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No traffic jams, no jostling on journey back as city reopens: Special report


WUHAN • By the time train G4815 pulled out of Beijing West Railway Station on Tuesday afternoon, I had been asked three times to show my passport and grilled about when I entered Beijing and whether I had completed the mandatory quarantine requirements.

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I had arrived in the capital on March 10, where I spent 14 days in quarantine in my flat in Beijing, regularly checking my temperature.

For my return trip to Wuhan, I dragged my luggage full of personal protective equipment - full body suits, heavy duty masks, goggles and gloves, and multiple bottles of hand sanitiser.

The end of the lockdown gives hope that life in China can slowly return to some level of normalcy.

Signs of trepidation are still everywhere, even in Beijing, where the eight railway stations are never quiet.

As I made my way to the Beijing West Railway Station, I noticed the road into the busiest railway station in the capital was mostly deserted. The station too was largely empty. The few people there donned masks and kept their distance.

After I boarded the bullet train for a six-hour trip to Wuhan, a staff member took my temperature. The carriage I was in had all of five passengers, myself included.

In the next carriage, I found the Zhang family of four: mum and dad and their two children under the age of seven. They had boarded the train at Shijiazhuang, a north-eastern town about an hour away from Beijing.

The train station there was mostly empty too, they said.

"We were visiting relatives for Chinese New Year when the lockdown happened, so we couldn't go home," said Mr Zhang, who declined to provide more personal details.

In the same carriage, a woman in her 20s, who did not want to give her name, said she had returned from Britain through Germany. She too was on her way home to Wuhan.

As the train rolled into Wuhan's Wuchang Railway Station at 9.15pm, the same Beijing Rail staff member who had taken my temperature told me it was time to alight, even leading me to the door.

Some passengers by then had put on protective gear that resembled hazmat suits as they prepared to leave the train. Besides body suits, the Zhang family also wore splash guards over their faces.

About a dozen people disembarked at the above-ground station, and the three passengers with foreign passports, myself included, were given special attention.

We were taken down to the ground level in a lift and handed over to workers dressed in white protective suits, sorted by the districts they represented.

Passengers were also misted in alcohol-based disinfectant while police officers in protective gear stood and watched.

It was clear these are extraordinary times: before being allowed to leave the station, I was told by city officials that they would accompany me, in a separate car, to my hotel. It was to make sure I was going where I said I was.

We took the road much travelled, the same route which in January saw me stuck in a 30-minute traffic congestion. There was no jam this time, and the same stretch took all of a minute to cover.

At the hotel, the city officials who accompanied me made sure I was going in, snapping a picture as evidence.

I approached a disinfectant counter, and my temperature was taken twice.

My health code - a phone app to show where you've been, and whether or not you're a public health risk - was also checked to ensure I was healthy before being allowed to check in. Before I was given the key, my documents were checked again.

Even here, one of the few hotels in the city allowed to receive foreigners, things are not yet back to normal.

The bars and gym remain shut. The main restaurant is open only during meal times, and room service has been suspended.

Housekeeping would tidy up much later, two hours after guests leave their room.

China lifted the lockdown in Wuhan at midnight. By nightfall, the city's buildings lit up to mark the end of an unprecedented move to contain the outbreak.

Much has changed, with social interaction sacrificed for social distancing.

Even now, officials are warning of a threat of further infections. New coronavirus cases have doubled in 24 hours to 62, with imported infections accounting for 59 of the cases.

Life is returning to Wuhan - but things here may never be normal again.

 

Published : April 09, 2020

By : Elizabeth Law, China Correspondent The Straits Times /ANN