• Richard Mandell

China: Golf, Noodles, and Quarantine

I’ve been told that my blog is a little too, “essayist”, maybe a little too measured with the preaching of what I think golf course design should or shouldn’t be. It’s also a little too long and not spontaneous enough. So I’ve decided to throw all that out the book for the next few entries as they happen. But I’ll return eventually preaching my truths and spreading the word about affordable and challenging golf. Right now, I’m quarantined in Beijing…


43-C. That’s where she sat. Right in front of my own, 44D. She wore a mask over her mouth. I thought that was an odd thing to do at first, but quickly realized that it was probably a smart thing to do. She was protecting herself. I was protecting myself with the first two bottles of antibacterial hand gel I had ever purchased – at the RDU airport.


At first, I was angry at her, maybe still am. I don’t know. She probably had no idea she was sick. She may not have even been sick when she was there. But at some point in the next few days, she did get sick. Swine flu. It’s only killed 127 people in the United States. Whereas all lives are vitally important, the fact is that between 250,000 and 300,000 people die of plain old flu every year.

That is why I, a golf course architect, am reaching the end of my first day, with three more to go, as a prisoner of the People’s Republic of China, with possibly no chance of seeing the Great Wall, sitting in a hotel room in Beijing with zero air conditioning. So you want to be a golf course architect? Be careful for what you may wish. And she is somewhere in Sichuan Province, wherever that may be. Here I am in the Yanxiang Hotel and she’s not.


At first I thought my friends were joking when they told me they got a call from the government. The medics slowly eased us into the reality that I was going away for a few days. We had to return to my hotel for a simple test. As we got closer they called to tell me I may have to go into quarantine. When we arrived it took another hour for them to show. By then, panic set in and my neck started getting sore. If you turn your neck every two seconds for 1,800 seconds straight to see if someone is coming in the front door, your neck will be sore too. They arrived as a team of six and instructed me to put a mask on first. I was then branded by society as hotel guests suddenly took notice of me and ran through their minds the possible encounters they could have possibly had with the “maybe - infected”. Now I truly know how it feels to be an outcast. Not just the only Philadelphia Flyer fan in Rye, New York outcast. A true outcast.


Panic set in again when my friends were in the hallway of my hotel negotiating with the medical authorities about my release from quarantine sooner than the requisite seven days. I knew they had no chance. And they didn’t. I packed my things ready for an experience of which I had no precedent. As they loaded me into the ambulance, I realized I was stuck. As I pulled in I began my quest for escape. They kept passing the buck and told me to contact the American Embassy. After being told they were closed until Monday for a special event, I begged to speak with someone. Luckily that happened but the word was that the Chinese government would not budge on the seven day quarantine. Who can blame them? They are probably smarter than all of us. Why allow some disease into your country when you can slow it down some. Luckily for me, my quarantine started the time I got on the plane in Newark. I’m only stuck for four days. Wish me luck.


***


I’ve been hoarding my water. It’s as close as I’ve ever been to prison (with the exception of my brother’s bodybuilding competition in Philadelphia about 25 years ago) and I really don’t know how to react. So my survival mode kicks into full gear. I’m thinking strongly about working out somewhere in this hotel until I see someone running the stairs. That doesn’t seem very fun, what with a mask and all. There is no gym here, either. There probably is, but they must keep it from us so we don’t breathe each other’s germs. Our rooms are like saunas for this very same reason. I have set up my lone oscillating fan to run from head to toe without wasting any energy elsewhere in my room, which is good with the exception that my drinking water turns from cool to boiling in a matter of two minutes. I’ll tell you the truth – this fan is better than sex.


All I do is eat and sleep in my warm little womb. When mealtime comes, the real treat is the free A/C where they dish out my food. Greeted by masked gastronomists, I’m treated to grunts toward some of the best Chinese food I have ever had in my life (a compliment) and then I find myself begging for two waters at the end. My request is summarily dismissed. The next day I ask for some from the refrigerator: My second dismissal.


As I walked to the buffet line tonight, I noticed a bunch of guys getting takeout pizza. As my mind considered how I missed out on the insider trading I proceeded on to the buffet line, knowing that the worst institutional Chinese food here is ten times better than the best Chinese food at home (although when compared to Chinese food in America, that may as well be Chun-King in a can; the Chinese buffet has truly eliminated Chinese cuisine from the upper echelons of good gastronomical experiences in America). As I walked back past the pizza zombies, I noticed the boxes looked like a Chinese Pizza Hut. That can’t be good.


I got my test results back this evening. Four hours past my 24-hour testing period, I still hadn’t heard anything so I decided to ask on my way to cool off in the buffet line. “No worries”, said the one who told me to call the American Embassy about getting out sooner than the seven day observation period. Before she checked, I was told that someone would have taken me to the hospital if I hadn’t passed. I was grateful for many reasons, none more important than knowing I didn’t have another ambulance ride in me as when I arrived: Feeling perfectly healthy, I sat up in the back of the vehicle that took me from my hotel to the Hotel for Swine. Dirty is to put it mildly, unsafe to put it another way.


I knew I wasn’t sick. As the ambulance pulled up, the doctor put a thermometer in my right armpit and after a few minutes, announced my temperature as 37 degrees Celsius. With a smile behind her mask, she declared simply, “good, good”. Since then I was to be in my room every afternoon at four and every morning at nine to get checked. So far, I have been at 37, 36.6, 37.2, 36.8, 36.5, 37.0, 36.6, 37.1, all sterling numbers. My 37.2 number, though, was especially accurate. After forty-five minutes with it under my arm, it was readily apparent that I was abandoned in this particular run. Walking downstairs to the lobby, I was reassured after they read the thermometer. They probably thought I was an idiot; I prefer, ‘dedicated’.


Now that I passed the swine flu test, I can’t possibly catch it where I am. I’ve already changed my return flight from Sunday afternoon to Wednesday afternoon. At this point, I have two days of isolation left. Some of my friends and family have suggested I try to get out early, but I have reached the point where I don’t want to leave yet. I guess I have now entered the same frame of mind of those who are truly captured and have begun to admire – even rely on – their captors.


That sounds romantic enough, but it’s not true. The fact is that four days of isolation should do my weary body well. I have gone non stop every day for years and am beginning a period where I will be on site three days a week, traveling to Orangeburg, South Carolina for one and Washington D.C. for two days, until the end of September. In between, I still have office work to do plus two children under the age of six. Enough said about why my body is run-down.


So in isolation, my first thought is not the forced relaxation, it is instead the opportunity to get a bunch of work done in that time. It is a perfect amount of uninterrupted production. I know I am crazy now. By the way, I ventured outside to the Chinese pond and outdoor seating area for the first time. As I wandered to the far end, I noticed a police barricade at one corner with the notice, “Do not rush the police line”. Four guards slowly eyed me as I rounded the corner to a dead end. They are an uneasy observation for most, but for me, deep in the production of a PowerPoint presentation about Ellis Maples, I am not a threat. Why would I want to leave?


***


Why would I want to leave? Because I’m tired of being in a 95 degree hotel room with two movie channels in English and an ESPN channel that is showing the U. S. Open over and over and over again. Don’t get me wrong, it is good for me, my business, and the golf industry that the Chinese ESPN is repeating the U. S. Open. I believe that is a very good sign that golf is growing here. In a country that has just 300,000 fewer square miles than the United States, there are only 700 golf courses here (compared to close to 16,000 in America). A burgeoning middle class is about to emerge and the need for golf will be quite apparent.


I got my ‘discharge papers’ earlier today. I guess I snuck through without actually spending seven days in isolation. I’ll be gone on day six. No one with the Chinese CDC has caught on that my flight left on the 23rd and arrived on the 24th, so I think I’ve pulled one over on them. Not really. I bet technically the seven-day ticker began when I boarded my plane. I’m not that lucky. Although I am scheduled to leave tomorrow, I still must get my temperature taken twice a day. This afternoon, I registered a 37.2 and was promptly told to “drink more water” by a friendly Chinese doctor.


The other reason I’m ready to ‘go over the fence’ is because I’m done with my Ellis Maples presentation. The magic of the internet has literally allowed me to open a satellite office in Beijing. Uploaded files have saved my scheduling glitch and have made my confinement a lot less stressful. Hopefully by noon tomorrow we’ll be on our way to the Great Wall and in search of a stuffed panda bear for my son, Thomas. In fact, the only casualty from this quarantine is missing the radio show I host each Monday morning. It is a golf show called Tee Times and this week I lined up five players to interview on site at Pinehurst No. 2 for the 109th North & South Tournament.


Instead of being there, I find myself sweating away listening to the streaming broadcast live wishing I was there. But I am helping out in my own long-distance way, keeping track of the players finding their way by calling them on my skype line. Two cents a minute, what the hey. I’m sure some of these kids are wondering how the heck I can be calling them to see if they found our radio show while I am supposed to be stuck in China. That, again, is why the internet is such a powerful tool to run a business from across the country in quarantine.

Nonetheless, I am stuck in a hotel room in China, watching a TV show about China on National Geographic channel (thinking about how I would love to actually see that…) while simultaneously keeping tabs on my radio show in Pinehurst. It’s a very bizarre world situation. China is actually right outside my window, beyond the huge smokestack that dominates my view.


After another restless night sleeping on pillows that may as well be beach towels folded over twice, I am prepping for my final temperature reading. The heat in my room is unbearable, but I intend to drink as much water as possible, just like the Doctor told me yesterday. I’ve got less than four hours to go and I want NO slip-ups. At this point, my TV choices are Mary Poppins or The Incredible Hulk for the too “many-th” time. At least it’s not Jumanji – I can only take that movie eight times in a span of three days. There’s ESPN, but not the regular ESPN. I’ve watched way too much soccer and cricket. I can also continue to monitor the Chinese MTV, (called “V”) tribute to Michael Jackson.


Prepwork paid off! My final temperature reading is 36.3 and I am out. My friend Han called to tell me he is waiting outside. I decided to go downstairs and see if they will let me out at 11:30 instead of the official 12:00 time. No luck. 11:50 is the soonest they let me go – and I was gone. We went straight to the Great Wall.


My next blog will be about the state of the golf business in Beijing and my experiences this past week there regarding the industry and my joint venture with Beijing Rundu – a golf course construction company based in Beijing I have been working with for the past eighteen months.

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