How China’s COVID-19 Delta Variant Outbreak Ruined My Summer Vacation

traveler in a Chinese train station

Despite China’s best efforts, the dreaded Delta variant of COVID-19 recently slammed into the country with a vengeance. The total cases in the country are now sitting around 121,837. That may not sound like much compared to the United States or elsewhere, but it’s a lot for China. This is after administering nearly one and a half billion doses of vaccines and strict travel regulations.

But the Delta variant is a nasty beast, and after a year of almost normal, China’s back in full-on pandemic mode once again. And, of course, it coincided with our summer vacation.

We Haven’t Traveled in a Year and a Half

rainy street in Beijing China

2020 was 2020. It was milder here in China compared to elsewhere in the world, but it still sucked. Due to COVID-19 related travel restrictions, we couldn’t leave Shanghai for most of it. Now, there are much worse places to be stranded, and Shanghai reopened relatively quickly and safely. Still, it was hard for someone who really loves to travel.

Last fall, the restrictions got lifted, and people started moving around China like it was in 2019. As soon as we were able to leave the city… my fiancé fucked up her knee. We spent the rest of the year and most of early 2021 in and out of hospitals and recovering from surgery. (She’s doing better, but still has to go to physical therapy once a week by that way. MPFL surgery is no joke.)

So, needless to say, after over a year and a half of staying put, we were very, very anxious for this summer vacation. We spent nearly every non-working minute (and most working minutes) fantasizing about our upcoming travels.

Again, because of the pandemic, we still can’t leave China. Well, we can, but we wouldn’t be able to come back. Plus, we still don’t get enough time off to cover any quarantines. We decided to just travel within China. Luckily, this is a vast and interesting country with a lot to do. The initial plan was to stay in a mountain village outside of Beijing for a few days, relaxing in nature and seeing the Great Wall, then head into the city to see the sights we missed when we went last time. Afterwards, we’d go to Xi’an to see the famous Terracotta warriors.

COVID-19 Health Codes in China

Shanghai health code

The train stopped at Nanjing on the way from Shanghai to Beijing. Nanjing, is, unfortunately, the epicenter of the Delta variant outbreak in China. We wore our masks on the entire four-and-a-half-hour train ride, but we were still a little nervous. Thankfully, no mysterious Haz-mat suited government figures accosted us. In fact, it was a very pleasant train ride.

Since the pandemic, China has started using “health codes,” which are basically little apps on your smartphone that show up red, yellow or green depending on your estimated COVID-19 risk status. If you have a green code, you’re good to do whatever you want to do. If your code is yellow or red, you’re in trouble.

The annoying thing, is that there’s still no national health code system. Every province (or big provincial-level city) has its own health code. They’re all called different things in Chinese, too. Our green Shanghai health codes are completely unacceptable in Beijing.

We tried our damndest to get the Beijing health code app working on the train, but it wouldn’t work. I imagined those government Haz-mat suits coming for us again.

But, to my surprise, there was nobody checking when we got off the train. We walked from the train platform to the subway without a single person asking to see our health code or asking us any COVID-19 related information.

The weird thing was that Beijing’s restaurants were much stricter than a major transportation route into the city. Almost every restaurant required a green health code. Some even required us to scan a QR code instead of just pulling up the app on our own. Thank God the guy at our hotel spoke English and helped us install the Beijing health code app. It would have been a very hungry trip otherwise.

We Tried and Failed to Go to a Museum

People wait for COVID-19 test

Despite the health codes, you could walk around Beijing and have no idea there’s a pandemic going on. Restaurants, bars, and attractions were all open as usual. Museums, unfortunately, were a different story.

Beijing has a number of world-class museums. That’s part of why we decided to go there during this rainy ass summer. If we couldn’t see outside stuff due to rain, we could at least spend the day in a museum, right?

We started trying to go to the National Art Museum of China. It’s a massive museum and supposedly one of the best (if not the best) art museums in the country. We trudged through buckets of rain and ankle-high puddles; confident we’d be able to get in with our brand-new health codes.

We arrived at the museum gate and were immediately stopped by a burly guard.“Do you have a reservation?” she asked, speaking brisk Mandarin.

“No, we don’,” I replied in soaking wet, broken Chinese.

“You need a reservation.”

“How do I get a reservation?” I asked. She completely ignored me and turned to accost someone else.

It turns out that, due to COVID-19 regulations, you need a reservation for almost all of Beijing’s top museums. And they only let in 200 people per day. And reservations were booked out until a week after we were supposed to be back home.

The Delta Variant Comes to China

China COVID-19 testing

If our museum experience wasn’t disheartening enough, we returned to our hotel to find some panicked WeChat messages from one of our coworkers. He decided to travel to Zhangjiajie, the famous “Avatar” mountains in central Hunan province. This also suddenly turned out to be the other sight of a major COVID-19 Delta variant breakout in China.

The authorities wouldn’t let him fly home. He had to take a train to another city and fly from there. There was a real possibility he was going to get stuck in a three-week quarantine far from home. Lucky for him, he made it back to Shanghai okay with no quarantine needed. Lucky for me, I don’t have to cover him at work.

As it turned out, two people from Beijing happened to also be in Zhangjiajie this summer. They tested positive for the Delta variant, and suddenly we were getting flooded with alarmed messages from friends and coworkers.

The positive couple in Beijing, thankfully, lived in a far-out suburb. That suburb is now a “medium risk” area, but the rest of the city was fine. Still, we weren’t 100% sure if we’d be able to get home smoothly or not. More and more cases kept popping up around the country.

Then, we got a message from our boss. She’s got a friend in Xi’an who told her things were getting canceled there. Despite zero cases in the city, they went and closed down the Terracotta Warriors!

At Least We Only Lost a Vacation…

I suppose closing down major indoor tourist attractions makes sense from an epidemic control standpoint, but it was a bummer when you’re trying to plan your first vacation in over a year. We decided to head home, riding back on a very empty train.  Thankfully, we made it back to Shanghai with fresh emerald green health codes and no major problems.

But we went and got our nucleic acid tests anyway, and I’m happy to report everybody is officially COVID-19 free. We’re back to work, and once again stuck in Shanghai for the foreseeable future. (The government is asking people to avoid all non-essential travel. I don’t think just wanting to get out of town is particularly essential.)

The funny thing is that China’s total number of cases is still far less than the cases just in Florida. Astounding, considering how many more people there are in China. In fact, the 893 cases China’s reported in the last week would be a very good day in Florida.

It’s those strict measures and cancelations of travel plans that keep the cases low here. And hopefully, the vaccines keep this current outbreak from getting too much worse. Hopefully, we’ll be able to travel again in a little while. It should make this travel blog more interesting.

More importantly, the fact that there’s been a new outbreak of the COVID-19 Delta variant in China, despite the relatively strict regulations, shows how dangerous this thing is. So, everyone, stay safe, get your vaccines and let’s hope next year is better.

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