White Nights 2 (Hefei)

This river runs round the middle of the Hefei city (環城河公園) and it’s beautiful at night.

We arrived at Hefei in late September 2022. Hefei’s economy has really taken off in the past ten years and become one of the fastest growing IT, electric vehicle and bio-pharmaceutical hubs in the country. We rented a two-bedroom apartment in the outskirt of the city next to the convention centre.

An old factory converted into a hip museum and art area called Hechai 1972 (合柴1972)

It turned out to be at our advantage as our housing estate had only three blocks and the PCR test station was downstairs and not busy. PCR testing played a key part in our lives by this time. One could not take the metro or enter public places like shopping malls and supermarkets without the valid green health codes issued upon negative PCR test results.

It took about 40 minutes by metro to go from where we lived to the heart of the city.

While the locals diligent adhered to the daily testing, Kin and I tried to stretch it out to every other day as we did not need to take the metro or go to shopping malls daily.

We loved to stroll along Hongxing Street (紅星街) in the old part of Hefei city. There are many quaint shops and cafes dotted around the quiet local neighbourhood.

Life carried on while we kept an eye on the daily update of what areas within the city were locked down (from local map app and Xiaohongshu 小紅書which is like a Chinese version of Pinterest). Hefei is spacious with great new infrastructure as well as the interesting old quarters with an eclectic mix of smart looking cafes, restaurants among the local shops.

Found this tiny burger joint and treated ourselves to some pretty authentic burgers.

We got to hang out with Yang Yang whenever she was free. She also came to dinner at our apartment a few times. We were impressed by her open-mindedness and analytical mind. She had studied in the US and Taiwan previously.

One of our dinners with Yang Yang and her flatmate at our apartment.

We could tell Covid was getting out of control as more zones or buildings were locked down within the city. Life was still relatively normal for us. We went out but less frequently. One time, when we went to the wet market, we saw the locals frantically grabbed most of the fresh produce and vegetables as they heard the rumor that our area would be locked down in the next couple of hours. I managed to buy some carrots, potatoes and split the last portion of tofu with another man. We were fine as our fridge was always pretty full in preparation of ad hoc emergencies like this. Thankfully we did not get locked down the next day.

We decided to leave Hefei about 10 days after the National holiday in late October. But we were not sure if we could leave as things were not looking good. I told our landlady that we might come back just in case we were unable to leave the city. And what a day it turned out to be to escape from Hefei.

We first drove eastward to a small town (I already forgot the name) but only after a few kilometers on the main road, we were stopped by officials and asked where we intended to go. When we told him that we just wanted to go to the next town, he warned us that we were likely to be quarantined for three days upon arrival. So, we turned round and drove westward this time. But before we even reached the highway entrance, we saw a row of huge road signages with bold writings saying, “Anyone from Hefei needs to turn around”.

Our hearts sank and we both stopped talking while Kin frantically searched on the map to see if there were any other small roads or paths that were not blocked. He found a small road and started driving. We did not utter a word. Scenes from the 1985 movie “White Nights” where the two protagonists tried to escape from Moscow were playing in my head as I felt the pressure and anxiety of being trapped.

It was completely dark by the time we reached the small road which soon led to a dirt path. We saw many cars with license plates from various provinces before and after us. We were all trying to escape. I was checking the map all this time and when the second I found ourselves being away from the border of Hefei, I uttered a small happy cry. But only a few seconds later, we came to an abrupt stop as we saw a huge pile of sand and a metallic fence in front of us. We were stuck.

Kin decided to see what was on the other side. He got out and I followed him. We climbed over the sand and the fence and saw a narrow path leading to a village of some sort. We walked further into some fields and soon heard some noise not far from us and torch lights flashing in a distance. I was quite scared but Kin being Kin, he took no heed of it. We kept walking but I couldn’t help feeling that we were fugitives trying to get away from some unknown people chasing us.

We got back to our van safely and I made some simple dinner. We spent the night in the van. I slept quite well considering that I dreaded that we might get a knock on the van any minute during the night. The next morning, I got a phone call and was asked if I had left Hefei. According to the contact tracing app, I was outside Hefei even though in reality I was still stuck in the city.

After breakfast, we discussed what to do next. Given the unlikelihood of leaving Hefei and the unknown prospect even if we did manage to leave the city, we decided to return to our apartment. I called the landlady to ask if we could return. An hour later, we were back in our familiar apartment and I never felt familiarity is so sweet. We took a long shower and we both just collapsed to sleep.

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