Bicycling in Sichuan Under the Shadow of Coronavirus

I fled to the countryside to escape the surveillance state. Instead, it followed me there.

Photo: Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Photo: Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Photo: Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

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The golf cart was labeled “Qinglong Village Novel Coronavirus Patrol,” and the two men and two women who stepped out of it after flagging me down had matching red armbands. I submitted to the now-familiar routine: One of the men zapped my forehead with a thermometer, while one of the women took my picture with her smartphone.

“It’s very dangerous outside,” the woman warned me, after the ritual was complete.

I was used to this too: people talking about the virus like it was a sniper that would cut you down the second you stepped out of your house. Chengdu, the city in southwestern China where I live, was not yet under residential lockdown (that would come later), but people were staying inside anyway. I felt paranoid and hyper-visible whenever I left my apartment, and lonely and depressed when I stayed in it. One morning, about two weeks after Wuhan had gone into quarantine, I woke up and realized that if I stayed in Chengdu for one more day I would probably try to peel off my own skin.

And so I got on my bike and started pedaling south. My hope was that if I could stay in motion, I could elude the mental breakdown that seemed increasingly imminent. And it worked: That sunny February morning on the road, I felt for the first time in weeks that I could breathe. That is, until my run-in with the virus patrol.

“I think it’s okay,” I said to the woman, and attempted a breezy smile behind my mask.

“You speak Chinese very well,” the man who had taken my temperature offered. I like to think that even in the nuclear fallout there will be a middle-aged Chinese man taking a moment to acknowledge a foreigner with passable Mandarin.

I thanked him and answered the usual follow-up questions about my nationality, occupation, and age. In a black notebook the man recorded my phone number and, after deciding my English name was too much trouble, wrote my Chinese name, Huang Dan.

After another warning, and a suggestion that I turn back to Chengdu, the quartet let me continue on my way.

In the three days I spent cycling through the Sichuan countryside in the early days of the epidemic, I had the opportunity to probe the reaches of the famously all-penetrating Chinese surveillance state, which had been fully activated to stanch spread of the virus. At times it was as Orwellian as I had always imagined.

And sometimes it was as innocuous as four friendly middle-aged volunteers in a golf cart.

When I first arrived in China six years ago, one of the features of the landscape that popped out at me was the prevalence of white-on-red propaganda banners that are a signature of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. I liked to practice my character recognition on them: The content varied greatly, encompassing everything from strident nationalist rhetoric to mundane reminders about trash separation. Soon enough, they became part of the scenery and I ignored them as my Chinese friends do. They are so ubiquitous that when I eventually got around to watching the 2019 Chinese sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth, I was not remotely surprised to notice a white-on-red banner hanging in post-apocalyptic Beijing.

Still, the sheer number of banners that lined the road to Pengshan, where I planned to stay the night, came as a shock. I started to count one every ten meters or so; they were all about the virus. “Wear a mask, wash your hands, do not go out,” the most common one read. Some were downright hostile: “You come knocking at my door, I don’t answer!” Still others struck a philosophical note: “There’s nothing to fear in being apart.”

If I had not already felt wary by the time I reached city limits, the ghostly streets of Pengshan put me firmly at unease. In Chengdu, some shops and restaurants were still open, but in Pengshan, literally everything was shuttered.

Eventually I found the Fu Yi Grand Hotel, the only establishment in the city that was both still open and credentialed to accept foreigners. The receptionist was expecting me — I assume the virus patrol had called ahead — and I wondered what would have happened if I hadn’t shown up. After signing an affidavit that I had not been to Wuhan or come into contact with anyone from Wuhan in the past 14 days, a staff member showed me to my room.

With heavy brocade curtains, extravagant lighting fixtures, and thick beige carpeting redolent with years of accumulated cigarette smoke, the Fu Yi was the type of place where, in era before President Xi’s corruption crackdown, local bigwigs might have rendezvoused with their mistresses. I parked my bike on the carpet and went to the window. A dull dusk had settled over the city. The only sound I could make out was a loudspeaker somewhere that repeated: “Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Do not go out …”

It’s tempting in such situations to draw comparisons to East Berlin or North Korea, but I’ve never been to either of those places, and really it’s a fresh brand of repression, in which you can order fried rice and fish-fragrant pork slivers to your hotel room on the Meituan app. After eating and showering I bundled myself up in sweatshirts (the heat had been turned off to prevent contagion through the ducts) and fell asleep to the distant drone of the loudspeaker.

The next morning dawned gray and drizzling. At the front desk, I made conversation with the nice receptionist. I remembered that yesterday she had told me the hotel was almost at capacity. Why was it so full? I asked. Surely people weren’t traveling amid the virus? (Traveling, being a good way to transmit the virus from one place to another, had been highly discouraged; I had of course ignored this restriction.)

The receptionist smiled behind her mask, and she told me that the doctors and nurses treating patients at the nearby hospital were prohibited from going home, and so the government had put them up in the Fu Yi.

“There’s also the people from the jail,” she added.

“The jail?” I repeated, not sure if I had understood correctly.

And she explained that, in order to avoid an outbreak at the prison, some of the guards were being held under observation for 14 days to confirm they don’t have the virus before going back to work.

“Maybe you should go back to Chengdu,” she said, adding: “It’s very dangerous outside.”

“I think it’s okay,” I said, although I was less convinced of this than before.

Then she told me that two more cases had been found in Meishan, the city directly south of Pengshan, and she had heard from a friend that Pengshan would go into quarantine today.

This was a problem, because Pengshan was bordered by the Min River to the east, which I needed to cross to get to Leshan, where I planned to stay the night. With only a few bridges across the river, it would be hard to avoid getting intercepted if the city had indeed been sealed off.

I thanked her and left the hotel full of doctors and jailers.

Carefully, I cycled down the west bank of the Min along what seemed to be a brand new highway. Chinese infrastructure projects always feel too big, but the absolute emptiness of the road exacerbated the feeling of agoraphobia by several factors. Red lights flashed periodically at the side of the road and I started every time, thinking they were cop cars.

The first road across the river had a covered and discreet walkway alongside it, but a village official was waiting at the other end. He told me the village down below was closed off and thanked me for my cooperation.

But the second road, I was surprised to find, had nothing obstructing it all. I cycled across the river without a problem. I was still afraid of running into a checkpoint, however, so instead of the main road to Leshan, I decided to take a circuitous route snaking through the villages along the east bank of the Min.

It was half an hour before I admitted to myself that I had probably made the wrong decision.

The eerie silence of the morning had been punctuated occasionally by the passing of a vehicle broadcasting warnings about the virus from a loudspeaker; but as I cycled deeper into the villages, the crackle of loudspeakers grew more frequent, until silences became the exception. I stopped at the edge of the road to listen to a rusty loudspeaker mounted on a pole. A chirpy woman’s voice was announcing the number of cases that had been found in Beijing, in Ningbo, in Shandong. She finished her report and there was a burst of soft elevator music. I might as well have been at a Shop N’ Save in Iowa.

In the past several years, President Xi’s campaign to reassert ideological control in the countryside has spurred local officials all over China to reconnect loudspeakers that have lain dormant since the death of Mao. Typically, these broadcast three times a day; but with the virus no one was taking chances. I hit a flat of fields in which the loudspeakers played the same 30-second announcement on loop. The announcement warned against going outside, gave a hotline for reporting suspected cases of the virus, and signed off with the date: January 25, 2020, which was already a week and a half ago. For some reason the outdatedness unsettled me most of all.

I was getting hungry, and I started looking for a place to eat my lunch with some modicum of privacy. There was nowhere. Houses lined the road on either side. Virus patrols in black coats and red armbands were going door-to-door with thermometers. Families sat in their front yards, warming themselves in front of open flames. Old people set out cabbages to dry and children wheeled around on their bikes. When the virus hit in the middle of the Lunar New Year, millions were stuck in their home villages; I must have seen more people in two minutes of cycling down that road than in all of Pengshan. I sped up, hoping that if I cycled fast enough no one would have enough time to process the five-foot-eight white woman on a neon-green touring bike.

I needed to get back to the main road. Unfortunately, this required navigating the twisting lanes of the village center, which were pulsating with undead sonic equipment. At one point I could hear five or six loudspeakers at varying distances playing the same announcement. The announcements were not synced, however, and they built to a suffocating, dissonant chorus as I cycled with increasing desperation.

Just when I was about to enter full-on panic mode, the densely packed houses cleared away and an empty four-lane highway came into view. Between the edge of the village and the highway was what looked to be a checkpoint with four or five older men sitting in wooden chairs. I sped up, cycled through the checkpoint and up to the highway without looking back.

I turned onto the highway. It was gloriously deserted. Puffing up an incline, I lowered my mask and enjoyed a long exhale.

At the top of the hill was a path leading to another village, which I saw was blocked off with a checkpoint. A man in a Lei Feng hat was pacing back and forth in front of the checkpoint. He shouted at me as I passed by.

“Are you going to wear your mask or not?”

I spent the next day in Leshan resting. I was not only mentally frayed after the countryside panopticon, but physically exhausted from the previous day’s journey. After rejoining the highway, I had missed a turn and ended up following the narrow riverside road up the cliffs above the Pingqiang Three Gorges. Of the few people I noticed amid sparse hillside dwellings, none wore masks. Was there an altitude at which the Chinese government ceased to have influence, a kind of tree line for the surveillance state?

Leshan is home to the world’s largest stone Buddha statue, but like every other tourist attraction in China, the Grand Buddha was closed. Instead I combed the city’s open convenience stores for the next day’s lunch, since every restaurant in the countryside had shut down. It would have to be chips again. I was deciding between flavors when I got a call from a local number.

A man was speaking in a heavy Sichuan accent. Eventually I realized he was saying: “This is Mr. Chen, from Qinglong Village.”

Relieved it wasn’t the police, I greeted my old friend from the virus patrol.

“Are you safe?” he asked.

“Yes, I’m fine.”

“How could you go out on your own like that?” he proceeded to scold me. For the next minute, Mr. Chen warned me of the dangers of traveling alone, especially at this time.

I thanked him for his concern, and he told me to call him if I need help before signing off.

The next morning I set out for Emei Mountain, which lies only 40 kilometers to the west of Leshan. Learning my lesson from the previous day, I stuck to the provincial highway. It was mostly deserted except for a few checkpoints that stopped only cars.

Emei is one of China’s four sacred Buddhist peaks. Shrouded in milky mist and dotted with ancient monasteries, its mythical landscape draws no shortage of yearly visitors. Which meant, of course, that the town was massively overdeveloped, with wide boulevards, two high-speed train stations and a Walmart Supercenter. It took another hour of cycling through faux-ancient developments to get to the mountain itself.

By the time I approached the official entrance to the scenic area, a light rain had started to fall. I was supposed to stay in a guesthouse halfway up the mountain (I would learn later was closed) and began the slow climb up the narrow summit road. It was really as beautiful as in the pictures, thickly forested with bamboo that disappeared into an otherworldly fog. Exhausted, I stopped at a deserted pavilion and listened to the patter of rain outside. I felt something like calm approach.

Suddenly an older man whose orange vest identified him as a sanitation worker rolled up on his scooter. He ignored me and walked to the other side of the pavilion, where he started to watch something on high volume on his phone. Without context, I couldn’t tell if it was news or parody, but the audio came in loud and clear.

Qianwan bu yao chu men, the video squawked. Absolutely do not go out. Qianwan bu yao chu men, it repeated. Qianwan bu yao chu men

Bicycling in Sichuan Under the Shadow of Coronavirus