As we made our way south in the Shangdong Province in the fall of 2006, I was about to have what would later be remembered as some of the best and worst experiences in China.
After two days and one night in PengLai, we were back on the tour bus headed for our next adventure in WeiHai.
Our stay in PengLai had been pleasant. The hotel was nice, but different from what I’d expect in America. It was rated a four-star, simple with lovely décor and, for the most part, clean. The toilet didn’t flush and the shower sprayed water all over the entire bathroom. But, other than that, it was pretty nice.
The anticipation of our next hotel had me walking on air. It was to be another four-star and this time beachfront. The beach is one of my favorite places to be, so I was really looking forward to spending some time in the sand and the surf with my kids.
The exact words in the description were, “A seaside vacation resort town with a blue sky, delightful weather and beautiful sandy beaches.” So, you can see that my expectations were justifiably high.
Furthermore, I was impressed to find out the Chinese government named WeiHai as China’s cleanest and most environmentally friendly city.
Unfortunately, that didn’t describe the experience I was about to have.
We arrived to our destination at lunchtime and our group dined in a private room at a restaurant sitting at round tables heaped with dishes of seafood, meats and vegetables. The custom in China is for the food to be served family style on a rotating disc and everyone uses chopsticks to take what they want as it comes by.
Straight from the restaurant, we took a ferry to a beautiful island, fragrantly decorated with elaborate arrangements of flowers. We sauntered around the island admiring the beauty and took a peek at a war museum.
Since the museum tour was conducted in Chinese, Brian and I ducked out and sat in a large courtyard admiring the architecture while our kids entertained us with their smiles and antics.
While I had a good time on the island, my excitement for the beach was mounting.
Late in the afternoon, we arrived at our hotel and walked into a gorgeous lobby. Huge chandeliers hung from two-story high ceilings and gigantic mirrors reflected the shimmering crystals. Wooden Grandfather clocks stood at attention on sturdy marble floors. The effect was stunning.
Adjacent to the lobby was an elegant restaurant with enough red velvet chairs to seat several hundred. There were about eight employees standing around in their fancy attire, but, strangely, there was not a customer in the entire place.
That’s probably because once folks saw their room they imagined what the kitchen looked like so they would never eat there in one million years.
Still oblivious to that fact, we hauled our kids and luggage up four flights of stairs since there wasn’t an elevator.
When we opened the door to our room, I saw a tiny space with two twin beds and carpet that looked like it had not been vacuumed or cleaned in years. There were bugs on the floor, mildew and mold on the walls, and when we turned on the tap in the bathroom, the water ran through the drain and onto the floor.
The stench was dusty and moldy and hung in the back of my throat more and more the longer we were there.
The beds were tiny so it was hard to see how we were going to squeeze two adults and all three kids in them. I decided to try to move the beds together. That was a mistake. If it were possible, the space under the beds was even more grotesque than the rest of the floor. We decided to leave them.
It seemed best to get out of the room, so while Brian took Isaac in the baby backpack and headed up the road to take pictures of a gigantic dragon carved into the mountainside, my five-year-old, Sophie, and nearly four-year-old, Ian, and I went to find the beautiful beach we had heard about.
I quickly realized that while our hotel may have been beachfront once upon a time, there were now several new hotels under construction between us and the beach.
We found ourselves winding down a narrow pathway with trees on both sides, and, strung between the trees were the hugest spider webs I’ve ever seen. The equally gigantic spiders inhabiting the webs were between 2 and 4 inches in diameter including the legs. We ducked our heads and walked right under them because we didn’t know what else to do. My day was becoming horrifying to say the least.
We finally reached the beach, and though there was a lot of garbage and a strong stench of sewage, I tried to make the best of it. Walking along, I noticed several deep holes exposing the new plumbing system being installed for the new hotels being built. I reasoned that the smell was probably from crews of workers using the grounds near the construction projects as public restrooms. There’s not much to be done about that since the ground everywhere in China seems to be fair game for toilet needs.
We settled on a sandy section of beach where the kids played for about 5 minutes before another member of the group announced that he had just realized that the vast amounts of liquid flowing across the beach out to the ocean was coming from two open sewer lines pumping out raw sewage right past us, hence the awful smell.
I felt sick to my stomach as I quickly put shoes back on my kids and headed to the hotel with the darkness of evening settling in. There was no way we were braving spider alley again, so we tried a new route, which turned out to be no better.
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As we walked, Sophie chimed in with, “Mommy, there is sand in my underwear.”
That bit of information conjured up all sorts of visions of germs and disease, so I started to really book it back to the hotel to get her into the mildewed shower. As we went along I noticed all the manholes and storm drains had no covers.
Now, I not only had hepatitis on my mind but I also began to worry about losing a kid down a big fat hole in the street.
Once back in the hotel room, I discovered there was no hot water and quickly gave Sophie an icy hose-down while yelling reminders to Ian to “stay on the bed” and “don’t touch the floor.”
Just as I finished dressing the kids in clean clothes, Brian returned to find me having my most difficult culture shock moment, perhaps of all my many overseas excursions.
“I just need a minute,” I said a few times because I mostly needed to breath deeply to keep from vomiting.
Someone knocked on our door and announced that the group was headed to dinner and, although I wasn’t in the mood for food, I didn’t want to stay where I was.
Our dinner was at a place next door run by Muslims, in a yurt, kind of like a large tent with a wood frame.
I am happy to say that the yurt was clean, brightly decorated, comfortable, and the food was good, a refreshing escape from what I’d just experienced at the hotel. We sat on the floor at a short table and ate all kinds of delicacies including an “inside out fish” that still had its head and tail and, though I didn’t discover this until later, a dish made of dogmeat.
After our meal, a dancer in a beautiful yellow dress did swirling dizzying spins and balanced a stack of bowls on her head, and a man sang and played his guitar. It was a wonderfully joyful night. One of the best memories made during our trip and months living in China.
If only I could have slept there on the clean floor of the yurt, everything about WeiHai would have been better.
Unfortunately, I had to go back to the hotel room where Brian, Sophie and Ian somehow squeezed onto one tiny bed and I curled around Isaac, my still nursing baby, in the other.
Once the lights were off and the kids were asleep, I started to hear a scratching, gnawing noise under my bed. “What is that sound?” I asked.
“It’s just someone tossing and turning in the next room on a squeaky bed,” Brian said.
I knew it wasn’t because I could tell that it was in our room and not coming through the wall. I knew that at best it was a cute little mouse, but more likely a fat ugly rat. But, what could I do? Wake up the kids and investigate to confirm my worst fear?
I decided to just pretend Brian was right and not think about it. Still, I guarantee I never slept a wink. I stayed awake clutching my baby tightly to ensure he would not roll off the bed in the night.
First thing in the morning, we dressed and packed as fast as we could. We opted out of showering because the less time we spent in the bathroom, the better.
For breakfast, we got to go back to the yurt, or as I like to call it, “my happy place” in WeiHai. While I look back on the hotel and beach experience with disgust, the meals and shows in the yurt were nothing short of delightful.
Besides dining at the yurt, exploring spider alley, dodging manholes in the street, or playing in raw sewage at the beach, there was nothing at all in our little corner of WeiHai except one tiny, dusty convenience store down the street where we bought bottled water.
We were told later that we had been in a poor mining district and the hotel had been built as an R&R treat for the workers.
As our bus pulled out leaving the horrors of WeiHai in the distance, we stopped at a roadside fruit stand to buy pears touted as a local specialty.
While making the purchase, I noticed a makeshift tent behind the stand. Inside, there was a crude bed on a gravel and dirt floor. My first thought was, “Does the fruit stand worker take naps in there?”
But then, I saw a hot plate resting on the ground hooked up to an extension cord supplying power from somewhere. Why the hot plate and the bed, I wondered. It slowly dawned on me, that was probably where the fruit stand lady and her family lived.
At that moment I thought about all the many people in the world who would be honored and thrilled to get to stay in the hotel we had just left because it is such a huge step up from what they are use to. I didn’t feel like complaining about anymore.