It was a morning of despites. Despite a forecast for rain and fog, we awoke to stunning sunshine and, most remarkably, clear air. Despite fighting off a head cold and having consumed a surfeit of Spanish tempranillo in the Executive Lounge the night before, I felt great and was eager to go for a jog. Despite having had hernia surgery only three weeks earlier, Frank Lee wanted to join me. Despite having no familiarity with the city, no map, and a directional orientation that would later prove to be off by 90 degrees, we headed out.
This part of Qingdao’s foreshore on the Yellow Sea presented a series of working piers between which there are dramatic cliffs of public parkland footed here and there by swimming beaches with a ten foot tide. It was easy to see why the city was chosen to host the sailing competition during the 2008 Olympics, as it showed us a dedicated sailing culture with all the world class facilities and accommodation one could expect.
The hotel, which presented itself as a “European Style Hotel” (whatever that means) had a dancing and drinking establishment called “Blue Bar”. Its promotional poster, used not only in the lobby but in all the hotel’s printed materials, included a photo a drunken blonde woman shouting and swinging a bottle of booze over her head in front of a gaggle of other western partiers. I felt pretty sure this poor woman, probably an attendee at some insurance conference or such, has no idea she had become the Face of Blue Bar.
After stuffing ourselves silly at the breakfast buffet, we hit the streets again, heading downtown. Qingdao may be more familiar to you by its old spelling and namesake beer, Tsingtao. It is no coincidence that the area was leased to the Germans (as a “concession”) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To this day some of the city’s architecture has an oddly alpine or Bauhaus feel. In recognition of this, we enjoyed an ice cream at Haagen Daz of New Jersey for lunch. We headed back to the hotel along the foreshore, taking in the market at the Qingdao Olympic Sailing Center, feeling the afternoon heat.
Back at the hotel, I suddenly realised my entire body ached, I was dizzy and exhausted – and then – well let’s just say it’s a good thing the super-techno toilet detected my approach. It became my best friend over the next fourteen hours, which I spent either asleep or getting to know it better. What we had here, I surmised, was the flu.
Friday morning, I felt a bit better, but Frank was feeling much as I had the previous day. Our supply of immodium was dwindling fast. It was a travel day – we were flying to Seoul, South Korea to visit my cousin Vincent.
After a breakfast of dry toast, we took the hotel’s free shuttle bus for the hour’s drive to the Qingdao airport, 45 minutes of which was the traffic jam of the first three kilometres. On the way, we were pleased to find our Australian mobile phone had acquired a Chinese network, so we called Vincent to confirm plans. He confirmed how to find the Incheon airport bus that would take us the two hours to Mangu Station, near his apartment in eastern Seoul. Vince asked us to call once on board the bus so he could meet us on arrival at the station, as he was sure we’d have a hard time finding his apartment on our own. I agreed, noting that the flight was ninety minutes, but we spend a total of 180 minutes getting to and from the airports.
In flight, and before passing customs and immigration, we were repeatedly warned:
“If you have had fever [check], diarrhoea [check], headache [check], body aches [check], and vomiting [whew, no vomiting!] you MUST identify yourself to health authorities on landing or face significant fines and penalties.”
They did say “and vomiting”, not “or vomiting”, I reasoned, so we did not identify ourselves. We never get bird flu or ebola. Not us.
By many measures, South Korea is the “most wired” country in the world, as there is mobile and Wi-Fi coverage virtually everywhere, even in tunnels, subways and remote mountaintops. So we were flummoxed on arrival to find neither of our mobiles could connect to a mobile network (fucking Telstra strikes again), and despite telling us we were connected to the free airport Wi-Fi, our emails yielded a “message not sent” message each time we tried.
Thus I spent the first hour of the bus ride into Seoul fretting. Frank Lee was fast asleep, getting worse, not better. After sizing up the other half-dozen passengers, I approached a middle-aged businessman I had seen talking on his mobile. After establishing that he spoke some English, I explained our predicament, asking to use his phone to call Vincent. He placed the call, chatting in Korean for some time with Vince – I was impressed. Eventually he handed me the phone, and on the other end was Vince’s Korean wife, Liza. Problem solved.
The businessman refused my offer to reimburse him for an expense he may have incurred on my account, but was eager to chat. He explained in broken but understandable English that he was a Korean immigrant to New York. I explained I was a Bostonian immigrant to Australia, visiting my Bostonian cousin immigrant to Korea. We both got a chuckle out of this.
Earlier, we had asked Vincent and Liza to arrange accommodation near their apartment, as we preferred not to impose on their hospitality. Liza had warned us that there were no western-style hotels in the neighbourhood. The best we could do was a “love hotel”, rented by the hour for romantic interludes. This raised the question of cleanliness for Liza, but from my previous trip to Seoul, I knew the Korean version of filthy was very clean indeed. And let’s face it, every hotel room of any class has played host to more filthiness than anybody wants to think about.
Vincent and Liza met us at Mangu as discussed. They offered again for us to stay with them, but also confirmed that, as we had instructed, they had reserved a room in the most reputable-looking local place, which in their judgement was the “Luxury & Sexy Hotel”, or the L&S for short. “We got you the best, the honeymoon suite!” reported Liza with a wry smile.
To secure the room – preventing it from being rented to others at about $10 and hour — they had paid a fee of about fifty dollars. On arrival, for another $120, the suite was ours until noon the next day, Saturday. The plan was, if the place was OK, we’d stay; otherwise, we’d sack out with Vince and Liza the next two nights.
I have to admit the room was far nicer and cleaner than I had expected for a place that people pay by the hour to have sex. The main room was entirely panelled in dark wood with oriental carvings, with a step-up platform bed of reasonable firmness. There was a spectacular spa and rain shower room, equal in the size to the main room. Disturbingly, there were no windows – until Liza fiddled with a couple buttons, pressed and pulled various levers, pushed a panel, and, voila! There was the roaring world. We closed it back up immediately.
Dropping our bags, we went to their apartment for a lovely dinner. Reacquainting ourselves, it was difficult to disguise the ills we suffered. Liza resolved to get us some drugs in the morning to address the circumstance.
Around midnight, we found our way back to the Hotel Luxury & Sexy without difficulty. Dousing the lights we discovered each panel in the room was bordered with glowing neon that gradually shifted colour, impossible to turn off. Also impossible to turn off was the kaleidoscopic light that projected from the foot of the bed onto the ceiling. So too was the television! With the TV, at least I could yank the cord out of the wall. With the ceiling light, we could cover the projector with baggage. But we would spend the night in a luxurious and sexy spectrum glow with rampant diarrhoea and fever. It was a rough night.