I travelled to Wuhan after the Covid-19 pandemic. This is what it was like

The city of Wuhan with the imposing presence of River Yangtze in its middle was nothing but a bustling and buzzing megapolis, a stark contrast from the sombre visuals of a necropolis I watched in February.

 |  11-minute read |   07-09-2020
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It was the viral video of the bacchanal beach party that caught my attention to bring Wuhan up in my immediate travel bucket list. As the videos of the DJ-induced pool party at the city’s Maya Beach Resort went viral on social media in no time, I was well-convinced to choose the first epicentre of novel coronavirus as my next travel destination. Of course, the cheap air tickets and ridiculously low hotel rates across China played a catalytic role in my sojourn schedule. Some last-minute checking of the ground situation of Covid-19 and the invaluable assurance from my acquaintances in Wuhan about the city no longer requiring outsiders for any quarantine, compelled me to finalise the booking and I was set for one of the most memorable trips of my life.

A two-hour-long flight from Beijing’s recently-built Daxing Airport, one of the ubiquitous Zaha Hadid-designed landmarks in the capital, landed me in the provincial capital of Central China’s Hubei. Not so surprisingly, I was the only laowai (a casually-used informal slang for foreigners in China) inside the packed aircraft. Interestingly, just before the landing, an air hostess informed me that I would be the first person to disembark the aircraft. Honestly speaking, I have never experienced such a privilege or haven’t seen any non-diplomatic passport holder getting such preferential treatment in the socialist country. That generated some sort of curiosity in my mind. I had butterflies in my stomach as the aircraft was taxiing towards the aerobridge after a smooth landing at Tianhe International Airport. Stray thoughts and terse tension were grappling with my mind and soul. Will I be detained for daring to go for disaster tourism or will I be sent packing home by the next available flight for trying to venture into a forbidden city? What if they politely refused me to enter an out-of-bounds city or sent me for a 14-day institutionalised quarantine, spoiling my itinerary? In China, laws and regulations are predominantly invisible and incomprehensible. Mostly, you remain unaware until and unless they catch up with you. 

Soon the aircraft came to a stationary position and the aerobridge was coupled with it. I was immediately escorted by the cabin crew to the exit door and as I stepped outside the aircraft, one of the ground staff received me with a piece of paper, where I found my name, passport number and the country of origin printed. Of course, it was about me and nobody else. But soon the affable English-speaking lady cleared the air and asked me to sign a declaration form stating that I haven’t returned to China from abroad in the past 30 days. Once I completed the minor few-second-long formalities, I was a free bird. More precisely, borrowing the English title of the popular Tagore poem in China, I was a stray bird. 

Quite interestingly, I spotted an interesting, as well as baffling, difference in the modus operandi of handling passengers at the top-class, state-of-the-art Tianhe Airport. It was quite stark a contrast with all the big and small or remotely-located nondescript airports I have landed in or taken flights from, from different parts of the world. There was literally no barrier between the arriving passengers and departing ones unlike most of the airports all over the world. Even in some of the smallest or remotest airports like the two-room Lio Airport in El Nido, Palawan, in the Philippines, or the out-of-nowhere Connellan Airport, also known as Ayers Rock Airport in Yulara, near Uluru, in the middle of the vast and arid Australian outback, I found proper segregation between the arriving tourists and the departing ones.

Once you disembark the aircraft through the aerobridge at Tianhe Airport, you will find yourself surrounded by the travellers waiting for their respective flights at the same boarding gate. There was neither a different designated floor to separate the two kinds of passengers, nor any separate channel or barrier to segregate the way most of the airports all over the world do. I am sure this might have spread the contagion more virulently among the travellers arriving in Wuhan during the intensifying incubating days before the decisive January 23 lockdown.

However, at the exit, after passing through the thermal scanners, I stumbled upon the mandatory Covid-19 era practice of declaring my health status by scanning a QR code, pasted all over the place with different banners, festoons and posters of all shapes and sizes. Surprisingly, even though I tried both the available options of scanning through WeChat and Alipay, I couldn’t register myself with the Wuhan health code app as it only accepted a Chinese National ID, which a foreigner can never have. That was quite a setback for me as I was able to generate my safe green codes using my passport with different health code apps in Beijing, Guangzhou, Zhuhai over the past few weeks. But it wasn’t as serious as I thought, as the security personnel at the exit gate allowed me to go outside by showing her my passport and also my green status in the Beijing Health Code.

A few seconds later, I had another minor hiccup as my efforts to call a cab through Didi, an app-based transportation service, went in vain as I failed to generate the compulsory Wuhan health code as the health registration window clearly stated that only Chinese National ID holders can register. Notably, I could use the same Didi app in other cities in China, including Beijing, Guangzhou, Zhuhai and Hangzhou, before and after visiting the original Ground Zero of Covid-19.

Nonetheless, I was able to get into a metered taxi at the airport without breaking a sweat. That marked the beginning of my joy ride in the city that once generated horror across the globe in the first quarter of the real “annus horribilis”. Historically, the megapolis of Wuhan comprises three erstwhile standalone Chinese cities – Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang. And yes, I was well-aware of the fact that I wasn’t visiting Aleppo or Chernobyl and had no misconstrued idea about Wuhan. But it was more of a surprise for me to see the wide roads and innumerable spiralling flyovers with well-designed sound barriers, passing through a jungle of sky-kissing residential condos and glitzy skyscrapers. Yes, it was an eye-opening sight of a modern-day metropolis. In fact, the number of highrises on my way to the hotel in Wuchang were substantially and significantly more than the number of such tall edifices I regularly pass by in Beijing. The city of Wuhan with the imposing presence of River Yangtze in its middle was nothing but a bustling and buzzing megapolis, a stark contrast from the sombre visuals of a necropolis I watched in February on broadcast media as well as social media.

Once I reached the hotel, I realised there was hardly any physical health checking, social distancing or any extraordinary Covid-19-related measures except an automatic thermal scanner installed at the entrance of the lobby. Only the hotel staff were wearing face masks. Otherwise, everything else was like the way the hospitality industry worked before the pandemic. 

main_wuhan-yangtze-r_090720125441.jpgThe historic first bridge — a double-decker one connecting Wuchang and Hankou in the heart of Wuhan — on the Yangtze. (Photo: Getty Images)

The next 72 hours I spent in Central China city was nothing but a revelation. Wuhan’s famous breakfast tradition of guo zao (having breakfast outside) is back in almost every nook and cranny of the city, a prominent entity in the gourmet map of China. The city’s signature delicacies like re gan mian (hot and dry noodles), Mianyang three steamed dishes, si jimei steamed buns and the fabled steamed Wuchang Fish (once immortalised in a Chairman Mao poem), were delectably back on the platters, served by the reopened Wuhan restaurants.

Notably, a significant addition to the pre-Covid-19 days of dining in the city has been an extra pair of chopsticks served to each customer in any eatery. It’s quite a noticeable change as the age-old Chinese tradition of plucking food portions from the common serving bowls or pots with the pair of chopsticks one tucks into the mouth to consume food posed a serious hygiene issue and a grave threat of spreading the contagion. Another important addition to the post-pandemic food & beverage sector in Wuhan has been the newly implemented non-contact ordering in predominantly every small and big restaurant or drinking hole in the city. The QR code-scanning-enabled ordering from the e-menu has been in vogue in the city that suffered the worst novel coronavirus causality in China till date.

Even public life seemed to be back on track when I went to see some of the most prominent tourist sites in Wuhan. The iconic Yellow Crane Tower, which is syzygy with the historic first bridge — a double-decker one connecting Wuchang and Hankou in the heart of Wuhan — on the Yangtze, was busy with a steady flow of visitors. The timeless tower that has been the prime symbol of the city for centuries and has been erected more than 10 times since being grounded time and again, had all its nine floors overwhelmed with visitors, many of whom weren’t even bothered to wear facemasks. Interestingly, the local tourism authorities have completely waived off the entrance fee at all the sightseeing spots in Wuhan to boost tourism in the post-pandemic days.

The Yellow Crane Tower was no exception, and a visitor required an online pre-registration for free entry e-tickets. Unaware of the whole procedure and without having the mandatory Wuhan health code, I was initially stopped at the gate but the security personnel were kind enough to understand my inability to follow those customary steps as a foreigner. Nonetheless, it wasn’t bad to be the odd one out in a sea of Chinese tourists. Although Meiling, the famed retreat of Chairman Mao on the bank of the city’s picturesque East Lake, was out of bounds for me, I could roam around in other parts of the sylvan surroundings of the massive water body — possibly the largest in the world inside a city — and bump into thousands of carefree revellers, including walkers, cyclists, skateboarders, picnic-goers, tourists from other parts of Hubei and China, and, more importantly, lovebirds. 

main_yellow-crane-to_090720124729.jpegThe iconic Yellow Crane Tower in Wuhan, China. (Photo: Reuters)

Yes, love was in the air as my visit to Wuhan coincided with Qixi — the Chinese Valentine’s Day. The whole city was decked up with flowers, posters and banners of special promotions. Its imposing highrises, located on both sides of the Yangtze, were illuminated with the love messages on LED or neon signs. It’s an exceptional year of loss and longing for the 11 million residents of a city that was under cordon sanitaire for 76 long days, separating families and loved ones, and many losing their near and dear ones. The festival of love came a few months after the zero-infection declaration by the local apparatchiks as they lifted the stringent yet effective lockdown in April and subsequently, the whole city of Wuhan underwent a massive nucleic acid testing in May-June. Thus, the frolicking families in fully-booked restaurants, high-spirited millennials in overcrowded bars, cosy couples in a staycation in some of the city’s plush hotels and swish spas, and lip-locked lovebirds in passion-packed parties on the night of Qixi understandably symbolised the spirit of Wuhan’s revival and resurrection.

main_wuhan-yangtze-f_090720125248.jpegWuhan's imposing highrises, located on both sides of Yangtze. (Photo: Reuters)

I could very well perceive that normalcy had been remarkably restored in a large part of the city. High-speed trains are whizzing towards all directions from the centrally located city, both long-distance and local buses are plying and the city’s Brobdingnagian web of Wuhan’s subway network is very much up and running. You can spot some children whooshing by on their scooters, an old man on the street trudging past the traffic signal with a rolled-up T-shirt over his bare midriff (known as ‘Beijing bikini’) and a uniformed delivery man zipping through the footpaths in a tearing hurry and with Valentino Rossi-like bike manoeuvring skills. Masks are not mandatory to use in the outdoors but it’s still costume de rigueur across the original epicentre of the novel coronavirus.

Nevertheless, the city seems to have moved on, leaving behind its precarious past, and, at a time when the rest of the world is still reeling under the pathogenic pandemic. Earlier, when I was leaving for Wuhan, I faced the repeatedly-asked bamboozling question of “Why Wuhan?” But now I can confidently shoot back, “Why not Wuhan?” 

Also Read: Wuhan's forgotten India connections


Suvam Pal Suvam Pal @suvvz

The writer is a Beijing-based media professional, author and documentary filmmaker.

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