I was in Beijing at the beginning of March when I decided to treat myself to a trip, since everything was shut down because of coronavirus.
I was in Cambodia on Sunday, March 15, at 4 p.m. when the Beijing city government announced that as of midnight, everyone arriving in Beijing from overseas would be required to undergo a 14-day quarantine at a designated location (read: not home) at their own expense.
I was scheduled to fly back the day after, and I had questions. Would I really have to pay to stay in a hotel for two weeks? Should I cancel my flight and just stay in Cambodia? I was a Chinese national, not a foreigner — would that matter? And because my flight had a layover in Guangzhou, would that exempt me from Beijing’s quarantine policy?
I made a dozen calls to the immigration office, to Beijing Capital International Airport, and my airline, but got no answers. I asked the staff at Phnom Penh International Airport, but all they could do was show me this travel advisory they had been given four days earlier:
There was a possibility that I wouldn’t face hotel quarantine, according to that notice.
I decided to test my luck.
Twenty-four hours of uncertainty
I landed in Guangzhou on Monday, March 16, around 11 a.m. All passengers, around 300 of us, were sent to a roped-off area, where we were instructed to wait for a coronavirus test. There were no shops or restaurants. Four hours later, they swabbed my nose and throat, which was deeply uncomfortable. Then they released us. (My understanding is that the results take a few hours; since no one contacted me, I can only assume my result came back negative.)
While we were free to go, those of us with transfers had to change our flights, since airlines don’t usually set aside four hours for connections. We were given cards with numbers on them by an airline representative. My number was called about a couple hours later, at 6 p.m., at which point there were no more flights to Beijing. The earliest one I could take was the next morning.
After exiting through immigration, we were sent to another exclusive area and told to wait. This time there were more than 500 of us. The airport provided water and food, which tasted as you would expect free airport food to taste. I waited there overnight, 14 hours total, until it was time to board.
At 8 a.m. the next day, the airport staff escorted us to our gate. We were informed that a quarantine awaited us in Beijing, but where would we have to do it?
The answer: It’s home! Just kidding, it was a hotel
I landed at Beijing Capital International Airport, Terminal 2, and walked right out. From plane to exit, it took 10 minutes. I hopped on an empty Airport Express train and got off at my destination 25 minutes later.
When I got home at noon, I reported my return to my community on an app called Jīng Xīn Xiāngzhù 京心相助 (roughly translated as “People in Beijing look out for one another”). Two people came to my door an hour later and asked for details. They decided my situation was special since I arrived in Beijing via a domestic flight, and said they’d tell their higher-ups.
I was so happy and relaxed that I decided to take a nap. But at 5 p.m., a call jarred me from my slumber. It was someone from the neighborhood committee. I was informed that because I have roommates — two already finished their home quarantines, in fact — I would have to do my quarantine in a hotel after all.
“I haven’t worked in two months, I can’t afford it,” I protested.
“If you can find a place to stay by yourself, then self-quarantine is possible,” the guy said.
I asked how much time I had to find one. He said 20 minutes.
I called everyone I knew, and eventually did find an apartment vacated by my friend, who was in Thailand. I dialed the neighborhood committee guy to inform him.
“It’s too late,” he said apologetically. “People are already on their way to pick you up. Maybe you can talk to the people at the hotel about it.”
He arrived with five other people, who waited while I finished packing a suitcase. One middle-aged man wore a sorry look on his face, but I knew it wasn’t his fault, and there wasn’t much he could do to help me. He gave me 100 yuan ($14) for transportation, which was just his way of being nice — the hotel was within walking distance. The six accompanied me to the hotel, saying they’d been working the entire day. It was already dark by this point. I was the last assignment for one of the volunteers, who was eager to go home to celebrate his birthday with his family.
The only person at the hotel I could ask about my situation was a police officer, who said it wasn’t his business. The community workers who had escorted me said I really had no chance, I had to stay at this hotel.
Reception asked that I pay 6,000 yuan ($844) upfront. This was twice my monthly rent. I said I couldn’t afford it.
The community workers said that’s okay, they would wait for me until I could borrow some money from my friends and family. While this was happening, the birthday man threw one last hail mary for me, calling his supervisor to ask if I could do my quarantine at my friend’s empty apartment. Sadly, I could not, since my name wasn’t on the lease. It was sheer bureaucracy, but I believed them when they said there was nothing they could do.
With six community workers, one policeman, and two hotel staff waiting, I finally gave in and borrowed some money from my father via WeChat. No one forced me to do anything, but they didn’t seem like they were going to leave until I checked in. When I finally did, the six community workers cheerfully waved goodbye and promised to pick me up in 14 days.
My only friend
I’ve heard horror stories about hotel quarantines: no bottled water, poor food, unbearable loneliness. But with the right mindset, you can get through it. You have to focus on small delights.
A police officer next to the elevator told me to go straight to my room and don’t leave. If I wanted to order food, a robot would bring it to me.
A robot? Well, we just had to meet.
Food, by the way, is a separate charge, but I ordered something so I could see the robot. A little later, I was introduced to this guy, who most likely will be my only friend for the next two weeks:
Very cute, but a little creepy. “Of all the people I’ve seen in the universe, you are the cutest. Come take a selfie with me if you want,” it says every time it sees me. “Cheese!”
As you can see in the photo up top, I eventually gave in and took a selfie.
I’ve named him BJ-8, after BB-8 from Star Wars.
The robot is the only, um, person I see, but I should mention that I do have daily interactions with other humans. Twice a day, I have to take my temperature and report it via WeChat to one of the community workers. I use a thermometer given to me by hotel reception.
Other than leave the room, I can do whatever I want, including smoke (but secretly…don’t tell anyone). I read a lot, I work on my laptop, and watch Netflix. Also, I drink. My friends have ordered beers for me via delivery apps. (The delivery people drop off the drinks with BJ-8, who brings it up for me.) And that’s how my time passes.
On this, the sixth day of my quarantine, I find that I’m beginning to get used to it. If people ask me how I feel about this situation, I’d say the policy is acceptable, considering the seriousness of COVID-19. Of course, the execution could be improved. A bunch of people waiting at the airports, is that safe? Community workers given all this power, is that wise? The lack of a hotline to get reliable information, what’s up with that? What if someone really can’t afford the hotel quarantine? Who decides, in the end? I have a friend who did home quarantine for a week before someone from his community went and took him to a hotel. Hearing stories like this just makes me confused and annoyed.
Every day I see my robot friend BJ-8. Deep inside, I really hope one day he sends me a message from Obi-Wan Kenobi saying they’ve come to bust me out of here. Alas, BJ-8 only tells me is how cute I am, and I just know, really know, that all any of us can do is wait.