China Travelogue Series #1
A Long, Strange Trip: Arrival and Quarantine
By Scott Kennedy
You're sick of hangin' around and you'd like to travel
Get tired of travelin' and you want to settle down
I guess they can't revoke your soul for tryin'
Get out of the door and light out and look all around
Sometimes the light's all shinin' on me
Other times I can barely see
Lately it occurs to me
What a long, strange trip it's been
From “Truckin,” by the Grateful Dead
Traveling to China is beyond daunting and still impossible for tourists, but I decided that I couldn’t stay away any longer. And so, I planned out my trip, worked with colleagues in China to obtain a visa (pre-pandemic visas have been suspended), and set off in early April to fly to Shanghai and after quarantining there, on to my final destination, Beijing. But that initial effort was stymied by the Shanghai lockdown, and so in the Spring I pivoted and traveled to Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan instead. I learned an immense amount about those three societies and their perspectives on U.S.-China relations, but those visits only made me more determined to get to China. After one more momentary false start – my August flight to Shanghai was cancelled by the Chinese government because of Covid-19 cases on previous flights – I again flew to Taipei, and after three days of quarantining and then a couple of PCR tests, flew a week later to Beijing. I quarantined there for 10 days and then was out and about for another month, first in Beijing and then in Shanghai.
And now that I’ve done it, I can say that the struggle – a word in vogue these days – was worth it. Although the pandemic-related restrictions are severe and make travel to China under current circumstances essentially impossible for most foreigners, the purpose of this brief “travelogue” series is to relay what it was like for one person. Visiting China is difficult, expensive, and not without risks, but it is possible to get there and to have a productive experience.
Many China experts can get by working online, downloading quantitative datasets, reading publications, and through virtual meetings with counterparts in China. But my research on China’s economy and economic policy has been degraded substantially by trying to watch China from my basement in Falls Church, Virginia. My research, much of which centers around measuring the distance between official economic policies and the commercial performance of Chinese industry, depends heavily on field visits and interviews – with officials, business executives, investors, industry analysts, lawyers, and journalists. Online conversations are entirely inadequate substitutes for in person conversations. Plus, without traveling I miss the unintended “learning by osmosis” opportunities and sudden encounters that I only have when on the ground. When talking to someone on a scheduled zoom meeting, they may say something that surprises me. But I need to be in the country to be surprised by something or someone I didn't expect to see at all.
The other reason I wanted to go is because of the downward spiral in U.S.-China relations. Frictions in the relationship have always been there, and they were magnified in the first three years of the Trump administration as a result of the trade war and restrictions on Huawei and other companies. But the floor has fallen out from under the relationship since the pandemic broke out. The most visible signs are the series of actions and counter moves Washington and Beijing have taken toward each other, the adversarial ways both sides now frame the other, and their competing visions of the international order. But abetting these actions and frameworks is our sudden isolation from each other.
Beijing and Washington have both become echo chambers with the nationalist theme music volume dialed way up. In-person discussions between Americans and Chinese are critical to effective communication given the top-down control of China’s media and the difficulty of speaking freely on platforms like Zoom. Getting behind the curtain is valuable regardless of whether it leads to finding unexpected common ground or getting a clearer idea of the nature and depths of the divisions. Americans need to better understand China’s policy debate, their view on issues, and the rationale behind various decisions. Moreover, our traveling there also provides an opportunity for Chinese stakeholders to hear directly from Americans about our policy debate, perspectives, and decisions without being filtered through the distorting lenses of Chinese state media and distance.
At the personal level, traveling to today’s China is about facing a long list of fears, and checking them off one by one: Will I get a visa? Will I get my boarding pass and a “green code” that allows me to get on the airplane? Will I make it through immigration? Will anyone want to see me? Will I encounter displays of anti-Americanism? Will I ever test positive or be identified as a close contact, and possibly be taken to a centralized facility? But perhaps one of the biggest is, “Will I make it through quarantine?”
As soon as I boarded my Air China flight in Taipei, I knew things were different, as all the flight attendants were wearing the infamous full-scale “big white” protective gear, including transparent face shields. Safety, not comfort, was clearly the top priority. As I was ushered to my seat, I found a plastic bag filled with pre-packaged snacks, and from the intercom came the first of repeated messages about the need to sit in one’s assigned seat and keep one’s mask on. It was also a requirement for the shades to be kept open the entire flight, perhaps because of the belief that the sun’s rays would neutralize any wandering specs of the virus. After taking off we banked left heading toward the Taiwan Strait then up toward the northwest, entering Mainland China over southern Zhejiang. Then it was almost a straight shot north toward Beijing. The one geographic feature I definitely could pick out was the colorful Yellow River.
When we landed at Capital Airport and disembarked, we surprisingly did not go through the regular entry process that brings one through the immigration lines on the upper level and then down the escalator to the long shuttle ride to the main terminal to retrieve luggage and then out through Customs to the arrival hall. Instead, we went through a temporarily built maze of pathways, with turnstiles and sprays, that brought people downstairs through immigration booths and then to a waiting area. We waited for an hour and then suddenly were lined up to go down another set of escalators to an emergency exit area, where everyone’s luggage has been placed seemingly randomly around the room. Most people retrieved their bags and then stood in line to be taken to a standard quarantine hotel. I was fortunate enough that my host, Peking University, had arranged for me to go to a VIP hotel right by the airport. But my bus driver left without me before I could gather all my luggage; and I had to wait two hours for another bus to pick up me with a later arriving group. Once the bus started moving, the actual drive was less than 5 minutes.
When we arrived at the hotel, we passed the front entrance and instead pulled around back, where employees came out, also in “big white” regalia, to take our luggage inside. We then got off, walked in through narrow doors and around a corner into the lobby. The lights were very low and makeshift barriers were placed so no one could go toward the front. The small group of us arrivals were kept spaced apart while each checked in and were then escorted to our rooms. I stepped out of the elevator to find, again, the lights low, but also the hallway walls and floors covered in plastic sheeting, with parquet flooring arranged down the center. I paused for a second at my door, knowing once I stepped over the threshold, it’d be 10 days before I could exit.
Although being confined to a single room for 10 days is difficult no matter what, to be honest, my quarantine experience was rather pedestrian. I had done 16 days before – 13 over two stays in Taipei and 3 in Tokyo – and I understood it was important to be mentally prepared for extended isolation. The key for me was a plan to stay busy, remain connected to friends and colleagues back home and in China, and be ready for regular Covid-19 tests and the other procedures that are part of the process. Yet despite having a plan, I still had to keep at bay my fear of testing positive or something else going wrong.
Compared to most, I had it very good. My room was spacious, with contemporary furnishings, a king bed with a soft comforter and sheets, a large bathroom with a separate shower and tub. There was a kettle, two dozen bottles of water, and a sizeable mini-fridge. The TV had a full slate of domestic channels and plenty of international choices. And even when CNN showed stories on sensitive topics related to China, the screen did not go black as I recall it doing in the past. My internet connection was strong, and my various VPNs worked fine so I could connect globally. Perhaps most important of all, there was a huge window, facing east, so the sun kept the room well-lit. I had a direct view of Capital Airport’s Terminal 3, with its long orange curved roof and a turtle-shell-covered area sitting in front for the train shuttle and parking garage. Besides being able to watch the arriving and departing trains and cars, the flight path was a few hundred feet in front of me, and so I was able to watch the landing planes pass by my window. There seemed to be far fewer than usual, at least from abroad, as few if any were foreign airlines. I repeatedly wondered how those on board felt about arriving in Beijing.
The scheduling of my days revolved around regular Covid-19 tests and meals. I was tested in the early morning on days 1, 2, 3, 5, 7 and 10. A team of two "big whites" showed up at my door with a cart. They’d show me a bag with my name and ask me to verify it. They made some funny mistakes: Scoot, Scot, and worse. I had heard of others not getting their test results because of such mistakes, but mine all came through. They’d ask me to lower my mask and then swabbed my throat. And then they went on to the next door.
One of the things I was unsure of what to expect was the quality of the food. It’s standard knowledge that quarantine hotel meals are not very good, and it’s unusual for hotels in China to allow you to order food for delivery. (In Taiwan, I ordered outside food from Subway and Pizza Hut via Uber Eats.) And plenty of people have tested positive after arrival or identified as a close contact, either of which could land you in a longer quarantine in your hotel or potentially transferred to a centralized quarantine facility, whose conditions appear dreadful from the look of things online. And so, I devoted one of my suitcases to extra food and supplies. I had ramen noodles, snack bars, vacuum-packed tuna, dried meals, beef jerky, candy, cups, coffee, tea, bowls, silverware, a small knife, a sponge, dishwash soap, etc. – essentially anything I might need to get by for several weeks. In the same vein, I also aimed to keep my cell phone and laptop fully charged just in case I got in a situation where I didn’t have way to charge them. Perhaps I was overly anxious, but that’s the mindset of someone in a situation defined by uncertainty.
Turns out, in my case, that I was overprepared. Meals arrived on a fixed schedule: breakfast at 8:00 am, lunch at 12:00 pm, and dinner at 6:00 pm. For the most part, they were quite good. I could not custom order off a menu, but what was delivered was usually well prepared and healthy. Breakfasts varied from eggs and bacon to Chinese fried dough and porridge. Lunch and dinner were all sorts of meats, noodles, vegetables, and soups, Chinese and Western. The only thing I brought that I had regularly was the coffee, as what they provided in the room wasn’t what I was used to. I rarely finished my meals. Since I was unsure if quarantine would go smoothly and whether I’d face additional restrictions later, I hoarded those parts of the meals that were easily storable in my fridge or the table – apples, yoghurt, fruit cups, cream, and chopsticks.
The hardest part of quarantining is the isolation for a continuous period of time with no let up. You’re essentially a prisoner with a fixed sentence, and you must figure out how to ignore that reality and pass the time. For some, that means a healthy combination of work and exercise. For me, I couldn’t get myself to consistently exercise, because it just felt too artificial. I had been running a lot on trails in the year prior to quarantine, and when in Taiwan in the spring, I had done loops between my hotel room door and window for 30-40 minutes a few times, but I could only bring myself to do that a single time when in Beijing. And although I received links to many Pilates videos, I wasn’t up for those either. Instead, I kept busy by working – catching up on writing, holding meetings with my team, and preparing for my time in China after I got out of quarantine. Since there was a 12-hour time-zone difference with my office in Washington, like many American East Coasters who travel to China, I found myself working for very long stretches at a time. The other way I passed the time was to putt; I brought my golf clubs with me because I wanted to see what playing golf in the “New Era” would be like. The room had a nice low carpet; it’d count as a slow green out on a course, but it totally served its purpose to help distract me from where I was and my job. I would never suggest this as a regular lifestyle or an intentional way to catch up, but it worked for me for those 10 days.
When we got to the final day, the testing crew came by even earlier than usual. And instead of just swabbing my mouth, they surprisingly asked me to open my door and step to the side, then one of them entered my room and took separate swabs of my bathroom sink, the toilet bowl, the dresser, my computer screen, the carpet, and my cell phone. I asked them if they thought I should be worried about those items coming up positive, and they answered “No, but we’re required to do it.” You can never be too sure!
I worked as usual for most of the day, then packed my bags in the remaining couple hours. I was scheduled to be released around 8:00 pm, 10 days to the minute when I checked in, but I got a slight reprieve of an hour. When it was time to leave, I actually hesitated and didn’t rush out. I was in a safe room with all of my stuff and no one else in there with me. Outside that door, who knows? But I did leave. I opened the door, went into the hall, and looked around without worry of someone seeing me standing where I shouldn’t be. A hotel porter came for my bags, and I went down the hall and to the lobby. I went through a normal check-out – as normal as possible with everyone else but me in “big whites.” I asked, “Do you all ever get confused about who is who?” And one replied, “yes,” and then turned their shoulder to show they had written a number on their uniform to identify themself.
When we were done, they helped me call a taxi, and brought me out through the back and then out front to meet it. We fit everything, including the clubs, in the sedan. I then was asked for the first of what would be hundreds if not thousands of times to scan my phone to show I had a “green code” on the Beijing HealthKit mini-app on WeChat and was still Covid-19 negative. After fumbling around, I figured it out, and I was indeed “green” and ready to go.
As we left and began the drive to downtown, I noticed cameras everywhere. I couldn’t decide if there were more than before, or if I was just looking for them. As we got closer to the city, I started noticing buildings, exits and bridge overpasses, and the city’s ring roads. Traffic became a little more congested, but nowhere near as bad as it was three years prior, before the pandemic. We pulled up to my hotel, one I had stayed at many times, and I had a sense of returning to a home away from home. After scanning my phone again to gain entry, I found the lobby brightly lit, not a “big white” suit to be seen, somewhat remodeled with new fixtures and colors, but very few guests, a situation that endured through most of my time there.
After going through a standard check-in – they needed to see all my codes again – I went up to my room, opened the door, and turned on the lights. I sat down at the desk chair and looked out through floor-to-ceiling window high in the sky and was awestruck by the brightly lit city, with cars making their way up and down the Third Ring Road. I was hit with a wave of anxiety. Washington, DC, is a tiny, quiet hamlet compared to the megalopolis that is Beijing, and I felt like a country bumpkin. It was over 160 days from when I first left my home in Falls Church, Virginia in the Spring to get to out of quarantine and to that room. As much as I had worried about quarantine, I now got to imagine what it’d be like to be out there amongst the cars, buses, bicycles, and pedestrians. And how it’d be to meet old friends, walk into government buildings, visit companies, give lectures, and go for lunches.
So, still nervous but now free, I put my room key and phone in my pockets, opened up the door, took a deep breath, and walked out.
Scott Kennedy is Senior Adviser and Trustee Chair in Chinese Business & Economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Related Trustee Chair Activity
Scott Kennedy, “A Complex Inheritance: Transitioning to a New Approach on China,” CSIS Commentary, January 19, 2021.
Scott Kennedy, “Bridging Differences with Friends on China,” CSIS Commentary, May 19, 2022.
Stephen J. Morrison, Yanzhong Huang, and Scott Kennedy, “China’s Zero Covid: What Should the West Do?” CSIS Commentary, June 27, 2022.
Scott Kennedy, “China’s Neighbors Are Navigating COVID-19, Beijing, and Washington,” Foreign Policy, September 13, 2022.