‘Ghost city’: Commute through China’s deserted capital amid coronavirus

BEIJING (Reuters) – Snow covers the ground and the trees are bare amid near-freezing temperatures.

Despite this, Beijing would typically be thronged with morning traffic and tourists heading to Tiananmen Square, the Great Hall of the People and the Forbidden City.

Instead, Reuters Greater China Chief video producer Mark Chisholm has spent the last 10 days commuting through a “ghost city” to work amid an extension of the Lunar New Year holidays due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“You see empty walkways, empty streets with very little cars, bicycles or motorbikes,” Chisholm said.

The virus, believed to have originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, has killed more than 630 people and infected more than 31,000, the vast majority of them in China.

The outbreak is also inflicting a growing toll on businesses and consumers in the world’s second-largest economy. Strict transport curbs have been imposed in many parts of the country, and like Beijing, some cities are in virtual lockdown.

Chisholm exits the diplomatic compound where he lives through double doors, and a guard at the gate wearing a face mask checks his temperature.

Chisholm finds Chang’an Avenue, the capital’s main thoroughfare, almost completely deserted, with one or two people standing at bus stops, and roads devoid of traffic.

He then heads down a flight of steps into the underground Yong’anli train station on Line 1, his voice echoing in the vacant stairwell. The only people he encounters are the workers operating the thermal scanner at the turnstiles.

A platform normally packed with hundreds of people is eerily empty, the automated announcements reverberating in the otherwise silent station. Passengers sit in small groups on the train, everyone masked and no one making eye contact.

Chisholm gets off and walks into the three-storey Wangfujing shopping mall, filled with shuttered shops and bright red Lunar New Year decorations featuring oversized rodents to mark the Year of the Rat.

Finally, as Chisholm nears the Reuters offices, he sees a man in a hazard suit spraying disinfectant into dark corridors from a yellow backpack.

“I’ve lived in Beijing for 15 years and never seen the city so deserted,” Chisholm said. “I actually find it rather sad that this usually vibrant place has become a ghost city with 25 million people holed up in their apartments.”

(Reporting by Thomas Suen and Mark Chisholm; Writing by Karishma Singh. Editing by Gerry Doyle)