Best Vacation Ever
© Copyright 2022 by Bobbi Ali
Photo property of the author.
When I moved to China over seven years ago, I anticipated staying only maybe two years. After I arrived, I fell in love with China, but still resolved to visit home every year. Now, my experiences this past summer have tested this love greatly and I see so many things through a jaded, bitter perspective. In 2020, when the pandemic first hit, I was home visiting my family in USA; this would be my last visit for two and a half years.
Every few months for the next two and half years, the expats would be given hope that China was reopening, and that traveling back and forth to our home countries would be easy again, and my hopes were constantly dashed. A visit by my husband to his home country, Pakistan, based on the thought that China would reopen, left him stranded outside of China as the country went into complete lockdown after he left. This left me with no family inside the country that I was otherwise intensely happy to live in.
Eventually, by summer 2022, more flights opened and quarantine times for returnees reduced, and I decided that it was a calculated risk to make a visit home to USA and to my still-stranded husband in Pakistan. Flights opened that could take me to Hong Kong, and after a brief quarantine there, I would be able to cross the border into mainland, and quarantine 7-10 days. This seemed worth the effort and inconvenience as I felt like my family needed me, and I sorely needed to reconnect with them. Nothing is ever as easy as it seems.
My flight to USA and subsequent flight to Pakistan were surprisingly easy, although there were definitely signs that things were destined to be difficult. On arriving in America, I learned my bags never made it to my plane during the transit through Charles de Gaulle airport, largely due to a baggage handler strike in France. A quick trip to Target got me through the three days before the luggage made it to my momís front door. After a weekís visit in Georgia, my mom and I headed to Florida so that I could spend the remainder of the trip with my children and grandchildren in Jacksonville. It was a lovely trip, where I was able to spend a lot of time with my daughterís son, Melvin, and even spent a day in the rain as an official timer at my granddaughter, Scarlettís, swimming competition. I spend some time shopping with my eldest son and his fiancťe for their baby arriving in a few months and met my soon to be step-granddaughters. His 7-year-old son was a joy, too, intelligent and quirky. The bittersweet point of this part of my journey was seeing my estranged son and his family who I learned were moving to Alaska a day before I left.
Leaving Florida for Pakistan would be the next sign in the drama of my life for the next few months. My plane was delayed and then suddenly on time. Although my tickets said my baggage couldnít be checked through to Pakistan, the JetBlue employee found a way to check them through, on the surface. I had previously changed one checked bag for a smaller carry-on bag, lesson learned. So, arriving in Pakistan, it was anti-climactic to find that my baggage never made it from JetBlue to Qatar Airways in the New York transit. Ultimately, the four day wait meant we couldnít head to the mountains as we had planned during our trip, but we did get the luggage and headed to Islamabad, which is my preferred place to stay in Pakistan. What I didnít realize when I booked tickets is that my journey to Hong Kong would fall during the time of Ashura, where Shiía Muslims parade through the streets beating their chests and crying for the death of the son of Mohammad (SAW). This meant huge security and blocked off streets due to potential violence that could occur due to Shiía-Sunni conflict. This meant arriving in Lahore close to the airport three days before the flight and pretty much staying in a hotel room unable to leave.
The Covid testing and getting to the airport proved easy and I headed off to Hong Kong. My quarantine hotel for seven days in Hong Kong was over $1000 USD, but as my job provided half pay over the summer, it didnít seem unmanageable. And, again, I thought I could easily cross the border after my quarantine ended.
Arriving in Hong Kong, I quickly found out from a quarantine WeChat group that getting across the border was actually insanely difficult at that time. There were three options: bus to Zhuhai, across the border, walkover bridge to Shenzhen, and flights. Option 1, the bus, required buying the tickets on Tuesdays for the next week, and the time frame to sell out was literally about a minute after they went online for sale. This meant that a lot of us had to use an agent to buy scalped tickets for huge sums of money. Option 2, the Shenzhen bridge meant entering a daily lottery to obtain one of the 2000 spots available to cross, also difficult, but I did hear of people who got the lottery spots (about 10,000 people were registered daily for the lottery). The final option was flight, and all flights were sold out, only available through agents for crazy sums.
As it turned out, none of those options worked, as I came down with Covid. Let me stop here and explain that I am vaccinated. I had two doses in China, and because I was going to be overseas when my booster was due, I had another dose of the American Johnson and Johnson vaccine in Georgia. Another possible thing I should mention is that due to auto-immune disorder, I had treatments the past few years that knock out my immune system. I will never know for sure this is connected, but quite possibly. At any rate, I got the virus, and if the vaccine did tamp down the serious effects of the virus, then thank God, because I canít imagine how bad it would have been without the vaccine.
At the airport arriving in Hong Kong, the passengers must all go through an area that confirms that we have the vaccine, how many doses, etc., and then go to another area that will test us. We had a sitting area where we waited for the results. When my result came back negative, this is all after immigration and customs, I was taken down to an area to wait on the buses that would take passengers to quarantine hotels. The bus then dropped me off at the back area of the quarantine hotel where people in white hazmat suits would usher me through to check-in, the elevator and then the room. In the room, I had 7 days of self-tests (RATs), and a lot of water. Meals would be brought three times a day, I could order outside food, and it would be brought up by the hotel personnel if I wanted. Medical techs would come on day 2, 4, 6.
Day two came and they tested me, and it came back negative, I believed I was out of the woods, until that evening, when my fever started spiking, my head felt like imploding, and my body felt like I had run three marathons in a row. Before I even tore open the packaging for that morning 3 RAT, I already suspected the worst. I was hoping it was just a regular flu, but no such luck, Hong Kong was in the middle of one of the biggest covid spikes since the beginning of all of this.
So, I followed the directions, packed my stuff up, and that night I was taken to a place called Pennyís Bay, a Covid isolation facility. This place was not a hospital, and I was feeling pretty awful, although they did give me a medical emergency number just in case I needed medical care. Luckily, I had packed Tylenol from USA and that got me through the worst of the fever. Anyway, Pennyís Bay staff gave me a sim card for Hong Kong so that I could reach them, and they could reach me, which was nice. I was told they would provide three meals a day, snacks on request, oranges every afternoon (immunity booster), and I would be there at least seven days. Upon talking with the staff to move in, and carrying my luggage up to my room, I learned that I also couldnít speak and that my lungs didnít work properly.
The first three days I couldnít do much but lay in bed, as my chest felt tight, my fever stayed above 38 (102) even with Tylenol, and I felt dizzy doing much at all. On the fourth day, the fever broke, and the body pains went away, although I still didnít have much of a voice and trying home workouts still resulted in my chest tightening and dizziness. Throughout my stay in Hong Kong, whether quarantined or not, I always made sure to exercise; itís just my way of dealing with things I can control. On day 6, I was required to take my first RAT, which was, of course, still positive, on day 9 I would eventually get a negative and leave on day 10. Although there was plenty of downsides, at least it was free, and they provided all my needs in that secluded room.
On that tenth day, me and others who were able to leave were put on a bus and brought to a metro station to fend for ourselves. Although free to leave isolation, the current law for China mainland said I had to be negative for 14 days before entering China. Because options were still hard to find, I paid an agent 9,000rmb (over $1,000usd) for a ticket to Nanjing in 17 days. Because my money was being quickly spent, my best hotel option was a complex called Chungking Mansion.
Chungking mansion has a somewhat infamous reputation. Downstairs it is a dirty, crowded sort of world bazaar, with mainly immigrants from Africa and the Indian subcontinent selling food, clothing, electronics, and more. I read an article about it, and apparently 80% or more of the goods imported between Africa and Hong Kong pass through the doors of Chungking Mansion. There are probably 100 hotels/hostels operating out of the place, with very few elevators, of which one or two are often out of service. All elevators go to different buildings, although the bottom floor is all connected. The private rooms are small, often only large enough for the bed and a small, attached bathroom, and have very few amenities, depending on which one you choose.
When I was dropped off at the metro station by the Pennyís Bay bus, the first thing I had to do was get an Octopus card. An octopus card works to pay for all methods of transportation in Hong Kong and is accepted like a debit card at most stores.
Another problem upon arriving at the station was the health code. To enter most places in Hong Kong you would have to scan a QR code on your phone to show that you are not infected. I received this at the airport upon entering, but it was red after I left the isolation camp, which would mean I couldnít go into a lot of places. After some research and conversations with others, I got it cleared up that first day free, and got the green code. That got me into Starbucks where I finally could enjoy a latte and relax, and then I headed to the hotel.
On a previous trip to Hong Kong, I had actually spent two days in Chungking Mansion, so I knew what to expect. Although I recently had covid, the only affordable option seemed to be a hostel, and I showed up and met the lovely Indian Punjabi host to the hostel. She was concerned, because the hostel was co-ed and only men were staying there, so she offered me a private hotel room for a little additional money. Although cramped and dingy, it was reasonably clean and offered a mini-fridge and water, so it was an acceptable way to spend the next 16 days. As my husband in Pakistani-Punjabi, and I had just left Pakistan two weeks before, it was homey for me at least.
After the money spent on lodging and the plane ticket, money was tight, but for those two weeks I had a reasonably enjoyable time in Hong Kong. Because I was in the WeChat group for people who had also been through Pennyís Bay and stuck in Hong Kong, I was able to get an idea about my situation. Even though those around me didnít know of my recent covid, I felt like a diseased pariah. I felt like everyone around me could see that I was a covid patient and were suspicious of me, although I knew it was in my head. I didnít regain my voice for a long time, so I knew if I had to talk to people, they might be suspicious, though.
Because I had previously taken hiking trips to Hong Kong, I knew about their hiking trails, so at first, I resolved to complete the shortest one, the Hong Kong Trail, 50km (35 miles), which I did over the course of the first week. On other days, I visited the beach, walked around the ritzy malls (think Gucci and Prada) in my general area, walked along the Kowloon Bay and explored nearby. I usually ate at least one meal a day at one of the Pakistani restaurants in Chungking Mansion, and other times ate at western restaurants that I knew I wouldnít see on the mainland (milkshakes, yum).
Two days before the flight, I had to go to a testing center to take the 48-hour pre-flight covid test. Since I had been negative for 18 days at that point, and taken many RAT tests, all showing negative, I was a little nervous because people reported that the test was much more sensitive than the other PCR and RAT tests I had taken, but reasonably sure that I would pass. I will say that at this point, I still had paralyzed vocal cords and my lungs bothered me on the hikes, but residual symptoms of covid can last for years, so I didnít feel that it meant anything.
The tests results were due the following afternoon, so while waiting, I took a trip to the local beach. I often put my phone on airplane mode when I am out and about, so that the battery doesnít wear down, so I turned off the airplane mode while riding the bus back to the hotel. The results were in: positive, and another text telling me to call and arrange to be picked up and brought back to Pennyís Bay. I made the call, got dinner, and awaited my bus to return to isolation.
Now, I want to stop to talk about CT values. A CT value is how they determine a positive result. The number shows how many cycles they had to run before the virus showed on the test. Mostly, internationally, a positive means a number under 35. China mainland is 40, but I didnít clear the 35, even. The test showed 29, which research shows is not contagious, but that also means that for the past 16 days I was probably contagious for part of it, even with those negative RATs. The CT values will show back up in this story later, so itís important to understand them.
So, I went back to Pennyís Bay for another seven days. Lucky me. On the upside, it was free lodging and food, on the downside, my plane ticket was nonrefundable, and the delay cost me my job. I spent days trying to force the ticket agency to switch me to a later flight as the agent had told me this was possible, but eventually she ghosted me. At this point, I had no income, even though I was expecting pay in just a few days and it would never come. Luckily, I have side work online, helping students prepare their essays for college entrance, and also a VIP English student, or it could have been worse. Also, like a child, I had to ask my mom to wire money.
I left Pennyís Bay on the seventh day, and once again was dropped off with all my stuff at Ysing Yi Metro station. Sure that I would only stay a few days and catch a plane back, I found lodging with a different hotel at Chungking Mansion, as the Punjab people were full that night, and this one was a bit cheaper, anyway.
The new hotel was run by a Chinese man and the private room was a little nicer than the previous place. Now, I needed to figure out how to get back to China without my paycheck at this point. My boss at the side work agreed to buy me a ticket back and take it out of my paycheck, so I was assuming I would be good to go in a week. We found a ticket for I think 9 days later, and since I had been negative on the RATs at this point for over a month, it seemed a safe bet. Well, about this time, flights began becoming available without an agent, so I asked the boss instead to send me the money and I, smartly, bought a refundable ticket.
I asked the hotel to extend my booking to the flight date, but the private rooms were sold out for the following days. Mr. Li, the manager, offered me a hostel room for a ridiculously cheap price for the week, and I took him up on it. The room was a hovel and pretty shady. This hostel room was tucked behind a storage room and there were two adjoining rooms, one for women and one for men, each containing one bunk bed and one single bed. No amenities, not very clean, and not very secure. Although the main entrance to the hotel had a keypad for guests, the door to the room couldnít even be closed. I rarely slept more than an hour at a time, completely paranoid and already suffering depression.
During this week I resolved to hike the 80 km Wilson Trail and start running again, for the first time in around two months at this point. It gave me an objective and something to focus on, so each day I would either take the bus to a new trail section or run along Kowloon Bay. Sidenote: running after Covid was definitely difficult, as were the steeper parts of the Wilson Trail, but I have always been a firm believer that fresh air, sunshine, and physical activity are a way to help heal my body and mind, so I firmly believed it was necessary for recovery. Wilson Trail was a lot more work than the Hong Kong Trail, some sections ending in obscure spots, some sections very steep.
Two days before my flight, after a pleasant day swimming at the beach, I once again went to take the dreaded 48-hour PCR test. I bravely went in, sure that this time I would have to get a negative result. The following day I intended to complete the Wilson Trail.
I got lost finding the beginning of the trail section and didnít end up on the trail until almost noon. The trail guide stated that section 9, where I was starting, was the most difficult section of the trail. I concur. Parts werenít well marked, and I had a point where I spent a lot of time trying to get headed the right way, but I made it up into Pat Sin Leng mountain, where I was hit with the mother of all thunderstorms. The thunder and lightning were hitting almost simultaneously, meaning I was in the midst of it, and the rain was torrential. I was cold and scared and angry about it. I screamed from the peaks, each time I hit another one instead of the downhill leading me back to dry safety. The only way out was through it, and at that point the whole thing seemed like an added insult to the last 5 weeks of my life.
My soaking wet self eventually got into the small town where I could catch the bus and possibly pneumonia. I have never had such a miserable time hiking. On the bus, I turned my phone off airplane mode to check if my report had come in. ANDÖpositive again. If there was a point in this whole experience where I felt broken, it was that moment. This time, I called the transport, packed my bags, and waited. Only they never came for me. No explanation why, and I could never reach a live person to tell me anything. So, I refunded the airplane ticket, and asked Mr. Li if there was any private room available for the next week.
In some sort of shady dealing, Mr. Li allowed me to sleep in a private room, but during the day me and all my things had to stay in the hostel. I still donít know what was up. He charged me a little extra, and I think he pocketed it, so the hotel owner couldnít know that I was staying in a private room, but I will never know. I have never felt like less of a person than during that time. I felt like a homeless person that was asking for handouts or just to exist, even though I wasnít homeless, and wasnít asking for crap.
I was able to find a new refundable ticket for a week later. During this time, I learned that to fly into Nanjing, I didnít actually need the 48-hour test, only the 8-hour airport pre-flight test, so I resolved to just head straight to the airport 8 hours pre-flight. That morning, I decided to complete the last leg of Wilson Trail, which was supposed to be pretty easy. At that point I was only doing it in the spirit of finishing what I started as the previous experience had sucked all the joy out of it for me.
I had a new issue that there was no checked baggage allowed for my flight so I decided I would throw out my larger suitcase and choose only some of my clothes to take, rather than pay the ridiculous luggage charge that I couldnít afford. There was an old African man that lived in the long-term part of the hotel who was some sort of janitor or something, who had spoken with me once before, and I had seen him calling people to get all this unclaimed luggage that he stored in a sort of lost and found suite. He offered that rather than me throwing my things away, he would send me the bag in Nanjing. Several people vouched for him, and he had actually helped me from losing a purse one day, so I decided to trust him. Although I gave him my address, he gave me all his info and told me he wouldnít send it until I called and confirmed I was there to receive it. Based on his assurance, I took some stuff out of the smaller bag to make my load lighter and packed only a carry-on and a backpack.
Since I was no longer paying for the hostel room, I put my luggage out by the front desk, as I had seen many people doing during my time there and went to grab some dinner before I left. I returned to the hotel, walked past my bags to retrieve some things I had accidentally left in the hostel room and to say goodbye to the nice Chinese lady who had stayed there with me the past few days. When I walked back out, I realized the backpack was gone. I asked the old African man and some residents hanging out in the lobby, but no one had seen anything. I called Mr. Li repeatedly but he never answered. Finally, I called the police. The police couldnít see the theft from the angle of the camera and told me they could do nothing but were more concerned about the hostel room, which I am I guessing was not entirely up to codes.
Now, this backpack, it didnít contain valuables: some clothes, pillow, all my toiletries, and although I didnít realize it until days later, all the contact information for the guy who was supposed to send my things. My money, my passport, all this I kept on me. My laptop was in the bigger bag. It did, however, contain something immensely valuable to me. You see, when I was leaving China, I didnít want to leave all my important documents in case I got stuck outside China. So, I had a folder with my birth certificate, marriage certificate, and most importantly, all the certified and attested documents I needed for a work permit and visa in China. This is especially important since I had been hired for a new job over the past week. I put up a note, and had my roommate write it in Chinese, reward for the return of the documents, but nothing came of it. I had to leave Hong Kong.
So took the metro to the Hong Kong airport with my remaining bag. I found my way to the testing site, and after showing proof of flight, went in to take my Covid test. I waited for bated breath, sure I was about to be turned away, when a small miracle occurred. My test was negative. Negative. When I entered the check-in line, when I went through security, and even entering the plane, I was positive that somehow, I would be turned away, but I got on that flight and made it to Nanjing. Now to pass the most sensitive Covid test that exists. The test to get into mainland required a CT value of 40 and would test both nose and throat. Again, I sat for over an hour, waiting to be told I was positive. But, again I was granted this little grace, and it was negative, and I was off to my quarantine hotel, which would be a 7-10 day stay depending on if my community allowed 3 day home quarantine.
Every day at the hotel someone came and took throat and nasal samples, and they came back negative. My community did not allow for the three-day home quarantine, so my stay was to be 10 days. On the ninth day, they came to do the final test, to release me and the others from my flight into the world on the next day. I was flippant about it, after all, I had 10 tests saying negative in the past ten days.
At 4:30 I was awakened by the beep of a text message. My hotel sent me a notice that my test was abnormal and to prepare to go to the Covid hospital. I asked enough questions to learn that only one of the two samples was questionable, and the hospital should retest me and possibly release me after two days. I really donít know why they said this, except that I did learn that nearby Shanghai and Hangzhou did follow that procedure. The hospital said no, no retest, you are positive, you must stay at least 7 days.
Remember when I said the CT value would later be important? I later learned that the CT value of one of the two test, I donít know if it was nasal or throat, was 38. There are so many questions I have about this. First of all, how did me and four others from my flight, none of us sick, test positive after 9 days of quarantine, and all of those days with negative results? Secondly, one test is negative and the other was a value of 38, negative by most standards, but they couldnít retest? Not to mention, this ďhospitalĒ only required a 35 or above on day 7 to secure a release.
So let me tell you about a quarantine hospital. First of all, no one speaks English, and although I do know a decent amount of Chinese, no one even had the patience to work that bit out and just refused to tell me much at all, just that they want 3000rmb ($400) for treatment and hospital stay. The first day, by the way, is day 0, not one and you canít leave on day 7, so actually the minimum hospital stay is 9 days. Although they took my blood pressure on entry and a lung x-ray on the first whole day, there was no other contact with humans until that day 6 first Covid test. A negative test on days 6, 7 would secure a release on day 8. I did have a roommate. An actual Covid patient, who was from South Korea and knew some English, so that was both good and bad. The food was what you expect hospital food to be like. The only privacy was the bathroom, with big windows on both sides of our room and no privacy curtains.
After the second negative test on day 7 (8), I was given a UV light machine and told take a shower and put on clean clothes, put all belongings on the bed and turn on the light. They took me and my roommate outside our door to wait for an hour while the light sanitized all my belongings. Oh, I forgot to mention, we were locked in the room, no way out. This was a departure from every place before as I had never been locked up before that point.
On day 9 an ambulance came and picked me and the others who had come to this isolation hospital with me and took us to a new quarantine hotel, where we would have to stay for 7 days, and again on day 6 take a test to secure our release. I was trying not to have high hopes, but I believed this may be over. Because Nanjing has had a surge in cases, the PCR test is required every 2 days. What if it somehow shows up again?
So I returned to my home and to deal with all the problems that this experience has created. I retrieved my sole companions, my cat Mao, and my bichon, Shaun, and since I have no money to pay for the long boarding, I will owe Suzanne, the woman who cared for them, for months. My apartment lease must be resigned, requiring a lot of money upfront, which I donít have. My work is going to need those documents that were stolen, and they are prohibitively expensive to replace. My new job is nowhere near my apartment, and I should relocate, but registering my new residence would also require these stolen documents. I will have to rebuild my finances, and maybe temporarily give up luxuries that I enjoyed before leaving like private boxing and yoga classes.
My stubborn faith that I am safe and secure in China is now shaken. Where I didnít mind all the stringent Covid protocols and I didnít mind the trade-offs in personal freedom for the safety and security I had experienced prior to now, my eyes canít unsee the situation. On the other hand, I was also appalled at how truly awful covid is, and I was so sheltered in mainland that I didnít even know how big the numbers were or how horrible the virus feels. I donít even know that my lungs and vocal cords will ever completely recover. The x-rays at the hospital did show scarring.
I donít know how I will feel a month from now or beyond. Maybe I will re-discover my love of China, or maybe I will be forced to choose to leave it. People who havenít left since the pandemic donít believe me entirely. Like I was prior to leaving, they just assume all these measures are keeping them safe and are not unreasonable. And maybe I am just bitter. I am bitter. I donít have the answers to how things should be handled by any country. I know that taking these tests several times a week and hoping for my green health code to pop up on my phone is now a traumatic experience. In time, I will have to make decisions, but for now I am still adjusting to life post-Covid.