What was it like to travel in the pandemic?

One tends to forget time and all worries in the beautiful countryside in Anhui (安徽).

We started travelling at the end of 2019 just before all the Covid madness began.  We never thought that our trip around China would have lasted three years and never in our wildest dreams have foreseen that we would have to live with such a resilient virus throughout our journey.

We loved these flatbreads with different savoury or sweet stuffing in Southern Anhui.

In the first two and half years, we managed to evade travel restrictions and lockdowns. Although it’s not easy to really know what the Covid situation was in China, we could only get a vague idea by reading the daily official update of cases and severity zoning of places (categorized by red/yellow/green) across the country to know the trend. It helped us decide if we should continue travelling or stay put in one place for a longer period.

An old village called Kantou (勘頭村) in the southern part of Anhui (安徽).

China is a vast place and each province or city had its own provincial contact tracing codes and slightly different policies in terms of the PCR testing frequencies, duration and criteria of quarantine requirements in maintaining zero Covid.

We avoided big cities – those with metro were considered by us as high risk due to its sizeable population and density. We picked small rural towns or third tiered cities like Yangzhou (揚州). But we did make exceptions depending on the mood of the time (that is when the number of reported cases seemed to be stabilized) and went to big cities like Chingdao (青島).

The interior of an old Hui style (徽派) house with an open courtyard.

We also got information from friends living in other cities about travelling bans, road blocks as well as their testing frequency requirements to help us decipher how serious things were getting. We tried our best to avoid places with red warnings – as people in those places were not allowed to leave or one could not leave once entered. Whenever we found an upward trend of red warnings in various provinces or cities, we would stay put in one place for weeks or even months before we moved again.

We took advantage of the slow-paced travelling to explore different cities and places. One major benefit of travelling during the pandemic was that accommodation costs dropped significantly. Just before we started our trip at the end of 2019, we stayed in Zhaoqing (肇慶), a small city in Guangdong in off season November for a few days. We rented a one-bedroom loft for about RMB220 a night.

Two years later when we were in Chingdao (青島), a much more sophisticated and popular holiday destination than Zhaoqing, we rented a stylishly furnished two-bedroom apartment in the CBD area for only RMB150 a night. I did bargain for quite a bit since we stayed for almost two months but it was still much cheaper than normal.

We arrived in Chingdao just before Covid entered the Omicron stage and it was relatively free to move about. It is an elegant city with an eclectic mix of Chinese and western architectures and great place to enjoy delicious seafood.

We were well aware that despite the on-going tight control measures, it was only a matter of time for Covid to blow up at some point, especially after it entered the Omicron phase. When Covid in Hong Kong began to worsen rapidly in early 2022, things were still relatively calm in China. We started stocking up various Chinese and western medicines. At the time, it was still easy to buy the necessary medicines on-line. We only had to fill in basic questions about why you required the medicine and was delivered in the next few days. And we always had plenty of supplies and canned food just in case. 

Chingdao is cosmopolitan and yet has a more relaxed pace than other big cities like Shanghai.

We stayed in the idyllic Yangzhou for the most part of 2022 (eight and half months) partly due to Covid and mainly because of the great friendship we developed with Niu Niu, who runs the best coffee shop in the city. We resumed travelling again in late August 2022 when the crazily hot summer began to subside. 

We became great friends with Niu Niu and she came to visit us in Hong Kong during our break from the trip.

We drove to the adjacent province Anhui (安徽) and explored small rural villages in the southern part. We hiked some old paths including the old Huihang Road (徽杭古道) which in ancient times people commuted between Anhui and the neighbouring province Hangzhou (杭州).  

It was the walnut harvest season when we arrived at Kantou Village (勘頭村), a tiny but picturesque old village. We were amazed by how strong and lean the villagers are and they would climb up the flimsy looking walnut trees to beat the ripe nuts and collect them. It is a dangerous job and each year some people died from falling off the trees.

The locals climbed up the flimsy walnut trees to beat the nuts.
These local walnuts are much smaller than the ones we see in the shop.
The car park was turned into the walnut drying ground.

We then hiked the famous Huangshan (黃山). It is a world-renowned destination which usually attracts hordes of tourists and hikers all year round.To our surprise, given we had been in Anhui for over two weeks prior, we did not need to take any PCR test to enter these famous mountains and got to leisurely enjoy the fantastic views and landscape with only a fraction of tourists.

The starting point of the mighty hike of Huangshan (黃山).
The breathtaking view and landscape certainly deserved the exhausting climb of thousands of stairs.

Hiking in Huangshan (黃山) is not for the fainthearted especially if one attempts to forego the cable cars and do it all on foot. The tickets are valid for three days. Many people spend a night on the mountains to see the sunrise. We decided to stay at the bottom of the mountain and hike two days with a break in between to recover.

Stairs, stairs and more stairs !!

Some people may be disappointed that they don’t get to hike dirt path as all the tracks are concrete covered and mostly stairs. But if they were not concrete, unless you are a moderately advanced hiker, not many would have managed to climb those steep tracks.

Our hike was nothing compared to these amazing workers who brought supplies (such as food, water, bedsheets for the hotels) up to the top on foot.

Huangshan is vast and mainly divided into the front and rear parts accessed by two major routes. We of course wanted to challenge ourselves and climbed the tougher route in the front part of the mountain range starting from the Ciguangge (慈光閣). It was a pretty steep climb and took us over two hours to reach the major viewpoints on the ridge. Then we roamed around the ridge for another two hours to enjoy the stunning views from different angles and heights.

The tiny boulder standing on the far left cliffs is called “the monkey looking at the sea”(猴子觀海).

I decided to take the cable car down as I was already tired and wanted to get down before sunset. Kin of course wanted to hike down and we parted ways. But he rejoined me about 20 minutes later and he was lucky as he would have ended up miles away in the dark.

We bumped into this friendly Siamese cat outside the cable station.

We took it really easy the next day and spent ages at the coffee shop run by the wife of the youth hostel’s owner. We talked for ages and also met a PhD student Yang Yang (楊洋) who was taking a working holiday there.

Top of the world
I was so exhausted after the first day’s hike that I could barely eat my dinner.

After a full day’s rest, we were still tired and hence took the cable car up the gentler route. We walked at a leisurely pace to take in the incredible views and vista shaped by steep drops and rugged cliffs dotted with fantastically shaped boulders and elegant trees.

Lots of guesthouses at the foot of Huangshan. Normally, it’s crawlling with tourists but it’s quiet due to Covid.
We bumped into our new friend Yang Yang on our second hike.

As the golden week of national holiday neared and also upon the advice of our mainland friend that we should go to bigger cities with more resources in case of lockdown or emergencies, we decided to go to the capital city of Anhui, Hefei (合肥) to visit our new friend Yang Yang.


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