Our extraordinary journey during the COVID-19 outbreak (across 5 countries and 12 cities)

Picture this – we leave for a fun 12 day European vacation all geared with winter wear ready to (em)brace the 3 degrees celsius weather, and 45 days later… are still on the road, and getting hotter – literally and figuratively! It has been a rather long and tiring journey, meandering across 5 countries and 12 cities on road, rail and flights to finally make it back to home base in Guangzhou, China – what an experience COVID-19 has wrought on us!

Our CNY holiday begins
Our CNY holiday begins

We are a family of 4 living in Guangzhou, China since 2017 – It is a wonderful city that we absolutely love. We have used our time in China to visit various stunning tourist destinations and enjoyed the nature, culture and food here.

Given that the Lunar New Year Holiday is quite a big celebration in China, with schools & offices being shut for about 10 days, and the fact that we had our 19th wedding anniversary coming up, we wanted to do something special. We had originally planned to fly to Chongqing from Guangzhou and then go for a 3 night-4 day Yangtze river cruise to Yichang, a city near Wuhan. Our 2 cabins were reserved, pending final payment. However, at the last minute some intuition kicked in, which made us decide against this travel within China. I suppose somewhere at the backs of our minds, the murmurings on WeChat about the pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan was making us steer clear of that area. Plus the thought of being caught in what is the largest human migration in the world with locals traveling during the CNY holidays was a bit overwhelming.

Incidentally, a week before we confirmed our holiday plans, we were invited for dinner by our friend who works in the French Consulate in Guangzhou. Over dinner we exchanged our potential CNY holiday plans, and given the kids had not been to France, he suggested we go to Paris during CNY. Since the kids and I needed to get our Schengen visas, our consulate friend offered to assist us. I got all the necessary paperwork organised for the visa formalities and we managed to get our visas in record time. Now our trip to France seemed like a possibility and we started to quickly gear up, as time was short.      

Our flights and accommodations were booked last minute for the trip from 21st January to 2nd February, and we were headed to France, Spain and Portugal over the course of the 12 days. We flew China Southern Airlines and landed in freezing Paris on the morning of the 22nd of February. During the course of our travels across Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, Salamanca etc. we were watching the news about the spread of COVID-19. We were not exactly sure how deep and wide this virus was spreading, so we continued our journey, eating & drinking across Europe, all the way to the gorgeous Douro Valley in Portugal, which is famous for its Port wine. While we were in Segovia, Spain we started to get a little worried as the number of cases being reported were on the rise. One of the things we did was to quickly check if the flight we took from Guangzhou had any infected COVID-19 passengers, luckily there were no cases reported on our flight, which was such a big relief. In some of the touristy places we saw Chinese tourists in large groups, some of them were wearing masks, which made us take some initial precautions on our side as well. We started carrying masks and hand sanitisers and made sure we kept washing our hands frequently.

En route to Paris from Madrid, we received an email from the kids' school stating that the school was asked to shut for an extra week and suggested parents not travel back. Our office too suggested extending the CNY holidays by an additional week.

At the Eiffel Tower
At the Eiffel Tower

When we first realised that we had to extend our stay, there was some excitement on the prospect of a prolonged holiday in Europe. We planned what to do with the extra days and were quite positive – that didn’t last long though as soon we realised the challenge – especially when all the additional expenses started to add up and hit us hard.  First, was to get an extension on the flight, which of course cost a lot of money. Second, was to find a confirmed seat on the 9th February for the four of us and third, to find a suitable accommodation for an extra week of stay in Paris. We reached Gare Du Lyon at night via train and checked in to the Marriott for a 3-night stay. We decided to move from the hotel to an AirBnB apartment to feel more like home.

By then, the school had launched an e-learning program for the kids, just to get them up to speed with school work etc. It wasn’t easy due to the time difference and the fact that the kids did not have books, their own laptop etc. Although I must say that my kids really stepped up their game and diligently started their e-learning, participating in school related activities and submitting homework online.  

During the week of 3rd February, many airlines had also started cancelling their flights back to China. Moreover, there was no clear directive provided by China Southern Airlines city office in Paris regarding the possibility of flights being cancelled, which was quite frustrating for us. Air France too had already suspended all flights and our options to fly back to Guangzhou in this unusual and uncertain period were rather limited. So finally, we decided not to risk traveling and cancelled our return flight. We were lucky to be away from China but worried at the same time as news of virus-related deaths started to spike and we were not sure if we should go back or stay longer. 

It was during this crazy week, that one of our friends in Amsterdam messaged me to say that he was tracking our Facebook updates on our travel and given what was happening in China, asked us to come and stay with him for a few days and then figure out the next steps of our journey back to Guangzhou.  We decided to take him up on the offer, and booked a one-way non-refundable train ticket from Paris to Rotterdam on February 9th. All was as per plan, when suddenly we got the news that the monster typhoon Ciara was making landfall mid-afternoon in Amsterdam via UK on the same day we were meant to travel. I kept awake throughout the 8th night keeping track of the updates regarding our train journey, as I had not informed my wife and kids about the typhoon and that our train could get potentially cancelled. On the other hand, we had to vacate our AirBnB apartment the next morning. With all these things going on, it was hard to sleep. Thankfully, our train left on time (all trains after ours were cancelled and ours was literally the last train to leave that day for Amsterdam). But the drama was not over. The journey from Paris to Rotterdam that usually takes around 2.5 hours, took us more than 5.5 hours due to heavy winds and rain etc. One of the trains ahead of us actually got derailed from the tracks due to the heavy winds! We were really lucky to make it to Rotterdam and then via road to our friends’ home in Leiden on a rather wet, windy and freezing cold night. 

While we were in Holland, work had resumed in Asia. This had my wife and I having to take con-calls at all odd hours since Holland is 7 hours behind the China time zone. This was clearly not going to be very sustainable for us so we decided to make our way to Singapore, to at least be in the same time zone as China. Our friends in Singapore, who are like family to us, invited us to stay with them, which gave us a sense of comfort, while we were figuring out our journey back. 

We landed in Singapore on Valentine’s Day (14th February), via Dubai on an Emirates flight with our 4 suitcases full of winter wear. Over the next few days, we had to acclimatise ourselves to a new time zone and to the warm and humid weather after the cold European sojourn.

The kids were continuing their e-learning, and since my wife is part of the leadership team, her office was requesting her to come back to Guangzhou as soon as possible. She decided to fly back alone on Singapore Airlines, which was quite brave of her. During this period the kids’ school, based on directives from the Guangdong education bureau, kept changing the re-opening date. So after staying 2 extra weeks in Singapore, the kids and I flew back to Guangzhou on Singapore Airlines on the 6th of March. We had picked this date as the kids’ school reopening date was 16th March, so 10 days seemed like a reasonable period to get adjusted to a new lifestyle. However with the recent directive, the schools now remain indefinitely shut, although e-learning continues.

Back home in Guangzhou
Back home in Guangzhou

Our flight was uneventful. We wore masks and diligently followed all the rules. It took us 30 minutes to de-plane. The health quarantine line was extremely long and the entire immigration process took more than an hour as we were quizzed about all our travel for the last 2 weeks. Luckily we were in Singapore, which was a safe zone at that time, so we were allowed to enter China. After repeated temperature screenings, we made our way to the baggage area, where we were once again checked for temperature prior to exiting the airport. Our ride was waiting for us and once we reached home, our temperatures were once again recorded. We did a jig of joy, which did not last long as our building management called and asked us to ‘self-quarantine’ for 14 days, else we would be reported to local authorities and asked to move to a government quarantine facility if we didn’t comply. At that point, self-quarantine was not actually required since we flew from Singapore, and did not have any symptoms, so we managed to get the building management’s official approval to not self-quarantine. We realise that we were lucky, given that self-quarantine regulations now keep changing every day here in Guangzhou and things are a lot more strict, as foreigners are making their way back to China. 

Temperature screening at our apartment entrance
Temperature screening at our apartment entrance

We’ve been here for more than a week now and adjusted to the “New Normal”. Most offices and restaurants have reopened, but there are strict temperature screenings done everywhere and you have to wear a mask in public, else you can face severe consequences such as getting arrested, jailed or deported. I would like to like to say that I feel very safe in China, as they have put such strong measures in place to prevent further contagion spread, thus there is no visible panic. 

It has been a rather long journey of about 50 odd days, across 5 countries and 12+ cities. We have learnt a lot during this period of uncertainty. We learnt that there is such a concept as “too much of a good thing”, as our so called vacation seemed never-ending. We have learnt that less is more, that we can survive with limited things (the stuff in those 4 suitcases served us faithfully for the entire trip). We really learnt how to appreciate simple things – like a simple home cooked meal, a walk in the park and even the leisure time we spend together. We have become more resilient and flexible, also more compassionate and learnt to not take life and things for granted. We have learned that a friend in need is a friend indeed and we will be forever grateful to all our friends who opened their hearts and homes for us and supported us in many different ways. Can’t thank them enough!

Lastly, I hope the rest of the world too takes necessary precautions and practices good hygiene. I also recommend you practice mindfulness to stay positive and calm. Make sure that you are providing kids with the necessary re-assurance in these extraordinary circumstances. Virus knows no boundaries or nationalities. Stop the blame-game. My heart goes out to all those nurses and medical practitioners who have worked tirelessly towards containing this virus. Be Compassionate. Be Safe. Be Positive!

The views expressed by the author in this article are personal and do not reflect those of Connected to India.