Cao never imagined his holiday in eastern Europe would involve hunkering down in a bomb shelter as Russian shells thudded outside near the devastated Ukrainian city of Chernihiv.
The 25-year-old, one of about 6,000 Chinese nationals who were in Ukraine when war broke out, described feeling helpless and abandoned after essentially being told by China’s Embassy in Ukraine to fend for himself.
“The embassy told us to find a way to solve the problems we’re facing by ourselves,” he told AFP from a small town outside Chernihiv where he has sought refuge with a local family.
“They said that fighting is everywhere, they aren’t able to do anything… Shouldn’t this be a nation’s responsibility?” he said via China’s WeChat messaging app.
China waited until war broke out to announce evacuation efforts for its citizens, weeks after Western countries warned theirs to leave, and has avoided condemning its close ally Moscow.
China’s foreign ministry has expressed concern for the safety of its nationals and on Thursday said it had helped more than 3,000 evacuate.
The first two flights carrying evacuees landed back in China on Saturday, state media said.
But many more remain stranded.
“We want to leave, but there are no cars. I’m afraid I’ll be killed if I attempt to walk several hundred kilometres,” Cao said, giving only a nickname.
With Ukrainian airspace shut, some Chinese have joined the desperate rush to catch trains out of the country or are risking the perilous drive to its western borders to get on flights.
A Chinese national was shot and injured on Tuesday while attempting to flee Ukraine, state media reported, without specifying who fired on him.
Cao said locals had been kind to him, offering food and shelter, but added: “I don’t know how much longer I can stay in a stranger’s home for free. How can I survive?”
Other Chinese have claimed they faced hostility and even physical attacks from Ukrainians angry over China’s reluctance to condemn Russia, and have called for Chinese Internet users to avoid inflammatory posts.
China’s internet is frequently a forum for nationalistic, pro-government views, and many users have cheered Putin online in comments apparently condoned by Chinese censors.
But last week China’s Weibo platform deleted hundreds of misogynistic comments about “taking in Ukrainian beauties.”
“Bullets won’t fly out of the screen and hit you, but some inappropriate remarks may cause all of us Chinese here unnecessary trouble,” a Chinese man in Kyiv who identified himself by the surname Lin said in a Weibo video uploaded Sunday.
Lin later told AFP by phone that he was shot at by armed civilians while shopping for groceries last week, but played down local hostility as isolated incidents.
“The psychological pressure on us is enormous… but the embassy is actively coordinating evacuation plans which makes us feel reassured,” said the 28-year-old stand-up comedian, who was in Ukraine for personal business.
He said some objectionable comments online “don’t represent all Chinese people’s attitudes towards the Ukraine conflict.”
Lin said that he would evacuate to the western city of Lviv by train on Saturday before attempting to drive to Poland. He said he refused an embassy evacuation spot because his Ukrainian girlfriend was not eligible.
Some Chinese have received little sympathy back home despite their plight.
A Chinese student in Kyiv on Tuesday posted a recording of her desperate call to an embassy staffer, who advised her to shelter in place or board a train to Lviv by herself.
She later deleted the post after being targeted by a barrage of unsympathetic posts calling her an ingrate.
Recent patriotic Chinese action movies have promoted the idea that citizens facing danger abroad will be rescued by their country, but the reality has been different for Cao.
“I can’t believe that a country … would not only be useless but also shamelessly says it will never abandon a citizen and ends up abandoning a whole load of citizens,” he said.