At more than a few points in this blog I have written about planning: planning for moving abroad, for courses and things I want to see and achieve this year. However, sometimes the best plans do not work out and often being flexible and adaptable is just as important to making studying abroad a success. It is easy to forget that some things are just not predictable, and in my case that was the COVID-19 outbreak in China, which cut my year at Peking University short by almost six months.
In these circumstances, it is probably needless to say that the past semester has been difficult. When I left my dorm room in Beijing with just a backpack in January to go travelling for three weeks over winter break, I had no idea I would not be coming back. For the first few months after having to leave China, I tried my best to stay optimistic and cling onto the hope that soon I would be able to return to the life (and the plans) I had just begun to build for myself. Unfortunately, as COVID-19 spread across the world this did not come true, and just like most students across the world, I had to complete this semester online from my childhood bedroom, rather than in my host country of choice.
This semester seemed to be going by painfully slowly at some points, and scarily fast at others and I want to use this blogpost to fill you in with what happened, from the time the COVID-19 pandemic began in China in January to now, six months later.
Travelling in difficult times
In my last post, I mentioned that I would spend my semester break from mid-January to mid-February travelling with friends. We began this trip just like we had planned, and I remember us just briefly noticing when our train from Beijing to Changsha made a stop in Wuhan. At the time, we had heard about a new virus that had broken out on a market there, and we knew that some doctors were comparing it to SARS, but the situation in China seemed normal despite – people got on and off our train and we made it to Changsha without any issues. Living in Hong Kong, I had heard and read a lot about how severely the city had been affected by the SARS outbreak that happened in South China in 2003. Still, I, maybe naively, did not consider that this new virus might become an issue outside of one area in the large country that is China.
We went about our trip relatively unworried for another week before the implications of the virus started manifesting in our lives. While we were visiting Changsha, and later the Zhangjiajie mountains, I brushed off concerned messages from friends and family, reassuring them that where I was, everything seemed normal. However, once we arrived in Chongqing on January 20th, reality slowly started to creep in, as on that day President Xi Jinping acknowledged the virus outbreak in a public speech. Suddenly, most people in the streets were wearing face masks, the Mandarin word for which I will probably never again forget, as it was taught to a friend and me by a drugstore saleswoman, informing us that they had sold out in the entire city within half a day. We eventually managed to buy some at a train station, after being asked to wear them by the police, who were suddenly even more present in the public space than normally. As we continued our trip westwards, to Sichuan province, trains full of masked people started to feel increasingly claustrophobic. Luckily, we had planned to spend the following two days hiking up and staying on Mount Emei, one of the four sacred mountains of Buddhism in China. This allowed us to escape the growing number of restrictions for a little longer, as the rural mountain area was less affected by them at that point.
However, after over eight hours spent waking, climbing and sliding, the staff of our hotel informed us that on the following day, we would be some of the last people allowed on the peak. The lockdown measures had caught up with us: from the next day on, buses only went down the mountain and major tourist attractions were closed down. The Chinese New Year was approaching quickly – a season that year by year constitutes the largest human migration in the world, with passenger numbers reaching up to three billion. As we returned to the city of Chengdu from Mount Emei, it became clear that preventing this mass movement from spreading the virus was becoming a top priority. Not only had the sights we planned to visit closed, but long-distance connection such as busses were cancelled, and even our hostel informed us they were shutting down. Once we had found new accommodation, we spent a day wandering around the city, the streets of which, despite a population of 16 million, were almost entirely empty, and eerily quiet. At every metro station, our hostel’s reception and even at the door of one of the few restaurants left open, we had to have our temperature checked as a condition for entry. That night, our programme coordinator from Peking University informed us that the spring semester would be postponed until the situation had cleared. Many neighbouring countries and regions also imposed travel bans to people coming from China, which unfortunately (but understandably) included Taiwan, where I had been planning to fly to next. With all of this in mind, I made the difficult decision fly home to Germany for the time being.
In the following weeks, while observing the development of the virus outbreak from home, the uncertainties that people in China and especially in affected areas were experiencing seemed unimaginable to me. Diseases in general, and virus outbreaks especially, inherently alienate and are often cause to a lot of fear. However, thanks to the internet and social media, we were and still are able to see the development in affected regions not only through official postings but also through the eyes of local people. I have been very grateful for this throughout this entire semester, as I believe it serves as a reminder of the human experience underlying every crisis, something that even with extensive reporting by news outlets is easily lost sight of.