Skating around Wuhan seems like a pretty bad idea at the moment, and yet here we are. A few weeks back, professional inline skaters Rob Kellet and Josh Nielsen uploaded a video of themselves skating Wuhan's empty streets to YouTube. Following the outbreak of COVID-19, the two Australians had become trapped there, in the epicentre of China's epidemic. And while they initially appreciated the city's abundance of traffic-free concrete, they had no idea how chaotic things were about to get.
They spent the next few weeks in complete lockdown, before they were evacuated to Christmas Island for a secondary isolation period. During this time, VICE had the opportunity to speak to Rob and Josh about their experience of skating Wuhan, but also what it was like living in the world's Coronavirus ground zero.
VICE: Hey guys. Can you tell us how both of you ended up in Wuhan in the first place?
Rob: We’re performers at theme parks in China. The country has a chain of theme parks in different cities—kind of like Dreamworld but on steroids; a whole lot bigger and crazier—and inside these theme parks, they’ll have a skate park where people will stop by and watch us.
Josh: That was when our China adventures began. 2013 was the first year, and we were going back almost every year from then on until 2019. We’ve been rollerblading around for the past 15 years, and travelling for the better part of the last decade.
Did you have many opportunities to skate while Wuhan was in lockdown?
Rob: We were skating almost every day leading up to the lockdown, and even before it officially happened the streets were already getting kind of quiet, so it was pretty great skating conditions for us. After the lockdown, we were super keen to skate, but it rained for a week so we only had the chance to skate three times. And it was just the one day when we filmed that video.
How did it feel skating Wuhan when it was locked down and deserted?
Rob: It was pretty cool, because we had free reign of the whole place. Security wasn’t a big deal, and it was way easier to skate because you didn’t have to deal with any human traffic. We could skate wherever we wanted, even down the middle of the main roads and the highways, and it was fine. It was pretty surreal with it being that empty, but it was a bit spooky as well. It just felt weird to see China so empty.
What was Wuhan like before the outbreak?
Rob: Just like any other normal Chinese city; just chockers, man. Wuhan is beautiful though: it’s a lake city, so there’s a bunch of really big lakes around it. The traffic was crazy too. We’ve got a view of the second ring road highway from our balcony, and it was just absolutely smashed with traffic every day.
Josh: Yeah, usually when we skate we try to get our tricks and stuff on film, but on the streets you’d just have to wait and wait for people to walk by. In every single spot, no matter where you were, you’d just have people there all the time.
What were your reactions on the lockdown announcement?
Josh: I guess we weren’t really that worried at the start, because we assumed “lockdown” meant the city would be running as normal. Basically, there were three phases of the lockdown. The first phase was when they locked Wuhan’s borders down, shutting down the airport and inter-city trains. A day after they started that, they started blocking major roads leading out. They were barricaded off by the army, and people trying to leave Wuhan had to make a U-turn back into the city.
Rob: Phase two was locking down districts. You needed to have a special permit to travel between them. And the third phase was locking down individual housing estates.
In China, they’ve got huge apartment blocks—ours had 27 levels—and a housing estate is pretty much that same building copied and pasted nine times. So in phase three, that entire complex was locked down. You had to get a ticket from the guard, and you can go out for one hour to buy food every second day. So when Josh, my girlfriend and I were living together, we had to take turns going out.
Did you find it difficult to get food, water, and your daily essentials?
Josh: Nah, surprisingly shops were pretty loaded up. When we were there the shops still had heaps of food, even when we went during phase three of the lockdown. But when you went outside, the streets were all empty. It was kind of spooky being in a city that's normally so busy.
Rob: There was one night where we went out to a convenience store, just to stock up on some food, and when we were walking back we came across this huge intersection. I was screaming out ‘hello!’ and it just echoed all the way throughout the city streets. There was no other noise at all. Nothing.
Speaking of spooky, what were some of the craziest things you saw or experienced?
Rob: There was one time when Josh and I were going out to skate. We were on the bus—this was before the city lockdown—and my girlfriend texted me saying her work told her she needed to wear a mask. So I said to Josh: “we should probably get a mask too, this thing seems to be getting serious.” Then we looked up and realised that literally everyone around us was wearing a mask—even the driver. We were the only two without masks. We were like “oh shit”.
We got off the bus and asked for masks at a nearby pharmacy, but they said they had none left. We went to a Walmart, and it was absolutely chockers with people stocking up on food, but they didn’t have any masks either. We kept going to different pharmacies, and it was the same thing. One shopkeeper said all of Wuhan was sold out of masks. Thankfully, a lady working there heard us, and ran out and gave us some masks from her own personal stash. There were absolutely no new masks coming in.
Josh: Probably the craziest thing I remember was looking out at the second ring road, and maybe every twenty or thirty minutes an ambulance would just flash past. Actually, now that I remember it, there was an ambulance that ended up parking across the street. Three dudes hopped out in full hazmat suits, pulled out a stretcher and just went into a building. We watched it for fifteen to twenty minutes, but they never came back out.
Did you ever bump into someone who you thought had the virus?
Josh: Actually, when we went out to film that vlog there was this one guy riding his bike who stopped to talk to us. He asked us where we were from and all that jazz—but he was sneezing and coughing. He was wearing a mask, but Rob’s just like backing up from this guy like what the fuck, get me out dude.
Rob: [laughs] He was really friendly, but at the moment I was just like oh my God, this is bad. This guy’s sick. And then he took his mask off mid-conversation. We were backing up because we were told two metres is a good distance to keep from everyone at the time. But he just kept moving closer to us. We were trying to be friendly and to have a conversation, but it got to a point where an old man passing by stopped and saw what was happening. He told the other guy to put his mask back on, and that he was real stupid for taking it off. And the sick guy put it back on and apologised, and said he forgot or something like that. Me and Josh were just looking at each other like what the fuck is going on right now.
Do you have any takeaways from this whole episode?
Josh: Even after all this, China’s still definitely a fun place. It’s amazing just having the opportunity to skate as a job over there. I feel like there’s a lot of negative opinions flying around about China and the Chinese—even before the virus. The people there are very welcoming and friendly though.
Rob: Generally, we’ve already been through a lot of crazy shit just through travelling—especially through China. It’s such a weird place to be in; every day you’ll walk out the door and you’ll see something nuts. If anything, being in Wuhan made us realise that it’s not as bad as it may seem in the media. I think we’re both cool with the whole scenario, getting evacuated and getting quarantined at Christmas Island. It’ll be a crazy story to tell later on in life.