What flying home to India from China on a Vande Bharat Mission flight was like

My paranoia of not spending much time in transit in these turbulent times of a pandemic also prompted me to book my whole itinerary in such a way that I eventually had to change four flights in less than 24 hours to reach Kolkata from Beijing.

 |  11-minute read |   19-11-2020
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Of all places, Wuhan unwittingly marked an ironic as well as an abrupt end to my eventful Covid-19 chapter in China. A family emergency back home in India got my destiny prematurely evacuating me out of my comfort zone of almost five years. If the first four years of my professional stint in China were enthralling, educating, and enlightening, this annus horribilis has been a test of patience as well as perseverance. If the past four years in the heart of the Middle Kingdom gave me a chance to witness the intricacies of socialism with Chinese characteristics and the consolidation of the world’s second-largest economy, in the unforgettable year 2020 I first found myself entangled in the eye of a contagious storm before the land transformed into a haven as the whole world continues to grapple with the most devastating pandemic of the millennium.

Once I had to make the uncompromising “family first” choice, my only option to fly back to my homeland, under the Covid-19-forced international commercial flights embargo, was on one of the much-talked-about and sporadically scheduled Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) repatriation flights.

Repatriation VBM flights to China 

Right from its two successive humanitarian evacuations of panic-stricken Indian citizens in Wuhan and Hubei province in the early days of Covid-19-forced cordon sanitaire across China, and an unprecedented complete lockdown of over 50 million residents of the central China province, Air India has been operating a handful of repatriation flights to different Chinese cities since June 20 after China conditionally opened its air space to repatriation missions from Covid-19-hit India.

If the early Air India VBM flights to and from China saw a massive repatriation demand from stranded Indians (predominantly medical students due to the completion of their respective courses and many laid off or relocated expat Indian workers), there was a minimal number of outbound passengers from India to China on those VBM flights, since all kinds of non-diplomatic Chinese visas, including residence permits, Chinese green cards, business and student visas, were still considered null and void since the Chinese authorities implemented the visa cancellation norm for the expatriates, who were outside the mainland on or after March 28. Except for a handful of diplomats or their stranded family members back home, a slew of diplomatic passport-holders were allowed to take those Air India flights to China along with a handful of PU-letter holders (an invitation letter from China’s foreign affairs offices in different cities and provinces), the first few VBM flights returned to India, subsequently from Shanghai, Guangzhou, Ningbo, at full capacity and overbooked as well.

Unlike the free-of-cost February flights from Wuhan, the VBM did come with a slightly higher price tag than the erstwhile pre-Covid-19 era regular international flights to India, and I booked a seat (through the Indian Embassy in Beijing as per the primary requirement) in August to visit my family. However, a slew of professional commitments eventually prevented my departure as I had to cancel the ticket at the eleventh hour.

A couple of more Air India flights did fly to China and from China to India in September after the last-minute go-ahead from the Chinese authorities, but there was a paradigm shift. With the Chinese government abolishing its March 28 visa cancellation rule, a few thousand Indians (who were desperately wanting to return to a normalised China to re-join their respective jobs, resume business, or reunite with families, and had their visa validity restored) were vying (and sometimes, arm-twisting) for the limited number of seats on those VBM flights to China. The stranded Indians back home were leaving no stone unturned, reaching out to their government or diplomatic contacts or bombarding the Indian Embassy helpline mailbox with distress and desperate emails, demanding that elusive seat on a VBM flight to China.

main_yellow-crane-to_111920122957.jpegOf all places, Wuhan unwittingly marked an ironic as well as an abrupt end to my eventful Covid-19 chapter in China. (Photo of Yellow Crane Tower in Wuhan: Reuters)

Formalities before flying

On the other hand, the number of passengers travelling back to India from China, by then the safest place on earth with the Chinese economy and business remarkably bouncing around in the pandemic times, dropped significantly and substantially by September. However, the astronomically high numbers of Covid-19 cases in India and a few “imported” cases from the previous VBM flights to China resulted in the Chinese government shifting the airport of entry for the delayed October VBM flight to Wuhan — the epicentre that went on to become the centrepiece of the Chinese Covid-19 counter-propaganda with its sensational pool party in August after lifting the stringent 76-day lockdown in April.

Incidentally, the October 30 VBM was the first flight from India in more than a month, and the benevolent Indian Embassy ensured a seat for me for the second time in three months, with my immediate return to be with the family becoming imminent. I didn’t waste a minute to book the ticket through the Air India payment gateway even though the refund for my August flight was still pending (and I haven’t received it to date despite repeated emails, phone calls, and tweets). The next important task was to fill and upload the required self-reporting form (as required by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare on the specially-created Air Suvidha portal of the Delhi Airport).

At the same time, I also had to undergo an RT-PCR test at the earliest so that I could upload the negative test report on the same portal to seek exemption from mandatory ‘institution quarantine’ in Delhi within the stipulated time of 72 hours before my departure. Even though my RT-PCR test report in Chinese from a government hospital in Beijing came negative, I had to face a minor hiccup as I was required to upload the English report.

As the Beijing hospital didn’t have any English version provision, I had to embrace the great Indian jugaad, using my presence of mind.

A quick photographic translation of the report using my mobile phone camera and a translation app before capturing the screenshot of the report's translated photo on my phone helped me send an English version to the Indian authorities. Their response was equally prompt as the ‘institution quarantine’ exemption approval mail from Indian authorities landed in my mailbox within a couple of hours, and I was all set with the hard copies of the required documents and my paraphernalia to visit my family in West Bengal. 

However, I still had a few daunting pre-travel arrangement tasks in hand before my home-bound sojourn.

Apart from booking a same-day air ticket to Wuhan from Beijing to catch the VBM flight, two more flights were added to my travel itinerary as no direct flights were allowed to Kolkata from Delhi due to Covid-19-related restrictions. So, I had to prolong my journey to my home state with a short stopover in Bhubaneshwar. My paranoia of not spending much time in transit in these turbulent times of a pandemic also prompted me to book my whole itinerary in such a way that I eventually had to change four flights in less than 24 hours to reach Kolkata from Beijing. 

Penalty and protection

The first among the four back-to-back flights was from Beijing to Wuhan, a city I had visited only in August and thus, had no intention to get out of its Tianhe Airport, located on the outskirts of the news-making city, for any quick sight-seeing since my arrival in the evening. The Air India VBM flight from the international terminal was scheduled for 10 pm that night, but at the check-in counter, I was slapped with an unreasonable fine of RMB 750 (Rs 8,500) for my 23-kg check-in baggage even though the Air China flight from Beijing a few hours ago and with the same luggage weight didn’t even bother to inform that I was overweight.

Moreover, the Air India flight already had a pre-announced exemption of 40 kg for students, and many other fellow travellers later told me that they weren’t charged for heavier baggage than me. Ironically, while readily paying for the fine at the counter, when I asked for the refund money of around Rs 50,000 for my previously cancelled flight in August, in came the templated reply of calling on the helpline that, after trying innumerable times before, I can say that was no less than banging one’s head against the wall.

Nonetheless, as I proceeded through the security checks and immigration, I couldn’t find a single coffee shop or a food joint open at the boarding area of the swanky state-of-the-art terminal. However, I was surprised to spot around 100 Chinese citizens returning to India by the same Air India repatriation flight. Without extrapolating any conspiracy theory, I must say that I was a bit stunned to know that many of them were employees of an Adani project in Ranchi. Quite distinctly and ironically, each of the Chinese passengers was covered in a head-to-toe white PPE suit and was donning the N95 facemasks, protective eyewear, and face shield.

In stark contrast, the remaining 250-odd returning Indians, including yours truly, had only a facemask at their disposal, and, more importantly, they were pretty confident and content about countering the contagion. The Indian evacuees' photographs in similar discomfiting attires in February's fearsome month were still vivid in my mind. What a tantalising turn of the tide in just nine months, and I have witnessed it throughout from the front row! The once-dreaded epicentre transformed into a haven for fliers. Moreover, it was another Air India mission to Wuhan but this time, ensuring the return of the desperate 300-odd Indian expatriates to China by a full capacity flight from a pandemic-hit India, ferrying 300-odd Indians to the Chinese city that hasn’t recorded a single local case in more than three months.

main_air-india-fligh_111920122832.jpgI was surprised to spot around 100 Chinese citizens returning to India by the same Air India repatriation flight. (Representational photo: PTI)

Flying, finally…

While waiting with a thirsty throat and an empty stomach at the crowded boarding gate for a few hours and well past the scheduled departure time, the delayed arrival of the Air India “mini-jumbo” – a Boeing 777 donning the tricolour and the Air India logo – at the aerobridge made me a bit emotional as the joyous feeling of returning home after three long years was running through my mind. The flight that brought in (as it was found later, following a slew of tests at the Wuhan airport) more than 20 Covid-19 infected Indians to the mainland and subsequently resulted in a temporary suspension of any other VBM flights to China, eventually took off at 2 am – four hours after its scheduled departure time of 10 pm. Unlike the previous VBM flights, there wasn’t any PPE suit or face shield provided to the India-bound fliers while the cabin crew bundled themselves into ununiform, make-do, and low-cost PPE wrappers and rough and ready protective gears. However, there was a full meal and drinks service on board.

It took 6 hours for the wide-bodied aircraft to reach the Indian capital and smooth-land at the Indira Gandhi International Airport. After that, everything was like a breeze. Soon after disembarking the aircraft, I found the airport officials, literally, up and running, providing health clearance assistance on the go in the wee hours of the day. There was hardly any queue anywhere as the alert and active airport staff guided as well as segregated the passengers through specific channels according to their health status reports and various essential documents.

Believe it or not, it took me a flat 45 minutes to get out of the terminal from the aerobridge, after going through the thermal scanners, walking past the generally time-consuming immigration counter, picking up my check-in luggage from the baggage carousel, and passing through customs.

Moreover, much to my surprise, the duty-free shops, eateries and stores inside the airport were open even in the early hours of dawn. In the next few hours, I took a domestic flight to Bhubaneshwar before accomplishing the final leg of my journey to Kolkata.

Incidentally, after receiving the institutional quarantine exemption stamp on my hand at the Delhi airport, my identity as an international traveller ceased to exist as I had to casually follow the routine hassle-free procedures for any other domestic flier. At no point was I asked to show my Arogya Setu app status even though I couldn’t have had it on my phone with my Chinese SIM card.

There was also a comical first-time experience as I had to wear a face shield on board for the first time in my life. It took me a while to figure out that the reason behind my blurry vision inside the aircraft wasn’t because of any jet leg but being unaware of peeling off the thin protective film on both sides of the transparent face shield before using it. After all, I never had any requirement to wear the face-saver during the Covid-19-hit months in China as a respirator, disciplined social-distancing, and the authorities' foolproof sanitising measures were good enough.

Nonetheless, I had a safe and sound passage to my homeland, and it was, as usual, a happy feeling even though there was no government official, surprisingly, to monitor or enquire about my 14-day home quarantine status. There wasn’t any intimation from Air India either, as my VBM ticket refund money continues to elude me like Godot.

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

Writer

Suvam Pal Suvam Pal @suvvz

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

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