Flight to Shanghai: A Journey in the Plague Year

Editor’s note: I am very happy to have invited Dr. Glenwood Irons to write about his journey from Toronto to Shanghai. He arrives in Shanghai today and will stay here for four days. What he sees during his trip and his stay will definitely be very helpful to thousands of people asking the question “Shall I cancel my trip to Shanghai?“.

“People will get an accurate sense of how things are going…. I’ll do it in a few installments, one on the plane, one after I go through Customs and arrive at my flat near the “People’s Square”, one during my four-day stay in Shanghai, and then one last one, when I arrive in Bangkok from Shanghai.”, said Glenwood.

I’d like to thank Glenwood for spending the time to record the journey and share with us his observation. Dr. Glenwood Irons is Director of ESL & Testing Services in Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario, CANADA L2S 3A1 Web: http://www.brocku.ca/ielp

  • Entry I (this page)
  • Entry II
  • Entry III
  • Entry IV
  • Entry I

    First of all, I must make an apology to Daniel Defoe, the great English writer of the 18th Century. Defoe is probably most famous for writing Moll Flanders, but I’m thinking at this moment of his Journal of the Plague Year, in which he describes in some detail the horrors of living in England during one of the last Great Plagues. Defoe had a rather practical approach to the mayhem which surrounded him some 300 years ago, so I will try to keep some of his narrative interests in mind.

    I live in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, a small city of about 130,000 people, situated about 15 minutes by car from Niagara Falls, and about 60 minutes from Toronto. St. Catharines and in fact the Niagara Region as a whole have no cases of SARS. However, Toronto, is at present the North American city which has been hardest hit by SARS. Most readers will know that the SARS outbreak in Toronto began when a Chinese Canadian woman returned on the 23rd of February from a trip to Hong Kong, unknowingly infected with the virus. She entered a Toronto hospital, and spread the virus to numerous medical staff, finally expiring herself soon after. The virus is now said to be under control in Toronto. Nevertheless, it seems I am traveling from one SARS affected city to another.

    I left St. Catharines on a Saturday morning, 3rd of May, in this year of the plague, 2003. My early departure from my wife and two daughters was uneventful, save for the fact I had to leave at 6am, and after only about 5 hours sleep. Driving to Toronto was rather enjoyable on a cool May morning, as the normally heavy traffic was in fact nowhere to be seen. Upon arrival at Toronto International Airport, I parked my car and proceeded to the ticket counter to pick up my prepaid ticket for the long journey ahead. There were the usual check-in formalities, along with the strict security which is now employed at all airports, and as luck would have it, I received my earlier-requested upgrade to Business Class at the last minute, just as I was about the board the plane.

    The flight from Toronto to Vancouver was uneventful, and in fact there was no sign of the ubiquitous masks which one sees in television footage of airports in Canada and most particularly in Asia. On the other hand, there were many Chinese on the flight, as Vancouver and Toronto are home to hundreds of thousands of Chinese Canadians. In fact, all passengers seemed as comfortable as I during the five hours it takes to get from Toronto to Vancouver, and I soon found myself leaving the plane and heading straight to the Star Alliance lounge to wait for my flight from Vancouver to Shanghai. There were a few more masks in evidence as I walked to the gates which display flights to Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai and other parts of Asia, but there seemed to be no other indication of the virus which has made life miserable for much of the Chinese-speaking world.

    When I arrived at the gate to board the flight to Shanghai, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself upgraded to Business Class again. I do a great deal of flying in the business I conduct for my university, so I normally request upgrades well in advance, but there is no guarantee that such upgrades will be given out these days. However, at the boarding gate, while waiting for my upgrade to be processed, I also noted that many more of the passengers, that is to say Chinese passengers, were wearing the heavy N-95 masks which I had learned are the benchmark mouth and nose covering for most travelers. However, the real indication of difference between this and previous flights I have taken to Shanghai, was the reduction in passengers, particularly in the Business section of the Boeing 767. Rather than the normally full Business section, there were only 10 seats out of a possible 30 which had passengers. I asked the Chief Flight Attendant about this, and he said that the Air Canada flights to Shanghai, Beijing and of course Hong Kong were being reduced considerably, and depended on whether there were enough passengers to make the trip. Up until the SARS outbreak, there were daily flights to Beijing and Shanghai (on Air Canada), daily flights to Hong Kong, and some days even saw two flights to Hong Kong. The fact that flights are being cancelled, however, should not surprise anyone, as there is a great deal of concern on the part of everyone who watches the news coming out of China.

    If lower number of passengers wasn’t in itself disquieting enough, the Captain announced that we should be ready to have our temperatures taken before leaving the plane in Shanghai. One hopes that one doesn’t pick up a cold or fever during the 12 hour flight, but on the other hand, such a precaution is probably warranted under the circumstances. The Captain also announced that we would be taking a very northern route on this flight, past Nome Alaska, down through Siberia, then over a bit of North Korea, Japan and finally into Chinese airspace. This seems to be a rather convoluted routing, but the headwinds (we’re told) would make this necessary. I think I’m more concerned about flying over North Korea than I am about the risk of SARS.

    That will probably change when I get to Shanghai, but it is worth noting that there are very important issues here, many of which seem to go unnoticed in the larger discussion of the virus outbreak in Asia. Viral outbreaks are not, of course terribly unusual, particularly in China. This one has received a great deal of publicity, and it certainly is a cause for concern and extra precautions, but the nose-dive which China’s economy is presently experiencing is also of very real concern. In the past few years, Shanghai itself has experienced double-digit growth, while China as a whole has also experienced extremely high growth. If the perception as well as the reality of SARS is not soon brought under control, then China and much of the rest of the world, is likely to find that the problem of SARS has gone much deeper than any of us have been able to observe so far.

    In my next installment, I will describe the trip through Customs in Shanghai, and I will also give a “foreigner’s?glimpse of life in that city on a Sunday afternoon and evening.

    Glenwood Irons

    Written by Dr. Glenwood Irons. Published with permission.

    3 Comments

    1. Thanks so much for this post, as fellow Canadian going to shanghai in July, I really appreciate the insight.

    2. Chris Siemens

      May 7, 2003 at 12:35 am

      My sons, granddaughter, husband and I are scheduled to leave on May 28th for Beijing. We will be in route to Luoyang. I’m trying to change the destination to Shanghai so this post is great.

      I’m hoping that Dr. Irons will comment if visitors can leave Shanghai for other areas of China, as we need to get to Luoyang.

    3. May be I would have canceled my trip to Shingai but now I am quite relax and won’t hesitate to go for it any way.

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