Hardest time for Chinese citizens

How I got back to Australia from China under the most strict travel ban ever.

Posted by MewX on Mar 30, 2020

As everyone knows, COVID-19 has been spreading rapidly across the whole world. It was firstly originated in China and then it went to almost everywhere in the world.

I experienced the whole journey of the coronavirus, unfortunately, which includes the time when China’s government closed each city and the time when the Australian government closed the whole border.


Planning

It all began with my original holiday plan in China. I personally had been planned for this holiday for 2 years since I came back to hometown once per two years from Australia. The last time I went back was just after my graduation. This time was after I submitted my EOI point test application for immigration.

The trip was planned as followed:

  1. I traveled back on Friday so that I could work from Shanghai office for 1 day and had a TGIF (Thank God It’s Friday);
  2. I would have a 3-week holiday with my parents;
  3. I would travel back to Australia on Monday so the flight tickets were generally lower.

Based on this plan, I should be able to arrive in Australia in early February.

In China

Everything was quite normal when I just arrived in China. There was no sign of the virus’s spreading and I even caught a cold in Australian and brought it back to China LOL!

Then I had several trips within China including having a Chinese New Year in my parents’ hometown. During the time I was in my parents’ hometown, Wuhan (in Hebei Province) has been locked down suddenly on Jan 23rd. That was really horrible, and people start to pay attention to this thing.

That was from late January, we wore facial masks everywhere except at home. It was just like underwear that you had to wear every day.

Travel bans

The nightmare begins on Jan 29th. America bans all Chinese travelers from entering the US from Feb 1st. I was quite worried about my flights since it was on Feb 2nd.

Then, all the airline company’s hotlines are super busy and they couldn’t handle flight change requests. I thought I should be fine since America gave a 2-day buffer for flight changes. Australia hadn’t announced any travel bans on Jan 31st.

However, PM Morrison announced a travel ban affecting immediately on Feb 1st in the afternoon! That was soooooo awful, no buffer at all! Many Chinese students who just landed were deported due to this sudden travel ban!

To be more specific, the travel ban was focusing on non-PR/Citizen people who arrived in Australia. Students and temporary workers are not allowed to enter Australia.

The good news was the travel ban was said to last for only 1 week and will be updated in a week. So, firstly my flight was canceled in the first place. I had no choice and had to wait for an update of the travel ban since there was no clear path on how I could enter Australia.

Unlike America which allows Chinese travelers who have been staying in a 3rd country for 14 days to enter, Australia doesn’t provide any solution for those who were banned.

Many banned people have started planning their trips to countries that grant Chinee people Visa on Arrival (e.g. Thailand, UAE, Cambodia, South Korea, etc.). But this is not officially accepted so they tried to bypass the travel ban like how they could do for the US.

My parents disallowed me to go for this path since it was a way to bypass which didn’t sound good. Also, the virus situation in other countries is quite unclear at that time. So, I kept staying at home waiting for the travel ban to be lifted.

The fact was that the travel ban was updated weekly, but it was always extended, unfortunately.

Work from China

Even worse, my paid leave had run out and I had to request unpaid leave or work from China. I didn’t take my Corp laptop back to China since I didn’t want to work from China. So, I thought I might be able to grab a loaner laptop from Shanghai Office, which was said to open from Feb 10th. The bad news was that the office was said to remain closed till Feb 24nd after two internal updates! I couldn’t wait for that long. Besides, I tried to ask someone that I knew who was working in the Shanghai Office. She didn’t know whether the office is still accessible or not when it was closed.

So, after many thoughts, I had to DIY this time. I took a bullet train from my hometown - Hefei, China to Shanghai in the early morning. The bullet train was almost empty which had only around 2 people in each row. I heard that it wasn’t because people didn’t want to buy the train ticket, but they limited the number of tickets to be sold to prevent the virus from spreading. I really appreciate this action from the Chinese government!

The clearance in Shanghai Train Station was also extremely strict. It took me 30 mins to get off the train. Every subway entrance has temperature screaning. At that day I was very nervous and didn’t have a good sleep, I felt like having a somewhat fever, to be honest. Luckily, it was winter in China, and the air was very cold which cool down my skin.

I took the subway to the Office which was located in the World Finance Center. There was a temperature screening at every door as well.

I successfully badged in the office, which was the best news after the travel ban. I took the laptop out and back to my hometown again on the same day.

I had never seen Shanghai could be that empty, Especially around Lujiazui, which was the financial center of China.

Having a laptop, I can more or less work from home. The network was really bad when connecting to Google service. Thus, the WFH experience from China was quite unpleasant, but it is the best thing among all the worst things.

Salaries arrived normally, so I was fine, though I still had to pay my rents and gym…

Longer time in China

Since the travel ban was always there and China started a new round of enhanced lockdown. I stayed at home for at least 1 month without leaving home at all.

My parents went out for food and work but only for a limited number of times.

Many streets in Hefei were locked as well. Only residents living` in this street could enter. People working for the city councils and many volunteers enforced this rule 24/7.

The good thing was that the supermarkets were always open. The only difference were that there was an additional temperature screening and facial mask check at the door. Anyone without wearing a mask was not allowed to enter the supermarket.

One fact is that this enhanced lockdown started when Anhui Province started having 0 new confirmed cases. It was quite interesting why they enhanced the lockdown.

Lost bridging visa

Dramatically, I received 189 PR invitation on the first day of my arrival in China. That invitation lasted for 2 months.

To receive a bridging visa, I had to be physically in Australia.

I did need the bridging visa since my current visa would expire in 6 months. However, the travel ban blocked me from entering Australia.

I considered going to Thailand for 14 days, but my father still disallowed me to do that. He told me to wait for the lift of the travel ban which he thought would end soon.

I purchased several flight tickets to cover any potential sudden ban lift. They were all much more expensive than my orignal flight tickets bought 4 months ago.

The bad news you might have already guessed: the ban lift didn’t exist at all!

I lost my last opportunity to receive a bridging visa, which meant I would be very likely to have to leave Australia in September this year to wait for my PR if Google wouldn’t sponsor me for a visa. Otherwise, I might have to convert to a student visa to work part-time.

About to lose salaries

Due to some legal tax issues, Google doesn’t allow an employee to WF another country for a long time. During the COVID-19 period, the number of days is 60 days in China, starting from the first day of arrival in China! After that, I had to take forced unpaid leaves.

Considering the fact that the travel ban couldn’t be lifted soon, I had to travel to Thailand for 14 days then travel to Australia.

I made the decision immediately before my flight tickets’ expiry as mentioned previously for countering a potential travel ban lift.

So, I planned to travel to Thailand on March 3rd and stay there for 15 nights (1 more day as a buffer since many airline companies didn’t agree N+14 days).

In Thailand

Although the loaner laptop from Shanghai office should remain in Shanghai Office, I took it with me to Bangkok, Thailand.

Regarding choosing Thailand, I considered many other countries. Thailand, to be more specific, Bangkok was the best choice I had to let me enter Australia asap.

Going to Bangkok

I left from early Morning from Hefei and transitted from Shanghai to Bangkok. Many people were the same as me, traveling to Thailand or Malaysia for 14 days.

Thailand was really hot and I sweated all the time which proved me not being in a fever. People wearing masks were everywhere which made me feel safer.

I was also charged for many fees when changing currencies :-( Things in Thailand were more expensive than in Hefei but cheaper than in Australia.

Apart from that, people in Thailand were very friendly and I had a pretty good time there.

Working from Bangkok

Working from Bangkok is like WF Australia. There weren’t any restrictions at all. However, WF home usually means working longer.

My usual daily schedule is:

  • Getting up
  • Breakfast at hotel (cereal + milk or bread)
  • Work from the early morning (some meetings were at 5am Bangkok time)
  • Lunch at Terminal 21 at 11am/2pm which was near my hotel and not quite crowdy
  • Work in the afternoon
  • Dinner at the hotel for instant noodles or cereal
  • Evening, watching TV series

There were many foods around the street, but I didn’t dare to eat since the virus could be anywhere around the street. So, I only had meals at the big shopping mall.

Extending my Visa on Arrival

One thing that I had to do was to extend my Visa on Arrival so that I would not receive an overstay stamp though it was written in Thai.

I took that day off but still got up at around 5am. I took the metro then a bus to get to the Government Complex building.

The traffic was quite bad since the building was in a suburb and the highways were around the bus station. I had to wait for nearly 5 minutes to be able to go across a highway.

There was still a 30-min walk from the bus station to the Government building. Luckily I met a nursing teacher (named Aom) from an institution nearby on the same bus. She was really friendly and her English was pretty well!

I didn’t recognise the name of the institution but basically, there was an internal shuttle bus between buildings of a hospital. And she took me to take the shuttle bus for free LOL which saved me a 2-km walking.

Then, I walked to a super-crowded building to do the visa extension. I was quite lucky to finish everything in the morning. Many people (who arrived half an hour later than me at around 8:30am) had to wait for an appointment scheduled in the afternoon. The queue was also amazingly long. Also, one of my uni mates who arrived in the afternoon finished his extension at 9pm!

Leaving Bangkok

After checking out and finishing lunch, I went to the airport directly which was 4 hours ahead of check-in open.

Most travelers were American. I could barely see Chinese people then. There were also lockdown news from Australia urging people to travel to Australia asap.

The flight transitted from Hong Kong. The first flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong was quite full. Lots of people were going to Aukland via Thailand as well.

By the time I arrived in Hong Kong, there was roughly no one at the airport. Also, the flight back to Sydney had very few people, which was quite empty - each row had only one person.

So, the flight back was quite safe.

In Australia

When I arrived in Sydney, I was “scammed” by a taxi driver. It usually took 25 AUD for me back home, he charged me 70 AUD. I am exposing the name and the mobile number: Viki 0404210744.

When I arrived home, I received messages from my friends saying Australia was going to lock down the next day. I was so lucky!

Also for NZ, a young lady sitting near me on the flight to Hong Kong had 2 accompanies not able to check in due to Thai airline’s decisions, saying they hadn’t stayed for 14 days in Thailand. Cathay was proved to be nice for us.

However, the bad news was that NZ was going to lock down that night! So, her two accompanies had no choice but to go back to China for a 14-day quarantine.

I am now in Sydney doing self-isolation at home. My roommate buys food for me which is really nice! But Google is going to start mandatory WFH during my self-isolation, which means I still cannot have a chance to grab my corp laptop. Probably I will need my colleague to grab for me, phew~

The whole world is experiencing the same thing happened in China in February. And I experienced this thing both in China and in Australia. I am feeling lucky aww!


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