Road Trippin' Around China During a Coronavirus Outbreak

By Ryan Gandolfo, February 27, 2020

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Anyone who’s been living in China these past two months has experienced something they will likely never forget.

Despite the spread of the new coronavirus disease, known as COVID-19, starting in December of 2019, it wasn’t until right before the Chinese New Year holiday that the virus began to have a significant impact on Chinese society.

Every Spring Festival travel rush, a 40-day period before, during and after Chinese New Year known as chunyunbillions of trips are made around the PRC. Factor in the number of outbound trips from China, and it’s clear that the epidemic happened at an inopportune time – ending many people’s holiday travel plans.

Despite the deteriorating epidemic situation, one group of travelers decided to throw caution to the wind and embarked on a cross-country road trip. The adventure, which they’d been planning for months, would take them from the southern metropolis of Guangzhou to Northwest Gansu and back.

“Just outside of Lanzhou, where the landscape started to change to desert and we were finally out of the busy city.” Image and words provided by Damien Manspeaker

Damien Manspeaker, an American currently living in Guangzhou who teaches and skateboards whenever time permits, recently sat down with That’s to share stories from their 6,700-kilometer road trip.

Manspeaker and three of his friends (one American and two PRC nationals) left Guangzhou in a blue Nissan Versa on January 22 to head west, visiting cities like Xi’an, Lanzhou and Chongqing, as well as sites like Qinghai Lake and Yueya Spring.

On the day of their departure, a total of 440 confirmed cases and 17 deaths were linked to the virus in China – a staggeringly low number compared to recent figures of more than 80,000 total cases and over 2,800 deaths globally.

“Pretending we were traveling doctors to get into a hotel.” Image and words provided by Damien Manspeaker

The foursome traveled through Guangdong, Hunan and Henan before crossing into Hubei province, passing by cities in Hubei as the province started announcing lockdown measures to control the spread of the disease. 

“It was like [the coronavirus was] chasing us,” Manspeaker said about learning of the lockdowns while driving through Hubei. “We’d go past Wuhan and then the city would be on lockdown, and then we leave Hubei and Hubei goes into lockdown as well,” he adds. “We didn’t know it was going to get that bad.”

Following their narrow escape from a possible extended stint in Hubei, the group made their way to Xi’an. Since most of the city’s tourist attractions were closed due to the virus, Manspeaker and his travel companions entertained themselves by exploring abandoned buildings and a train station on the outskirts of Xi’an.

From there, the group headed towards Lanzhou, where they arrived on January 26.

“This was around Xi’an. A very old abandoned train station and village that looked like it was out of a horror movie.” Image and words provided by Damien Manspeaker

“Everything was closed or completely abandoned. Even getting food was a challenge.” Image and words provided by Damien Manspeaker

“Inside one of the abandoned buildings, we took a nice family photo – propping the camera on the side of a broken table.” Image and words provided by Damien Manspeaker

Known for its delicious, hearty beef noodles, Manspeaker shared his excitement in visiting Gansu’s capital city. “I wanted to go there just because of [the beef noodles] … Lanzhou la mian was the first thing I ate when I came to China, so it was a very historic moment for me.”

Despite the lack of traffic, temperature checks conducted by workers in hazmat suits along the road were arguably the bane of the trip. “It was so unorganized,” Manspeaker recalled, “It was like negative 15 degrees [Celsius] and they’d make you get out of the car and wait in line to get your temperature checked, but I was thinking this is going to get me sick.”

“We had to go through unorganized virus checks every few hours. Every time we would see someone in all white we would try to avoid them.” Image and words provided by Damien Manspeaker

After Lanzhou, the group arrived at Qinghai Lake, where there was hardly a tourist (or anyone, for that matter) in sight. Staying at one of the only open hotels in town, the travelers found their room lacking some important amenities. 

“It was really creepy and the place was so cold it didn’t have any water because it was ‘broken,’ so we couldn’t take a shower,” said Manspeaker. “And the heater was broken [as well], so it was negative 20 degrees Celsius. When we woke up in the morning, the window was covered in ice.” 

They were able to put the rough night behind them, however, and visit frozen Qinghai Lake the next day; they even managed to skateboard on the icy surface.

“Frozen Qinghai Lake. Nothing as far as you can see. It was so beautiful.” Image and words provided by Damien Manspeaker

“Seemed like you could really just walk forever and it would never end.” Image and words provided by Damien Manspeaker

Check out the video below to see a clip of the group skating on the frozen lake (VPN off):

The next and final stop on their road trip was Dunhuang, a city with a population under 200,000 on the edge of the Gobi Desert. While en route to Dunhuang, the friends were stopped at another checkpoint where a worker told them that the city was “closed.” After explaining their desire to reach the long-awaited final destination, the worker said she would “let them pass at their own risk,” according to Manspeaker. 

snow-trail-road-trip.JPG“This was the first time our friend Dongdong saw snow. Traveling from Xi’an to Lanzhou.” Image and words provided by Damien Manspeaker

“Mount Hua. It was like the Choco Mountain level in Mario Kart 64.” Image and words provided by Damien Manspeaker

The four travelers encountered several more temperature checkpoints along the highway before finally arriving at Yueya Spring, an oasis 6 kilometers south of Dunhuang. Also known as Crescent Lake, the site has existed for thousands of years and is composed of a temple and moon-shaped pond hidden by sand dunes.

“The main reason we wanted to go on the trip was to get there,” Manspeaker told us, adding that they shortly contemplated turning back towards Guangzhou after Qinghai Lake. Although probably not surprising, the travelers unfortunately found the natural wonder of the Gobi Desert closed to the public. 

Instead of packing it in, however, the foursome decided to forge ahead on foot. They passed by roaming camels and eventually found a partially open gate that allowed them to access the sand dunes. 

“We came all this way, so we were going to see this thing,” Manspeaker said, reminiscing about the epic scenery that laid before them. And for some added thrill, they brought a skateboard without trucks along for dune surfing.

“We climbed up this huge sand dune and every step you would take you would sink and slide back down the dune. When we finally got to the top, we were dead.” Image and words provided by Damien Manspeaker

“This is Dunhuang. After we climbed to the top, we watched the sunset.” Image and words provided by Damien Manspeaker

“Climbing up the sand dunes. Definitely a two-step forward, one-step back situation because you would slide down with every step.” Image and words provided by Damien Manspeaker

Their trip back to Guangzhou from Dunhuang was just as eventful, with a bizarre detour along the way. From Dunhuang, the group headed straight back to Lanzhou, passing by cities like Jiayuguan, famous for the Jiayu Pass section of the Great Wall. When they reached the city limits of Gansu’s capital, though, the group were in for a rude awakening – the travelers were denied entry into the city amidst growing fears of the rapidly spreading virus. 

“They said it’s not their problem where we sleep tonight,” Manspeaker recalled about the distasteful interaction with the guards outside of Lanzhou. 

“This was what we saw as we rolled up to Lanzhou at 2am, getting denied entry and told “It’s not our problem where you sleep tonight. Turn around.” Image and words provided by Damien Manspeaker

Without recourse, the group ultimately turned around and ended up in Lintao county in neighboring Dingxi. Arriving around 2.30am, Manspeaker described the sleeping settlement as being eerily like the setting of horror flick Silent Hill. Eventually, the group ended up sleeping outside of a gas station in oddly placed massage chairs (could be worse, right?).

”After we were denied entry into Lanzhou, we slept at a gas station in these massage chairs.” Image and words provided by Damien Manspeaker

The following morning, they headed to Chongqing to explore and skate, with Manspeaker telling us they had no issue in entering the city. After that, the adventurers made it back to Guangzhou on February 3, completing a wild and eventful road trip in the midst of an epidemic.

The group was fortunate enough to start their trip with 100 masks, courtesy of one of the traveler’s girlfriend, which proved to be a lifesaver as all the pharmacies they visited along the way were sold out. And with most restaurants and shops closed due to both the Chinese New Year holiday and the coronavirus outbreak, food was scarce, with the group largely relying on the limited edibles available in gas stations.

“Everything was perfect in a kind of fucked up way,” Manspeaker told us, recalling the highs and lows of the road trip. Because of the hiccups and unexpected adventures along the way, they’re sure to remember the trip for a long, long time.

[Cover image provided by Damien Manspeaker]

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