beautiful lakes with family and friends. Most of our time was spent on beautiful Falcon Lake, named after a Metis poet. It only takes about an hour and a half to get there from Winnipeg, and it’s located in a beautiful provincial park. Campsites book up quickly, and it’s easy to see why!
We saw loons, deer and ducks, and my uncle even recently saw a bear! If you’re lucky enough to know someone with a boat, it’s a gorgeous way to spend a sunny afternoon in July!
I can’t end this post without at least mentioning some of Winnipeg’s many summer festivals. The Pride festival takes place at the end of May or beginning of June every year, and is celebrated in Downtown and The Forks. Canada Day is another big one, with celebrations moving around the city. We have celebrated our country’s birthday in Osbourne village, The Forks and this past year it was at Assiniboina Downs.
My two favourite festivals are Fringe Fest & Folklorama. Winnipeg’s Fringe is always HUGE, with performers travelling from all over the continent to take part. We made it to one Fringe show this year, performed by a group that had travelled all the way from Portland, in the USA!
Folklorama began after we left this year, so sadly we didn’t make it, but we go any time we can! Winnipeg is an extremely diverse place culturally, and Folklorama gives people a chance to learn about all the different cultures represented in our great city. You can try different food and drinks, enjoy a dance or music show and generally just sit back and have a good time, learning while you do it!
So there you have it: my favourite things to do in and around Winnipeg! You might be tempted to drive through on your way to Alberta or Ontario, but don’t be shy about spending a few days in this beautiful province on your way through! I’m proud to call it home.
As always, feel free to leave your comments below! I’ll be back soon with Part 2 if my Manitoba posts! That one will include some of my favourite places to eat!!
I’ve taken quite the absence from my blogging this year, mostly because there hasn’t been much to blog about. We were in and out of the various stages of lock down for 3+ months, which led to our finalized decision to leave China in June of 2023. The good news is that there was a silver lining at the end of lock downs… we got to go home!!!
The months leading up to our trip home was filled with uncertainty. When we booked our flights, we were expecting to do 2 weeks of hotel quarantine and 2 weeks of at home quarantine where we would not be allowed to leave the apartment. About a month before we left however, this was changed to 7 days in hotel quarantine with only 3 days at home. Several other changes lead to us having an extra week in Manitoba as well, so it seemed like things were looking up! Still, I didn’t fully relax until we were seated on our flight back to Vancouver. Things change quickly, and right up until that point, we were prepared for things to go wrong.
The whole process of getting out of China and then getting back in was quite an ordeal. I thought you might all be interested in hearing about all the steps we had to take, so here it is: our summer adventure!
Getting out of Suzhou
Getting out of Suzhou was a bit of an ordeal up until the week we left. If we had gone 1 week earlier, we would have had to take a car to the permiter between Suzhou and Shanghai and then transfered to another car because it was impossible for drivers to get into Shanghai and then out again. This rule was lifted just in time and we were able to take 1 car the whole 3 hour drive. It was still pricey (3x the normal fee) but doable.
We arrived at the airport 5 hours before our flight and we were very glad had the extra time. Although Pudong airport was a ghost town (which was very strange because it’s usually an incredibly busy place), it took us 2.5 hours just to check in our luggage. It seemed like everyone packed more luggage than usual (many seemed to be paying to take extra suitcases), and many pets were flying too. Worst of all, due to COVID concerns, the AC was basically non existent so we had to stand there in the heat, wearing N95 masks. Shanghai is a hot city and even in the morning it was between 25 and 30 degrees celsius, with plenty of humidity.
Once we got through check-in, we had to get through immigration and security. They were extra fussy with security this year, and we had to leave behind all our hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes. Our luggage was thoroughly checked. Customs was easy for us, but the line was slow because any Chinese people leaving had to explain why they were leaving in detail. I overheard one woman explaining that she needed to go to America because she hadn’t seen her son and grandchildren in three years. China is still trying to prevent any unnecessary travel in and out of the country, so people actually had to have a valid reason to leave.
Once we were boarded, things went smoothly, but the flight itself was 2 hours longer than normal because there was a crew switch in Seoul. With the added COVID rules, the crews couldn’t legally do the entire trip. They have hours of safety measures to do once the plane lands, so all flights to and from Canada now have a stop in Korea, to allow a new crew to take over We weren’t allowed off the plane, of course, and it added an additional 2 hours to our already long trip home.
Arriving in Canada
Arriving in Canada was easy peasy. Although there were massive delays in Toronto, Vancouver was not very affected, so aside from a slightly longer wait to check in, arriving in Canada was a piece of cake. It was so good to be home, hearing French on the intercoms, and seeing familiar shops and restaurants. Our first meal back was at A&W, where we overloaded on sodium and sugar and immediately regretted our decision.
Getting Ready to Head Back
Our trip home was fantastic and I’ll write more about that in my next couple of posts. The last week, though, was a bit stressful. In addition to worrying about our flights being cancelled, we had to be tested and apply for a codes that would allow us to get back into the country. We heard horror stories of people who had tested positive and the difficulty they were having with getting negative tests, even weeks later. Many flights were being cancelled on the Canadian side (because of staff shortages) and also on the China side (due to circuit breaker measures that China has in place if too many people on a particular fight test positive on arrival).
Our biggest challenge was finding the right information about the testing requirements to get our green codes for re-entry. Info on the consulate websites were out of date and we had a lot of difficulty getting in touch with anyone at the consulates as well. It turned out that we had to get 2 tests done from DIFFERENT labs. The first had to be done 2 days before departure, the second 1 day before departure. The problem was that there was only 1 lab in Winnipeg that was in China’s approval list. After some digging, we found out that they were ok with us using labs that weren’t on the list, as long as they were legit and the tests were done in the nose. We found this to be particularly interesting because all the testing we do weekly in China is done in the throat, but rules were rules and we followed them.
In total, the testing cost us over $700 Canadian, which was a little crazy given that we get tested multiple times per week in China for free. And if we happen to miss the free testing, it costs less than a dollar to pay to have one done. Of course, China has the infrastructure in place to mass test, whereas Canada relies mostly on at-home antigen tests. Those aren’t accepted in China, so it’s PCR or nothing here.
I think the biggest stress in that last week, aside from conflicting and missing information, was our fear of catching COVID. If we had, it could have taken months for us to get back to China, and it also would have cost us thousands of dollars. We hand sanitized, masked up and acted like paranoid nuts that last week, but luckily, our families were very understanding and accommodating and we had most of our get togethers and goodbyes outside, where risks were much lower. We never caught COVID, which was a stroke of good luck, supported by careful measures. Our time in China had already normalized a lot of these behaviors, so it was just a matter of switching back into those habits after a very stress-free summer.
We managed to get through it all and got our green codes to China, and before we knew it, we were off!
Arriving in China
This is where the real “fun” began. I’ll try not to bore you with too much detail, but the moment we arrived back in China, things got a lot more serious. The difference in the way we were treated was obvious. In Canada, COVID is basically treated as ‘no big deal’. In China, we were treated like we had bubonic plague and had the intention of spreading it to the masses.
The airport was all extremely sterile, with every worker in a full PPE suit, despite the heat. There was a lot of shouting as we were hearded from one line up to the next, walking several kms around the airport for the different parts of re-entry. This is a rough breakdown of the steps.
Recheck the codes that we had needed to board the airplane & sign consent forms for testing to be done (these tests were not optional, so I’m not sure why we needed to sign consent)
COVID testing- the most painful and uncomfortable test of my life. It took the guy 3 tries before he was happy with the results, and the swabs went so deep into my throat that I gagged and heaved the entire time. My throat was sore for hours.
Temperature checks and facial recognition.
Sorting into provinces for the quarantine hotels
Preparation for the hotel quarantine location we’d be staying in and the surrender of our passports
Getting onto the bus that would take us into quarantine
Check in and payment at the quarantine hotel
Preliminary testing at the COVID hotel, including temperature checks (with thermometers that didn’t work), another PCR (nose AND throat… different swabs, don’t worry) and logging in info so that we could be sorted into our next quarantine hotel.
We landed at 6am and it was probably about 1pm by the time we could finally sit back and relax in our quarantine room. None of it was particularly difficult, but the amount of walking we had to do, carrying all our luggage, was exhausting… especially in the heat & N95 masks. I was very glad to have a bottle of water for Dave and I to share, because there was no where to get water on the way. This was probably a good thing because I don’t think we were allowed to use the washrooms either.
By the end of it, I was jetlagged, sore and emotionally drained. I got yelled at so many times, and there wasn’t a smile to be seen anywhere… Just PPE suits, masks, visors and exhausted and overheating staff at the airport. It wasn’t exactly the nicest welcome back.
I have 1 week left of quarantine and plenty that I’m still planning to write about, including an entire post describing our life behind monitored doors, and several posts about Canada…
Stay tuned and feel free to leave your comments below!!
Well, it’s been an interesting start to the year of the Tiger! Dave and I decided to stay in Suzhou over Chinese New Year, once more. Traveling in China at the moment is a headache, as Omicron spreads across the country. We didn’t want to deal with potential quarantines or all the testing required to travel, so we stayed in the city of gardens and canals and enjoyed good times with good friends.
The last night of the holiday, things got interesting. Suzhou announced that 4 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in Suzhou. It was announced that schools were going to be closed while the city figured out if the virus had spread. 4 cases may not seem like much, but Suzhou hasn’t had any local transmission since May 2020, so this was a pretty big deal.
Monday morning, things got even more interesting! I woke up at 7am to find out that the city was ordering mass testing, and that we wouldn’t be allowed to leave our apartment compound until we had COVID tests done. So, we lined up outside, along with 1000 of our neighbors, and waited for the swab.
It took about 2 hours to get through the line, and then I was able to get to the school for an emergency meeting on how online classes would be handled. I was a little annoyed that my boss decided that an in-person meeting was required (we’ve been through all this before, after all…), but we were called in, so we went.
My compound was all clear, but some of my coworkers ended up with yellow codes, indicating that they had been in the same vicinity as someone who was confirmed as being a positive case. One of my coworkers had a confirmed case in her apartment complex, which was a little alarming. She had to go home and basically stay there until further notice.
We’re up to 24 positive cases in Suzhou now. No one is really panicking. We all know that omicron isn’t super deadly and that we’ll mostly be fine if we catch it, but with China’s MASSIVE population, and close living conditions, an out-of-control breakout could lead to a LOT of hospitalizations, so it’s still taken very seriously.
Dave and I lined up again this morning for test #2. We’ll likely need to be tested every second day for the next couple of weeks. I’m teaching from home and we stocked up on groceries (and toilet paper!), So we aren’t leaving the apartment all that much. We are free to move around if we want to, and as long as we comply with testing and masks, we can go out, but we’d rather not risk ending up with yellow codes if we come into contact with someone who later tests positive. It’s too much of a headache, so we’re playing it safe.
I find it interesting how different countries are reacting to things now (and through these past two years too). In Canada, there are massive protests going, and with vaccination rates being so high, and population density so low, I understand why people are tired of the restrictions. I am too. In China though, the risks are different, and as frustrated as I can get about things here, on some levels I get it.
I think I can speak for everyone on the planet when I say that I just really want this all to end.
Stay safe everyone! Looking forward to the day that all this is a distant memory!!
We’re in beautiful Hainan, and although still on holiday, I haven’t written for a while. There’s actually a pretty good reason for that: China is experiencing an outbreak. To make matters worse, there was a single sick person in Zhangjiajie while we were there, and the whole country has been put on alert. I figured that might be something worth writing about for my friends back home.
COVID in China
Of course, COVID is something that the world has been dealing with for nearly two years now. It began in a Chinese city called Wuhan, and quickly spread across the world. China failed to contain the virus in early days but became a lot more smart about it very quickly. Mass lock downs took place in every city across China, and international travel was halted for months. We were lucky enough to get back into the country before the major lock downs happened, but many people weren’t. I know so many people who were separated from their spouses for over a year. Some are still separated.
Eventually things got better. Mass testing and strict regulations brought down the country’s COVID numbers to nearly none. In the past year, there have been little breakouts here and there, but they’ve been stopped very quickly but locking down affected districts and through mass testing. Spring Festival saw several small breakouts and the whole country was asked not to travel. Companies offered incentives for their workers to forgo their trips home, and once more, the virus was put back under control and life continued pretty normally.
There has been a massive effort to get everyone vaccinated in China. Dave and I both got our shots and felt confident about traveling within China for the summer. There is still a 4 week quarantine period for anyone coming back into China though, so international travel was off the table yet again. With only 6 weeks off for summer holiday, I couldn’t face 4 weeks of quarantine here and 2 weeks in Canada. Still, I was grateful to at least move around China as we have.
The Delta Variant
Months back, a new version of the virus emerged during a massive breakout in India. That variant has China on high alert because although their vaccine is ok to deal with the original strain, and several others, it isn’t as helpful against this new, more contagious strain. When several airport workers tested positive in Nanjing in June, once more, the country was on high alert. Citizens of Nanjing had to go for daily COVID tests and the whole city was put on lockdown. Unfortunately, cases can go undetected and several sick people left Nanjing, unaware that they were sick.
The patient who tested positive in Zhangjiajie was in the city at the same time that we visited the park. We were lucky enough to never cross paths with him. We were never in the city of ZJJ itself, and he was at the park the day that we left the area. Still, it caused a bit of problems because our 2 week travel history shows Zhangjiajie.
Shortly after we were in Haikou, someone tested positive there too. Once more, we were never in any of the same places as this patient, but our codes were flagged. We decided to hunker down a little longer at our hotel on the outskirts of Lingshui. I’m very happy we had booked here and not in Sanya or Haikou, which are much more popular tourist destinations. We booked this way specifically to keep away from crowds. Even though China has remained relatively safe for the past 18 months, we like to be careful.
We have done our best to be as responsible as possible with all this information. We got tested right away, and have been avoiding crowds. We’ve spent most of the last 2 weeks either in our room, or walking in areas that aren’t too populated by people. We did make a trip into Wanning and Wencheng when our tests came back negative, but the following day we got a call from the district Health Authority asking where we had been in Wanning, because there was a suspected case there. Once more, we were lucky enough to not have crossed paths with the person (he had been at the testing center, and we had been at the outlet mall) but it was enough of a scare to get us not to travel anywhere else on the island ever since.
The last couple of weeks have been kinda scary. We got SO many messages from friends back in Suzhou, scared for us because we’d been in Zhangjiajie. Suzhou itself has gone a little overboard and is forcing anyone who was in ZJJ to do a hotel quarantine, regardless of multiple negative tests. Even though we were never in any of the same places as the ZJJ patient, if we went back to Suzhou now, we would be put in 2 separate hotel rooms and stuck there until we’d been away from Zhangjiajie for 2 full weeks. Even if we had multiple negative tests.
This is part of why I find it so strange that people think that wearing a mask in public is such an infringement of rights. China has taken much further measures tracking and posting positive patients’ whereabouts and enforcing mass quarantines and testing. We honestly don’t even mind going along with most of it, because we’ve seen first hand the effect these measures have had on reducing the number of cases here in China.
Suzhou itself is a bit of an extreme case. Events are forbidden there right now, and bars have been closed. Many buisnesses are only allowed 1/2 capacity. Schools are even shut down for all of August, which will affect me at the end of the month. There’s mass testing happening right now in Suzhou, and I have several friends in quarantine hotels at the moment. Suzhou hasn’t had a single case of community transmission, so it feels like an over reaction, but at the same time, these measures might be why there hasn’t been a single community spread there since May 2020.
By contrast, we didn’t have to quarantine in Lingshui. We chose to, until our tests came back negative, but it wasn’t forced. When someone tested positive in Haikou, Hainan’s capital, things did tighten up. Masks were enforced and temperature checks came up again, but other than that, it’s been business as usual. So far, everyone who was near the Haikou patient has tested negative, and Hainan province is still only showing up with 1 case in all the news reports. This is a relief and probably due to all the calls made by the Health Authority to anyone who came into contact with the positive patient. It was nipped in the bud, and stopped before it could spread.
So that’s been our last couple of weeks in Lingshui. We’ve mostly be working and catching up on some reading. Of course, we’ve made full use of our balcony tub as well. When we have gone out, it’s been to places with few people, and always outdoors. Our trip to the outlet mall in Wanning was a lesson and we didn’t need to learn it twice.
I’ll be back soon with some backlogged posts about our time in Hainan last Christmas. I never got around to finishing those posts thanks to some nasty food poisoning, followed by a very busy January full of exams.
Are you living in China right now? What have your experiences been this summer? If you’re not in China, what is your perspective on the way the virus has been handled here? I’d love to hear your comments!
China has such a variety of geological landscapes. From the deserts of Gansu, to the karst mountains of Guangxi, there is an abundance of beauty here. Mount Everest, Yellow Mountain, and Mount Emei are some of China’s most famous peaks, and the Yangtze and Yellow rivers are equally famous vast bodies of water. China has a lot to offer tourists, although many skip these natural beauties, visit the Wall, The Warriors and The Bund, then peace out. They don’t know what they’re missing.
Admittedly, when I first moved to Xiamen in 2005, I didn’t realize how much China had to offer either, but through the years, I’ve come to appreciate the variety of landscapes the Middle Kingdom offers. These past 2 years have been especially eye opening to me, because I haven’t been able to go home. My summers are usually spent with family and friends in Canada, but with that being impossible for 2 summers in a row, Dave and I have opted to travel China, rather than to sit and sulk in Suzhou.
There is one place though, that Dave and I have always wanted to visit, but always put off, mostly because of the crowds. Zhangjiajie is located in Hunan Province, and although many foreigners haven’t heard of it, local Chinese tourists have. It’s the busiest place we’ve been all summer, and it’s very easy to see why.
Now, I had never heard of these mountains until a coworker of mine visited in 2015 (when we were living in Guiyang). But although I had never heard of them, I HAD seen them, and just not realized it. They’re featured in the movie Avatar.
There are a few things you should know, if you’re thinking of traveling to Zhangjiajie. First of all, flights can be a bit tricky. Unless you’re flying from a major city, you’ll have to have a layover in Changsha or Xian. You can take the train as well, but once more, it’s a bit of a long trek unless you’re already living in Changsha. That being said, it IS worth the trip.
Another thing to consider is that it’s almost always crowded, especially during holidays (most people in China all get their holidays at the same time). We went during summer, which was probably the least crowded of all the regular holiday seasons, but it was still crowded. We got to the park before 8:30am, thinking we would be ahead of most of the crowds, but it was already packed by then.
We also found Zhangjiajie to be a bit xenophobic at the moment. The woman who looked at our documents at the train station didn’t want to let us through despite the fact that we are vaccinated, have a clean travel history and haven’t left China in a year and a half. We also had COVID tests done 3 weeks prior, but she wanted much more recent ones. She did let us in, in the end, but for anyone reading this and planning a trip to Zhangjiajie this summer, you might want to get a test done a few days before.
However, no matter how many little inconveniences we faced, I would still recommend Zhangjiajie to anyone who has a little patience and perseverance. It’s really an out of this world kind of place to visit, and here’s why:
The Park is HUGE!
To counter my complaint about the crowds, I must also mention the size of Zhangjiajie. If you take any of the hiking trails, you’ll be able to avoid most the crowds. We spent a good portion of our day on the Golden Whip Trail. A lot of it is flat so even if you aren’t super fit, you’ll be ok.
The trail is about 7km long and follows a beautiful little river the whole way. You can get some really nice views of the mountains from below. The water is cold too, so if you start to overheat, you can dip your feet in to cool down. Golden Whip Trail was actually my favorite part of Zhangjiajie, and we did it twice. We went up and also down the river, rather than racing the crowds.
This isn’t the only way to get around, of course. There are buses that take you from scenic spot to scenic spot once you’re up in the mountains. They were making me really car sick though, so we avoided them when we could. There are also cable cars and elevators to get you up to the peak and most scenic spots, but there are often 2 hour lines to get into them. We took the stairs instead.
We only really had time for 1 scenic spot, so we chose the Avatar Mountains. Also called Yuanjiajie mountains, these peaks were stunning. My favorite view of them was our first… Right when we made it to the peak, but before we met up with the swarms of tourists that had taken the cable cars up.
Once we were back in the crowds, the most scenic spots were all around, but it was hard for me to enjoy them with all the selfies and shouting and vendors trying to sell things. It was still beautiful, of course, but I would definitely have enjoyed it more if there had been fewer people in that small location.
For the next couple of hours, we moseyed along the park, hopping on and off buses to see the sights. Nothing we saw compared to the Avatar Mountains, but if we had scheduled another day at Zhangjiajie, we would have explored some of the more famous areas of the park.
We timed things well, and took the cable cars down one section of the mountain. At around 3pm, most of the tourists are seeing the major sights, so that’s when we booked our tickets down. The views were SPECTACULAR!
Once we were back down to the main level of the park, we decided to take the Golden Whip Trail back, rather than take a bus or a taxi (there were some there, which surprised me, but they were charging WAY too much).
Another thing worth noting is the wildlife at Zhangjiajie. There are countless macaques that will steal your food, and chase you if you get too close.
We’d only been at the park for about 10 minutes when we watched a mother with a baby hanging onto her back lunge at a tourist, stealing their snack and running off with it. It was pretty funny to be a spectator, but given how aggressive these monkeys can be, I’m glad I wasn’t the one holding the food!!
Other notable wildlife were the birds and insects in the park. There were cicada-type insects buzzing up a storm, and in the silence, I find the sound to be calming. It reminds me that I’m in nature, and that makes me happy!
Zhangjiajie is really an incredible place. There are plenty of great lodgings to be found in the areas just outside the park. We stayed at the Forest Glass Inn and loved it. There were about 700 stairs to climb to get there, but the view was spectacular and the hotel was lovely.
I’m very happy we went, and I would encourage anyone to go!
Our next stop on our trip is a 10 day stay in Hainan! We loved it so much at Christmas that we decided to come back. I’ll also be able to finish some of my posts that I never had a chance to finish then! (Food poisoning affected our last few days there).