Author： EnglishTeacher 2022-05-14
Over the hum of jet engines, I could hear the flight attendant comforting a fellow passenger seated a couple of rows behind me. "You're out, and you're safe now," she said warmly.
Our plane had just taken off from Shanghai, a city of gleaming high-rises, home to 25 million people who are slowly being worn down by China's unrelenting zero-Covid regime.
As she approached my row, the flight attendant addressed me with the same concerned tone. "You got out with this little guy, I see," she said, glancing at my rescue dog, Chairman, asleep in his carry case under the seat in front me. "How did you do it? And how are you feeling?" she asked.
It caught me off guard. As a journalist, I'm usually the one asking those types of questions. But on this flight, I was of the few who had managed to navigate the complex process of securing a one-way ticket out of Shanghai.
Right now, expats who want to escape Shanghai typically need consular assistance, approval from community leaders to get extra non-government Covid tests, a registered driver to take them to the airport, and a ticket on a rare flight out (and that's even harder to find with a pet).
But most of all, people leaving must promise their community leaders that once they step through the gates, they won't come back.
CNN correspondent David Culver leaves Shanghai
Deserted roads lead to an empty airport
After 50 days of being locked inside, I could feel my neighbors peering at me from their homes as I left my apartment. They likely assumed I was either being bused off to a government quarantine center like people who had tested positive, or had found a quick escape route like other expats trying to get out.
In fact, my trip had been planned for several months, well before the start of the maddening lockdown. After covering the initial outbreak in January 2020, I stayed in China. But after more than two-and-a-half years away from my close-knit Cuban-American family, I needed to get back.
The commute from Xuhui district in central Shanghai to Pudong International Airport to the east of downtown was nothing like I remembered. Tape lined near-desolate sidewalks, and most stores and restaurants were closed, their shutters down and doors secured with chains and locks.
The few people out on the streets were mostly dressed in hazmat suits, police included. Checkpoints lined the route to the airport, and when my driver was stopped, officers spent several minutes inspecting our documents: flight confirmation emails, negative Covid tests, even a letter from the US Embassy.
As we pulled up outside the terminal, I realized there were no other cars or passengers in sight -- and for a fleeting second I feared my flight had been canceled.
Roads were clear outside Shanghai's usually busy international airport
Taking off from lockdown
Stepping into the airport's eerily quiet Terminal 2 was like advancing to the next level of a video game -- a moment of relief overshadowed by anxiety that some kind of unexpected hurdle could take me back to where I started.
The departures board listed only two destinations: Hong Kong and my destination, Amsterdam.
Departure boards were empty apart from two destinations for flights that day.
No shops or restaurants were open, even the vending machines had stopped working. In the far corners of the massive terminal building, departed travelers had left behind sleeping bags and piles of trash. Some were still there, waiting for what I had -- a flight out.
At the check-in desk, passengers left queues of trolleys piled high with luggage as they waited hours for attendants to appear in white hazmat suits to check them in.
By the time I passed customs and security, the sun was setting on the dimly-lit terminal. Other passengers, mostly expats, huddled nearby, waiting to board, sharing similar stories.
"We're leaving after 5 years," one woman said. "We've been here 7 (years)," another passenger responded, pointing out another couple: "They've lived here about a decade."
The folks I spoke with seemed to have reached the same conclusion: the time they had invested in China's financial hub no longer mattered. It was time to pull out, cut your losses.
Culver took his rescue dog Chairman with him on his flight out of Shanghai.
From the window, I could see our plane at the gate and watched ground crew in hazmats spray each other with disinfectant, sanitizing from their heads to the soles of their shoes after loading the last of our luggage.
When I finally settled in my seat --- with entire rows around me empty -- weeks of built-up adrenaline, anxiety and stress began to ease. For the first time perhaps since the start of the outbreak in March, I felt a sense of relief and certainty, though it was tinged with survivor's guilt as the plane took off.
The flight attendants were seemingly fascinated by each passenger's "escape story" and remarked how they've never had a flight with so many grateful people on board.
Two of them approached my seat as we reached cruising altitude. One of them said, "You all have had a long few weeks, why don't you get some rest. We'll have you home soon."
The other nodded in agreement, and then pointing to her face mask said, "Oh, and just so you're not too shocked, once we land you'll hardly notice anyone wearing these anymore."
"You're about to enter a whole new world."