Journey Back to China: Testing, Quarantine Hotels, and More Testing. Oh My!

This summer I was very fortunate to be able to visit family back home for a whole month AND more importantly, successfully returned back to China. Going home this summer was definitely a risk considering the strict border policies that China has kept in place. Considering I hadn’t been home since March 2020, I weighed the risks and went for it! I had a great month back home spending time with family, having days of doing nothing in the crisp Colorado air, seeing my goddaughter baptized, spending 4th of July in Wyoming, and so much more. But in the back of my mind was always the stress of completing the journey back to China. The travel policies and regulations of China have been the strictest in the world starting at the end of March 2020 when they completely shut down the border to all non-citizens. In the past 2 years they have “loosened” them somewhat with lots of caveats of qualifying visas allowed, testing procedures/policies to be approved for entry, and variations of quarantine after arriving. No tourists have been allowed into China since March of 2020.

On my way to take my first PCR test in Dallas.

Keeping up, deciphering, and navigating the changing policies for returning to China felt like a full-time job. At times, especially near the end of my trip, it was hard to push away the stress that came with planning the trip back to China. I had booked a one-way ticket from China to Denver and was waiting to book my ticket once I got back to Colorado. I left Shanghai June 25th and then left the States on July 26th. I felt very lucky that the travel policies changed for the better on July 1st to make it “easier” to return. “Easier” certainly didn’t feel this way, but I still feel lucky.

Waiting for my second test in Dallas.

I was fortunate to find a WeChat (China’s communication platform) group with hundreds of other people in my same situation and that had successfully completed their return to Shanghai or were on their way as well. It was so helpful to be in this community and hear others experiences and have questions answered.

The steps to return to China as an American citizen.

  1. Don’t get COVID (arguably the most challenging) or get it and recover before you fly back.
  2. Take a PCR test at a CLIA certified lab 48 hours before your flight.
  3. Take a PCR test at a CLIA certified lab 24 hours after your 1st test.
  4. Upload the results (of course both must be negative) and other documents (including appropriate working/residence visa) to a portal where the Chinese Consulate/Embassy of your second test location.
  5. Have extreme luck that your flight isn’t canceled (there is a “circuit break” rule so if an airlines flight path brings in too many cases, they cancel that path for 2 weeks).

While this looks like four simple steps, SO MUCH can go wrong in each step and the logistics of getting to each step successfully is a doozy. My flight was out of Dallas and I went there a few days before my flight to do all the testing there. Technically with the new policies that came out on July 1st, I could have done the testing in Denver at CLIA certified labs. Previously you could only test in the departure city of your direct flight to Shanghai. However, I wasn’t willing to risk my flight from Denver to Dallas being canceled. And the timing of the tests is so strict and critical to getting approval. Plenty of people have had their application denied and then forced to reschedule their flight.

Waiting to check in at the Dallas airport

My flight was on a Monday at 8am which means long I had my first test done at 10am on Saturday then second test done at 10:15am on Sunday. Once I received my second tests results on Sunday afternoon, I submitted all my documents and received the green code of approval an hour or so later. I was lucky as some people waited 4-6 hours for their approval code! I flew from Dallas to Korea, had a 2 hour stop in Korea where they changed pilots (no passengers left the plane) and then flew to Shanghai. Usually the flights are direct from Dallas to Shanghai, but to avoid pilots having to spend the night in China and do quarantine, they change the crew in Korea. It is technically not a “layover.”

Landing in Shanghai

After landing in Shanghai, we were systematically allowed off the plane in groups. I was in economy plus (it was cheaper than economy…don’t ask why. And “cheap” wast not cheap haha) so I was one of the first off the plane after first class.

Waiting in my district to be taken to the hotel.
  1. Fill out a QR code about our travels and scan it.
  2. Sign a paper consenting to a PCR test.
  3. Walk through the airport to the testing area and get tested.
  4. Go through customs/border control.
  5. Collect baggage.
  6. Fill out another app and get a QR code based on where you live in Shanghai.
  7. Go to your district area.
  8. Wait until your district is ready and starts collecting passports.
  9. Board a bus.
  10. Get taken to a hotel for quarantine (you aren’t told where you are going).
  11. Fill out another app and get a QR code at the hotel.
  12. Be taken to your room.
Navigating the stations at the airport

Enduring the hotel quarantine was the easy part of this whole ordeal. In 2020 I did a 14 day quarantine in a hotel, so I knew what to expect, and planned a lot more! I came prepared for the possibility that my hotel would not allow any deliveries and was lucky that they let non-perishable items in. In 2020, my hotel allowed freshly prepared meals in once a day which was really nice to have. The hotel food is not edible to say the least, so I really carefully thought about what I would need for 10 days. It used to be 7 days in a hotel and 3 days at home, but when I came back the policies were strict and wanted all 10 days in the hotel. Here is a little of what I packed.

Having the spirulina and wheatgrass powder was to ensure I got some form of vegetables in. The smoothie squeeze packs and the chia seed packs were also some of the best things I brought! For non-related food items, I brought a foldable yoga mat, jump rope, painting materials, essential oil diffuser, pillow case, dishwashing soap, plastic bowl, scissors, sponge, thermos, cleaning wipes. The hotel fortunately allowed my order of apples, some instant noodle, peanut butter, and bread in as they were wrapped in plastic containers. They didn’t allow other orders in, very particular (no broccoli for me…I was going to steam it in my water heater). They also allowed my orders of huge containers of water in. Other hotels didn’t allow water to be delivered and instead people had to purchase small bottles of water from the hotel!

On the bus to my quarantine hotel

After recovering from jet lag and also catching up on sleep, the days in the hotel were rather under-stimulating and long. I felt lucky that my hotel was decent and twice the size of my hotel in 2020 which gave me more space. It was a Crown Plaza that had been converted to a quarantine hotel.

My home for 10 days. Not bad!
Walking/jogging in circles, in place, and backwards to get steps.

How a typical day went/I filled my time:

  1. Wake-up between 6-7am.
  2. Breakfast is delivered outside my door (I only ate the hard-boiled egg or saved it in my fridge).
  3. Had a nice powdered chai
  4. They came for a PCR test via my mouth and took my temperature (fortunately not the test in the nose).
  5. I ran around my room like a crazy person to get at least 10,000 steps in a day.
  6. Prepare snacks and wash my bowl.
  7. Watch movies while walking in place.
  8. Do art projects.
  9. Take a nap.
  10. Jump rope or do an online exercise workout.
  11. Another temperature check.
  12. Prepare instant noodles for dinners/lunches.
Retrieving a meal outside my door.
Not reflective of delicious Chinese food. It was not edible.

The food was REALLY bad. I love love Chinese food and couldn’t stomach anything except the rice occasionally and hard-boiled eggs. I saved the eggs and would chop it up with my spoon and mix with mustard to put in a tortilla. Another creative meal was using the rice they gave me and seaweed I brought to make little “sushi” rolls. I eventually wrote the hotel a note that said not to bring me food.

Typically I tested everyday.
The paintings I finished.

On one of the last days of my stay, they came into my room and swabbed my phone, door handle, and my personal items to test as well. On the 10th day at exactly 7pm (I arrived at the hotel at 7pm my first day) they checked me out of the hotel and I was picked up by my boyfriend and a delicious cheeseburger!

Checking out after 10 long days!
10 days and out!

Experiencing a hotel quarantine is not for the weak. It is mentally challenging and not having access to everyday things while being trapped in a room is not easy. Yes I did a “home quarantine” for several months in the Spring, but I was in the comfort of my home. Was it worth it? Yes, given that I am back to my life as “usual” here. This was not a “once in a lifetime experience” as I’ve now done it twice! I hope there won’t be a third one, but if a third one is required to see my family, it’s a small price to pay.

What helped me the most was remember how fortunate I was even in such a ridiculous situation! So, that’s a little snapshot about what the craziest travel experience I have had (so far).

Another highlight of this time was finishing my masters degree (in early childhood education) and certificate in pedagogy! Woohoo! I am now fully in the new school year and teaching grade 2. I was able to move up a grade level with my students from last year! That’s all for now.

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