Pandemic Adventures Part 2: Stuck in Limbo

My last post ended with my stay at a hotel near Bangkok airport, waiting for my flight back to Shenzhen (well, back to Guangzhou, as there weren’t any flights to Shenzhen and Guangzhou is the next closest city). The night before my flight I had messages from several of my friends in Shenzhen telling me that the Chinese government had just announced they would be closing the border to foreigners as of 00:00 on Saturday 28th March (link to article here). My flight was due to land at 11.20pm on 27th March. I thought I would arrive just in time to scrape through passport control and get back home to China.

Unfortunately, this was not to be.

When queuing to check in for my flight, I and other non-Chinese in the line were approached by other foreigners who told us that they’d been turned away when they got to the check-in desk. There was no official announcement, nothing from the staff of the airline. So I continued to queue in the vain hope that I would be allowed on the flight or at least be given some useful information. Instead, I got to the front of the queue and was just told no, please go over there out of the way.

I kept asking people to try and get some official information and eventually was directed to a member of staff around whom was a growing group of foreigners. We were told that even though the plane was due to land at 11.20pm, by the time the plane got to the gate and everyone had their temperature checked it would take about two hours, and so we wouldn’t get through immigration until after midnight and therefore wouldn’t be let in the country.

And so I became stuck in Thailand.

That was on 27th March. Two months, one week and three days later and I’m still in Thailand. And there’s no news about when the Chinese border will reopen to foreigners.

Thankfully, I have two amazing friends – James and Nat – who took me in, for which I am eternally grateful.

I felt at the time that the whole situation completely sucked, and the feeling of being stuck in limbo was horrible; however, I tried to look on the bright side and be grateful that I’m healthy, I have wonderful friends, I’m safe and I have a place to stay.

Since then I’ve had many, many ups and downs.

My work informed me that as I wasn’t able to return to China, once my students returned to school I would no longer be able to teach them. My students returned to school on 11th May, so after 12 weeks of teaching online I had to stop teaching.

In the run up to this point, as well as at many times since being stuck in limbo, I was an absolute wreck. I find it really difficult to talk about such things, but writing about it is – for some reason – a little easier. I’ve had many days where I’ve just been in floods of tears. I’ve been angry, I’ve been sad, I’ve been heartbroken, I’ve been grateful, I’ve been stressed, I’ve been anxious, I’ve been depressed. I’ve pretty much been a roller coaster of emotions over the last four months.

Basically the only things getting me through all this have been my friends, my partner and my family. I honestly don’t know what I would have done, how much worse my situation would be, if it wasn’t for them. They have kept me sane, they’ve given me a place to live, they’ve called me, they’ve made me laugh, they’ve kept me company, they’ve comforted me, they’ve helped me in so so many ways I can’t even count.

I have to give a special mention here to Hela, my flatmate who I’ve never lived with because she moved into my flat after I became stuck in Thailand (which had been planned months earlier). She has spent hours on video calls with me, helping me to sort through all my things, organising and re-organising everything, selling things I wasn’t keeping, coordinating with other friends to sort out and pack my belongings, and generally being just an amazing friend. I really don’t know how I would have got all my stuff in Shenzhen sorted out and shipped if it wasn’t for her.

At this point, it doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to go back to Shenzhen before starting my new job in Myanmar. I’m really upset that after nearly nine years I’m not going to have the chance to say a proper goodbye to my friends, colleagues and the kids I’ve taught. Yes, I’m hoping to go back and visit once everything reopens, but it isn’t – it won’t be – the same. I loved living in Shenzhen; I had an amazing time there, met so many great people, did so many brilliant things and visited so many fantastic places. It’s such a shame it’s all ending like this. And I’m truly heartbroken.

Despite all the emotional turmoil I’ve been experiencing, there have been good things that have come out of all this. Here’s a few of the positives I’ve been trying to keep in mind during this whole thing:

I’ve started walking on a semi-regular basis, and I’ve walked a total of 182km since 13th April. Looking at this I’ve just realised if I walk another 18km in the next seven days that’ll make it 200km I’ll have walked in two months. Not bad going for someone who hates exercise, even if I do say so myself!

I’ve gotten back in touch with and had video chats with several friends who I hadn’t spoken to in years – one of whom I think it was nearly 20 years since we had an actual conversation rather than a Facebook chat! It’s been really lovely to catch up with people and have regular chats with people who I live thousands of miles away from.

Since I’ve stopped working, I’ve been using my time to study. I’m doing a Masters in Educational Leadership and Management through the University of Bath via distance learning, and I just have my dissertation left to complete. This has actually given me the time to concentrate on this and (hopefully) I can get most of it completed before I start my new job.

Other ups and downs have included the anniversary of the passing of both my maternal grandparents, the death of a close family friend, the nine year anniversary of announcing I was moving to China, and getting a new job in Myanmar as KS2 Coordinator (overseeing classes in years 3 to 6/ages 7 to 11 for non-teachers!). I’m very much looking forward to my new job and settling into my new home; I just hope the borders open in time for me to get there and finish any quarantine that’s required before I’m due to start at the beginning of August.

Rainbow after a thunderstorm.

India part 3: Sambhar

A huge lake that seemed to stretch all the way to the sky greeted us upon our arrival in Sambhar. Only a two hour drive from Jaipur, Sambhar Heritage Resort has two locations – one in the town of Sambhar and one the other side of Sambhar Salt Lake, the largest salt lake in India. We got a little lost finding the resort but we made it eventually and had our breath taken away by the stunning views across the lake.Shreyans, the manager, welcomed us to Sambhar Heritage Resort. We were given a drink of fresh guava juice with a rim of salt from the lake, and then shown to our rooms which were Swiss tents.The resort rooms are all tents because the land is owned by the government and so permanent structures are not allowed to be built there, other than those already there. One such building is the resort restaurant, NaCl, which is 150 years old and was built by the British. We had a delicious lunch in NaCl and around 3.20pm we set off for our local tour.We were asked if we’d rather drive along the road or across the lake, to which we said definitely across the lake! As it’s dry season the water level in the lake is lower than usual and so it’s possible to drive across part of the lake bed as a shortcut to the other side. We stopped for a few minutes to admire the view and look at the flocks of flamingos through the binoculars Shreyans had considerately brought with him for us to use.As we continued on our way we saw a few nilgai which is the largest of the Asian antelopes and whose name means ‘blue cow’. The females are brown and the males are a blue-grey colour. We got quite close before they bolted.Sambhar Salt Lake is 9% salt with a maximum depth of only 3.5 feet and is about 90 square miles. In comparison the ocean is usually around 3.5% salt.Across the curve of the lake we reached a small peninsula. Here we visited Shakhambari Temple, where there are Indian records showing there has been a temple here for at least 2000 years.In the temple we were blessed by the priest and each given a red bindi, our first of the trip. We then climbed up to a viewpoint where we had a 360 degree view of the lake and the hills behind.In this part of India Marwari is the local language and only a couple of the staff at the resort speak English. Shreyans’ English was excellent, which may be why he was our main contact and guide while we stayed in Sambhar.Once we’d had our fill of the views we drove back through a local village and to a small shop, encountering a few local animals on the way.We went back to the resort where we picked up bicycles so we could cycle along the dam across the lake. After a rather bumpy ride Shreyans showed us agood place to stop and watch flocks of flamingos fly overhead while the sun set. It was beautiful.We cycled back to the resort, and my bike chain came off for the second time whilst Toby’s bike broke completely; he got a ride on the back of the motorcycle Shreyans had ridden in on the back of, while he walked back with Toby’s broken bike.We had a few minutes chilling out in the room then met around 7pm for dinner, which was included in our tour package. We had an Indian feast! To start we had vegetable, noodle and coconut milk soup followed by an appetiser of tikka paneer. We then had palak paneer, mushroom curry and dal, accompanied by garlic naan, saffron rice and salad. This banquet was finished off with a hot carrot pudding, which was interesting in both flavour and texture. I quite liked it but the others weren’t so sure!We ended the evening playing Monopoly Deal with a couple of glasses of beer (or Bacardi breezer in my case) in Jo and Nikki’s room, before a very quiet night’s sleep interspersed with the sounds of wild animals.After a breakfast with all of the food, we went on a tiny train that seats only six people plus staff. It’s around 100 years old, stopped working in the 1970s and was renovated in the last couple of years to be used as a tourist attraction. It still has the same engine as when it had originally. It was used initially by the Britishers and engineers to check on the salt production. They always had to have five people on the train (three in the driver’s cabin and two in the back) as when they got to the far end the train had to be physically picked up and turned around to go back again! So for safety, we also had to have five people as well as us in case the train needed to be picked up and turned around.We rode the train out to the salt pans, with a short stop for the points to be manually changed. The colour of the water, and the stillness was incredible.At the salt pans water is pumped from the lake to the salt pans to a depth of 3-3.5 feet. It is left for about three months didn’t which it evaporates down to about 1-1.5 feet. Salt crystals form on the surface and once they get to a certain density they sink to the bottom. You can literally put your hand in the water and scoop out a handful of salt crystals.The larger pans use tractors to scoop out the salt crystals, the smaller ones in town are done by hand. Once the salt has been removed the remaining water is pumped out back to the lake. This left-over water has a very high bacteria content which means algae grows well which attracts the flamingos to the lake. Workers then remove the top layer of soil in the bottom of the pan by hand, add a fresh layer of soil then pump fresh water in from the lake and the whole process starts over again. Start to finish it takes around 3.5 months. As this is a government enterprise the salt is sold at only 5 rupees per kg. This is very cheap as most companies sell their salt for 12 rupees per kg.We stopped out by the salt pans while the manager Shreyans explained the process to us, and then waited while the workers collected some fresh salt to give us.There are 32 or 33 salt pans here and they produce 10% of the salt consumption for all of India. Sambhar salt is just for Indian consumption, it isn’t exported as mostly Himalayan salt is exported from India.This was our final experience in Sambhar, and absolutely fascinating. We were each given a small pot of the salt that had been collected for us to take home. A perfect souvenir before setting off for our next stop, Jodhpur.

India part 2: Jaipur

We arrived in Jaipur around 10pm after a long day sightseeing in New Delhi followed by a long 5 hour drive. There was a bit of a mix up with the rooms but we (or rather, Toby) got it sorted and we eventually got to bed. We had breakfast at 8am and left at 9am to pick up our local guide, Arvind.

Arvind was a fountain of knowledge about Jaipur. He told us that Jaipur is known as the Pink City, it was founded in 1727, and built by the Hindu Maharaja Jaising. The red ochre colour of the buildings means good luck and welcoming, and was chosen by the Queen of Jaipur at the time. The interior city is 10 square km and surrounded by a wall with gates on the four sides, with a 2 mile 40 yard long straight road from the Sun Gate to the Moon Gate. Hindi is the main language in Jaipur, which is one of 18 languages spoken in India.

Our first stop was the Palace of the Wind. It has 5 floors, lots of tiny windows and was built in 1799.

Next we headed to the Amber Palace. Once we arrived in the small town surrounding the palace, we were asked whether we wanted to ride an elephant up. Toby and Nikki rode an elephant (all the elephants that walk up to the palace are well-looked after and only do a maximum of five trips a day, and are all female); Jo and I went in the car up the hill. Around the town and the package is a 12km long wall, like a mini version of the Great Wall of China. It was built in the 16th century, around the same time as the palace which was completed in 1592 by three different kings and took 25 years to build. In the town is also a palace from the 10th century with the same name.

The town next to the palace, Amber Town, is over 1000 years old. The town and palace names are the same, named after the Hindu goddess Amber, goddess of art. There was a 400-year-old painted fresco of the Hindu goddess Lakmi with lotus flowers, which is her flower and the symbol of prosperity and good luck. In the palace is a saffron garden; saffron is only grown in three places in the world: in Kashmir, India, in Spain and in Iran. Within the palace are two separate areas, the winter palace and the summer palace on opposite sides. In the winter palace is a mirrored room made with glass imported from Belgium. Interestingly, the Maharaja had a wheeled chair as he had 4kg of jewellery that he wore and so he couldn’t walk when wearing it all. He had 12 wives, and each wife had her own apartment within the palace.

Another thing our guide told us was about the Indian caste system. Hinduism is all across India, and there are 4 castes – priest is the highest level then warrior, merchant and lower caste. Maharajas are all warrior caste, which means the priests are above them although don’t have any wealth. Families are very traditional in India; people must marry within their caste and around 90% of marriages are arranged. When daughters get married their parents must provide a dowry, which means that in a poorer family with several daughters some of them may never marry. However the divorce rate is very low with only 5-10% of marriages ending in divorce. Unfortunately, due to this traditional outlook, a high percentage of women are still illiterate, mostly in the countryside.

Next we went to see Jal Mahal, the Water Palace, which was built in the 18th century and was where the Maharaja and queen would stay in the summers.

Jaipur is known for block printing fabric. Wooden blocks are used (minimum 1, maximum 7) or metal blocks for silk, to print intricate designs on a large sheet of fabric. This fabric is then turned into clothes, scarves, cushion covers, bed spreads and much more. Only vegetable dyes and all natural fabrics are used. Once the fabric has been printed it is then left in the sun for 40-60 hours then washed 2 or 3 times to fix the colours. They have to stop production in monsoon season, but otherwise it continues all year. According to the manager of the store, block printing is like a married man, never perfect! But that’s part of what makes it unique. More than 400 families living in nearby villages work on this project. After the demonstration we looked around the shop where they sell all the products and we were shown samples of all the different fabrics. None of us bought anything, although it was all very interesting.

Next it was time for lunch, and this time we had a buffet for 600 rupees at Aanandam restaurant. The food was fine, although not as good as lunch the previous day.

After lunch our guide took us to the City Palace, or the Palace of the Maharaja. We decided not to go in as cost was 3500 rupees (about £35) for the full tour, 2000 rupees (£20) for half or 700 rupees (£7) just for the museum.

As we were leaving we saw a small boy (who we had also seen at the Water Palace) who wanted to show us some magic. As it seemed he had followed us all the way there and waited for us we agreed to watch his magic show. He was actually really good. We just hoped that the tip Toby gave him wouldn’t be taken from him by older street children.

Next we went to Jantar Mantar, which means ‘instrument of calculation’. This is a large complex of huge astronomical instruments that are part of the buildings. It was built in 1728 by the founder of Jaipur city and took 6 years to build. The various instruments are used to calculate the angle of the sun, planets and constellations, as well as make people’s horoscopes. You can also find the biggest sun dial in the world here, and loads of chipmunks running up and down one of the trees.

Finally our guide took us to a spice market stall, some flower stalls and a small bazaar (which was really a line of small shops) selling jewellery, shoes and clothes.

On the way back to our hotel we drove past Albert Hall, which was built in 1876 and named after Prince Albert who came over from London to visit Jaipur around that time.

For dinner we explored the area near our hotel and eventually found a place not too far away. We ended our stay in Jaipur with some tasty food and a couple of drinks.

India part 1: New Delhi

Travelling from Hong Kong to New Delhi, India, turned into a bit of a saga. To begin with our flight time was changed to an hour later. We boarded for the new flight time of 8.35am and then sat on the tarmac until finally taking off at 10.10am. Probably because of this delay, we then had to make an unscheduled landing in Varanasi to refuel! We eventually landed in New Delhi at 3.50pm, 3 and a half hours later than scheduled. By the time we got our luggage, found an ATM and got sim cards, the driver who was picking us up to take us to our hotel had been waiting around 7 hours for us! I felt really bad for him, but there was nothing Toby and I could do except explain and apologise.

Another hour and twenty minutes later, and we arrived at our hotel for the night where we met our friends Nikki and Jo who we would be travelling with for the next two weeks. We had a delicious dinner of paneer tikka butter masala with garlic naan in the hotel restaurant, and then went straight to bed.The next morning began the first day of our tour. At 9am after breakfast we were collected from our hotel by our driver, Swami, who was to be with us for the whole two week tour. We picked up our local guide for the day, Shiva, and drove to our first site: Jama Mosque.

A flight of steps rose up to the entrance, where we had to leave our shoes and rent a long robe (women only) to wear over our clothes. Built in 1650-1656, Jama Mosque is the largest mosque in India and is still used for religious ceremonies and services as well as being a tourist attraction.

After a tour of the main courtyard and building, we were asked if we wanted to climb the tower for an extra 100 rupees. Of course we said yes, and proceeded to climb the 120 very narrow, steep and twisty steps to the top. At the top there was no barrier around the stairs so it felt rather precarious on the tiny landing, especially as there were four other people already up there. However, it was definitely worth it for the view.

After returning the robe and paying a small fee to the man who was looking after our shoes, we drove to the Rajghat – the memorial for Mahatma Ghandi. He was cremated in Delhi and his ashes were scattered in the rivers of India. The stones of those rivers were then placed around the memorial.

It was very peaceful, and I found it quite surprising that such a large, green area was in the middle of New Delhi after all the noise and dust of the traffic just a short distance away. Flying just overhead were many eagles, which I also found surprising as I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many in one place in the wild.

We drove past the president’s house which was surrounded by people setting up for celebrations for Republic Day on 26th January. We weren’t allowed to stop as tourists aren’t allowed in any of the 340 rooms in the president’s house. India has a president as well as a prime minister; our guide Shiva told us that the president is just a signatory with no actual powers and the prime minister is the main person in charge. He also told us a little of the history of India: Independence Day is celebrated on 15th August; India was ruled by the Moguls 1246-1857 and ruled by the British 1857-1947. He also told us that Muslims always used red stone for buildings with some white marble to make it beautiful, apart from the Taj Mahal which is all white marble, whereas the British always used sandstone so this is how you can tell who built various buildings.

The India Gate was our next – very brief – stop. A huge war memorial of the British times and reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe, it was built 1912-1929 at the same time as the president’s house and parliament buildings. This is the VIP area of the city, with all the buildings designed by the same architect, Edwin Ludynes.

Our next stop was a delightful restaurant called Suribachi for lunch, which was so delicious! We shared dishes of paneer butter tikka masala, cauliflower curry, broccoli roasted with yogurt and cheese, garlic naan and saffron rice. I tried to order fresh lime juice but instead was given salted lime juice. I asked for sweet lime juice instead and they just added sugar to the same drink so it was still salty, if a little less so. I tried to ask again for sweet not salty and the same thing was repeated. On the fourth attempt I finally managed to get a fresh drink with just sugar and no salt added! A classic example of the language barrier in effect, but I was none the worse for wear and tried a salty lime juice drink I would never have ordered otherwise.

After lunch we were taken to a shop selling carpets made from Kashmir wool, pashmina and silk. We were given a talk about how the carpets are made on a hand loom: a carpet 2.5ft by 4ft takes 5 months to make; a carpet 6 by 9ft takes 14 months with 282 knots pet square inch, and costs £1485 delivered to your home somewhere in the world; the largest size carpet takes 2.5 years to make. They draw the design on graph paper first then transfer it to a coded chart, which they follow on the loom. The carpets are hand-knotted: each knot is individually tied, pushed down into the row and cut. Each is cut downwards which gives a diagonal direction to the pile, and you can then tell the difference between a hand-knotted carpet and a machine made carpet. Also cutting the threads diagonally gives a different shade of colour depending which direction you look at it, dark one side, light the other, which machine-made carpets don’t have. Then the row is pushed down and the base threads are switched front and back before repeating the whole process with the next row. The edging is done separately. When the carpet is finished on the loom it’s taken off and trimmed with special scissors flat on the floor. Only natural vegetable dyes are used to dye the threads. The back is as good as the front with the design, which is another way of telling hand-made carpets from machine-made. The carpets are always washed before being sold as they have been on the loom for months, or sometimes even years.

Our final stop of the day was Qutub Minar, which is named after the person who designed it and had it built, and is a UNESCO World heritage site. It was built in 1193-1210 and is 72.5 metres tall – the tallest building from the 12th century – with 379 stairs to the top. The buildings next to it were built in the 4th century as a Hindu temple but then were converted into a mosque when the minar was built.

In 1296-1311 work on the nearby Alai tower began. It was planned to be 150 metres tall but Alai, who was building it, died and no one else thought it could be done so it was left unfinished and only the base remains.

Once we left the Qutub Minar our tour guide Shiva left, with a tip of 1000 rupees from us, to catch the bus. We set off on a 5 hour drive to Jaipur after a fantastic first day in New Delhi, India.