Entry 2, 5 May, 2003
In A Journey of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe was very keen to keep a day-to-day account of all the ways in which he saw the Great Plague affecting his fellow countrymen. He often noted grisly details of how an individual would seem quite normal one day, then suddenly the next day, the same person would begin to cough violently and within a few short days after would die, usually at home. There were, of course, individuals, even in Defoe’s time who contracted the Plague, but who survived by some miracle, and Defoe himself was one of those.
But, luckily for Defoe, air travel was completely unheard of in the 18th century, so that particular fear wasn’t on his list of concerns. Such is not the case for those of us who wish to travel anywhere these days, and for those of us who wish to visit China, even Shanghai, there is great concern with respect to air travel. But, as I mentioned in my previous installment, my two flights to Shanghai from Toronto and then Vancouver, seemed rather less of concern than I had thought at the outset.
So, as we began our descent into Pudong International Airport, I was filled with the usual excitement I have upon arrival in this very interesting part of the world. It was great to see the rice fields (not that there are very many left out there), and also to see the ships heading out to sea. Pudong Airport is almost an hour drive from the downtown area of Shanghai, so it almost seems rural when one views it from the window of a Boeing 767. Besides that, after twelve hours in a metal tube, even the Business section starts to become rather claustrophobic. Suffice it to say that, despite all the concerns about SARS in China, I was more than a little excited to be returning to this most amazing of places.
As we taxied to what is called the “bridge?in airport terminology, we were informed by the Chief Flight Attendant, a rather dapper Hong Kong Chinese with a stern way of putting things in English, Mandarin and Cantonese, that the Chinese Government required us to stay in our seats until our temperatures were taken by a Customs Nurse. If we didn’t conform to this rule, we would be kept on the plane and sent back to Vancouver!! Needless to say, this made some passengers apprehensive, but when the nurse arrived, I could see that this wouldn’t take terribly long. She pointed an infra red light at our wrists, and then read out the number to the Flight Attendant, who in turn wrote the number on our Chinese “Quarantine?Report. These Reports have been required for years by Chinese Customs, but they are taken quite seriously these days.
Well, as luck would have it, my reading came up at 32 Celsius, about the temperature of a recently deceased body! The nurse simply laughed at this, observing that I was indeed alive and kicking, and simply moved on to the next passenger. I told the Attendant to write ?5?on the form. This isn’t to say that I hadn’t wondered a little bit about my own health at this point. The chap in front of me, a Shanghainese who had been coughing and sneezing throughout much of the trip, also had the nasty habit of spitting into a plastic bag whenever the spirit moved him. Having traveled on trains in China, I have often sat beside people who felt themselves inclined to, as we say in English, hork themselves silly throughout a three-hour train ride, but I hadn’t had yet had this particular pleasure in the Business section of an aircraft. In fact, the Chief Flight Attendant (I mentioned he was Hong Kong Chinese) was very irritated by our resident horkmeister, not least when he frequently offered his spent tissues to the Attendant, in the hope (I suppose) that the Attendant would actually put the things in the waste for him.
Okay, so the fun was over, and we were now all healthy enough to leave the plane. A rather long walk later, we found ourselves passing through an infra red temperature screening device, with a number of medical staff watching as we passed through. I would have liked to see what I looked like on their side, but of course we were all ushered towards the Customs queue. I was actually a little nervous about this, as my visa had expired a couple of days before my trip, but I couldn’t renew it because the visa offices in Canada had been closed for the May holiday week, and I had only reorganized my trip at the last moment when the SARS outbreak was announced in Beijing.
As luck would have it (bad luck, I supposed), the Customs Officer decided that my note (in Chinese) explaining the visa problem simply wasn’t enough for him, so he sent me over to the Visa desk, back through the infra red screening. I managed to find a chap sleeping in the office behind the desk, and I showed him the letter of invitation from a colleague here in Shanghai. He disappeared for about ten minutes, returning to tell me he was waiting for a fax from my colleague, affirming I suppose that I had indeed received such an invitation, and if he didn’t receive it in five minutes, I would be “deported? Well, I have a through ticket to Bangkok, which I had booked in Business for just such an eventualilty, but my colleague managed to get the fax into the Visa Office in time, and the chap behind the desk was even kind enough to take my picture and put the visa right into my passport.
So, about an hour after I left the plane, I was in a taxi, heading to my flat near the People’s Square. Now, almost everyone (including me) had been wearing masks when we left the plane, but I noticed that few people were wearing masks once we got outside to the taxi stand, and in fact the cab driver who picked me up wasn’t wearing a mask. I felt a little foolish at that point, especially as the driver had both front windows open, and at 120kph, there was a driving gale inside the care. So I took the mask off, made some idle chat with the very little Chinese I had learned since my last trip, and sat back to enjoy the mask-free environment inside the car.
Eventually we crossed the amazing Nanpu Da Qiao (Nanpu Bridge), and I surprised myself by actually reading the characters which announce that incredible structure ?and we were suddenly into downtown Shanghai. And there were virtually no masks, no bank-robbers?convention of white masked people, as one sees in the newscasts about Beijing. In fact, downtown Shanghai looked, sounded and smelled much like it had on my last trip in February of this year. The fact that my arrival was on a Sunday made Shanghai seem a little quieter than normal, but that was the only change I noticed.
Until I arrived at my newly rented flat here in the New Harbour Service Apartments, near People’s Square in Shanghai. Not that the “difference?was particularly startling, but the chap at the reception asked me to fill out one more form than normal, a form which requires that my temperature be taken every day, at the reception, and that someone there witness the number which is filled in.
So, after a very short night sleep (I always find it difficult to sleep through the night for my first few nights in Asia), now I am ready for my meetings at colleges and universities in Shanghai and Pudong over the next few days.
Once I have had a chance to see the city over these few days, I will write my third entry, as that will give readers a true sense of how this amazing city is reacting in this year of the Plague.
Written by Dr. Glenwood Irons. Published with permission.