The World’s Longest Flight
During the COVID-19 Pandemic, every flight to China becomes the world’s longest flight, a minimum of 14.5 days in duration. Normally, every aisle at Osaka-Kansai (KIX) would be humming with activity and I would walk up to the counter and be off to security within 10 minutes. When I arrive to fly to Beijing (via Nanjing), there is only a single flight checking in: Juneyao Airlines A320 service to Nanjing. The check-in line wraps around the entire aisle and into the adjacent aisle. As each passenger comes up to enter the check-in area, staff check the stack of documents now required to take an international flight. In my case (and for many others), I don’t have enough copies of some document that was desired and must retreat downstairs to 7-11 to make copies. After finally checking in (a much longer than usual process), China Customs QR codes needed to be generated via WeChat. Maybe 90 minutes after arriving at KIX, I am finally ready to go through security and immigration. I say goodbye and was off to the unknown.
In the before times, KIX hosted dozens of international flights each hour, as well as flights to every major (and some minor) city in China. But now, there are 2 or 3 international flights each day out of KIX. The terminal abandoned, most of the businesses shuttered, and the lounges closed down. For someone who had taken one or two international flights each month out of Kansai, it is a sad sight to behold.
Boarding the flight, it finally starts to dawn on me that yes, I’m really headed into China during the pandemic. While China is far safer than pretty much anywhere else in the world, it has come at a very high cost to China’s relations to the rest of the world. Families, businesses, and critical connections have been severed. While Chinese citizens themselves are able to travel in and out with relative ease (if they are able to accept 14 days of quarantine), foreigners require special invitation letters issued by the relevant Province’s Foreign Affairs Office, a lengthy and expensive process. Staff inside Kansai Airport are dressed in normal clothing with regular surgical masks. On board, every single flight attendant, security person, and other employee is dressed in a full head to toe white biohazard suit. As I’m soon to learn, every single person that I encounter in the following 14 days will be similarly dressed. We are dirty, exposed to the world outside of China.
After landing at Nanjing airport, the real fun begins. Before COVID, I had managed to make it from wheels down, through immigration, and all the way to the curb in 35 minutes at Nantong International. Now, one disembarks into another empty terminal. Instead of moving walkways to immigration, there is a long row of desks with computers and white-suited staff. I scan my entry QR code, hand them my negative COVID-19 test, and am interviewed for the 4th time that day about my travel history and health status. After being cleared at the first table, I walk towards Immigration. Just before reaching immigration, there are white pop-up tents and bio-isolation pods scattered throughout the terminal. Arriving from Japan, all of this looked quite shocking, but I would come to find that in China, there’s an endless stream of white tents, fully-covered white-suited CDC staff, and isolation areas at every train station, airport, and major destination. I am again interviewed about my health condition (fever, cough, exposure to virus, etc etc etc) and then led to a small room and swabbed (throat) for another COVID test.
Immigration itself was surprisingly unchanged, a bit more caution and a few more questions. Customs is essentially abandoned, your illicit cargo may enter, so long as you leave out the virus. After making my way past Customs with my bags, I enter the waiting area where the public would normally wait for their traveling friends and relatives. The whole area is surrounded by tall blue metal fencing. Just before the exit, there is a desk with two more white-suited staff with sharpie marks sloppily across their white PPE: “POLICE.” They simply take my passport, ask where I will be headed after quarantine (Beijing), register my stay in a quarantine hotel, and tell me to continue walking. At the airport exit, I load my luggage and then shuffle myself onto a large bus. The driver is again clad head-to-toe in a white biohazard suit with a piece of clear plastic between him and us. We drive for about 45 minutes south of Nanjing airport until the bus stops outside of a hotel in Lishui District, far south of the main city of Nanjing. Thus, my journey to Beijing is approximately 6 hours down, 14 days to go. A journey that previously took 2.5 hours.
On arriving at the quarantine hotel, I am asked to pay. I am lucky that the hotel takes credit card, because I don’t have enough Chinese currency to pay for the hotel stay and do not yet have WeChat Pay. The room is fine, a sort of typical Chinese business hotel setup. There is a huge package of bottled water ready for me, and I fall asleep almost immediately. The next morning, I start to learn my new routine. After