As COVID-19 continues to claim the lives, health and jobs of people around the world, those of us remaining in China since the border closures have stayed relatively insulated from the worst of the fallout. However, many people who would normally have enjoyed some international travel with trips home and to possibly slightly drier climes over summer have instead turned to exploring China over recent months. I recently returned from a month-long bike trip cycling from the capital of Gansu province (Lanzhou) to the capital of Qinghai province (Xining). As a relatively seasoned China traveller and Chinese speaker I was expecting the trip to be as smooth and enjoyable as all my previous explorations – however, the impact of COVID-prevention strategies has definitely reached the travel sector within China and led to some unexpected bumps in the road.
With the upcoming October national holiday many of you will be thinking about traveling, maybe within Yunnan or maybe a bit further afield within China – if so, read on for handy tips on how to make your life that little bit easier as a foreigner in the time of COVID-19.
Preparing for travel!
The vast majority of people you will encounter on your travels have no idea the Chinese border closed to foreigners back in March, this extends to travel officials, police as well as the common person. What they all do know, however is that COVID-19 is raging out of control in other countries. The situation in Europe, the Americas and India is understood by most people I talked to as being "very serious". Understandably Chinese people are concerned that you have recently arrived in China from overseas and are therefore high-risk. To make everyone's life more comfortable it is a good idea to get a COVID-19 test done just before you travel so you can show your results to officials and hotel staff as needed. But, be prepared to face a touch more wariness than you are used to.
A bit of mental preparation goes a long way. The vast majority of hotels are closed to foreign guests now. Steeling yourself for rejection ahead of time will save you some heartache as you are turned away from the 7th hotel in a row. If possible, arrange your accommodation ahead of time and call to double check that you will be allowed to stay there before you arrive.
Allow a bit of extra time at train and bus stations. Each province has its own "Health Code" that you can scan with your phone. The QR codes for these are provided at entry and exit points of train and bus stations. Be prepared for the extra time it may take to fill in the information, if this is even possible – the health code for Gansu province only allowed for Chinese ID cards so it wasn't accessible for foreigners, although you could fill in a paper declaration – again, allow more time. Also, as a foreigner at train stations you may be required to complete an extra layer of registration detailing your travel plans and where you have been in recent months. The length of time this takes varies from 30 minutes or so to less than 5 minutes depending on how cautious the staff are.
If you can speak Chinese this process will be a lot smoother, the staff are unfailingly polite and helpful regardless. The checks don't stop here though - on the train from Kunming to Lanzhou and then again from Xining to Kunming I was approached by staff multiple times with additional registration needs and questions regarding my recent travels. The COVID-19 test came in very handy on these occasions as did knowing where my most recent entry stamp was in my passport.
To be honest I found all these extra checks and caution a bit stressful but they're nothing personal – China has dealt with COVID-19 strictly across the board.
Gansu is one of the poorer and less economically developed provinces of China, resting near the bigger Sichuan and Qinghai provinces it is often overlooked as a destination in itself. However, Gansu is a stunningly beautiful province filled with history from the route of the ancient silk road to the ruins of the Great Wall. The biggest draw for me was the chance to see the Zhangye Danxia Geopark, a national park with the most amazing and beautiful stone formations I've ever come across. Clear days in the morning and evening are the best time to visit so you can get the effects of the sun bringing the colors out.
For the history lovers the ruins of the Great Wall that lay scattered throughout the province as well as the restored fort and walls of Jiayuguan City are unmissable. Finally, to the north of the province are the stunning dunes of Dunhuang and the tourist draw of the UNESCO World Heritage Moguo Caves which span 1000 years of Buddhist history. To be honest I skipped both Jiayuguan fort and the Moguo Caves though, as even with COVID-19 reducing visitor numbers the places were too crowded for me on my cycling trip to escape people!
Cycling through Gansu provided a few unforgettable experiences, some good some bad. The one that put the biggest smile on my face happened as I was battling my way to the top of a 60km-long slope over a 4000m pass with a gale of a headwind making my life an utter misery. Just as I was taking a break (both from cycling and cursing headwinds and slopes) a small car pulled up next to me, a Chinese woman jumped out and ran over to me shouting "It's you!". Needless to say, I was a bit surprised as I don't know anyone in Gansu province, but I agreed, yes, I definitely am me. Anyway, as it turned out this lady was also a keen cyclist. For the past 100km or so I had been generating quite a lot of gossip from people noticing the lone foreigner cycling with a tent on her bike and the lady's friends had been telling her about me. As Gansu only has one major road in that area, that morning she decided to set out and "find the lady cyclist". Her enthusiasm and support put a huge smile on my face and, while I was sad I couldn't get a lift to the top of the pass as my bike was too big to fit in her little car, I was very pleased she'd made the effort to come out and say hi.
Qinghai is a huge province, relatively empty of life, human or otherwise, as it is mostly located on a 4000m high plateau. The most famous place is the salt-water Qinghai Lake which is a big draw for tourists as well as cyclists, although the most notable feature of the lake for me was the sheer number of yaks around, more than I'd ever come across in one place before.
Qinghai is home to wild camels and horses and amazing grasslands as well as Tibetan and Mongolian nomads herding huge flocks of sheep and herds of yak. In addition to these wonderful sights Qinghai is also home to intense storms that dump huge volumes of water in a short time. This is something I discovered first hand one night as I set my little tent up only to be woken by deafening thunder, rain and blinding lightening a couple of hours later with my tent and sleeping mat underwater as my campsite became a stream. Happily, despite a cold, damp and miserable night, at that altitude the sun is intense and everything dried out pretty fast the next day.
Overall, the trip was definitely worth it, the additional layer of concern and wariness from some Chinese people I encountered made me a bit sad but, on the whole, it was an understandable reaction to a scary situation. Also, it was by no means the common response to a foreigner – the vast majority of people I met were as welcoming and friendly as usual, COVID or no COVID.
The issue of finding accommodation was easily the most trying to my patience as hotel websites don't always state whether they can or can't accept foreign guests.
The big take away from this trip? Travel with more patience than you would normally pack!
Editor's note: Article author Rachel Hemingway has been working internationally for 16 years focusing on the interactions between environmental policy, conservation and poverty alleviation. She is currently based in Kunming, where she studies Chinese.© Copyright 2005-2021 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.