Prescription for Disaster

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Shangri-La to Shangri-WTF was that?!?

I've had more than my share of horrid hotel experiences (some of my own making, others not so much) to the point that there are very few things that can happen in a hotel that I'll actually complain about now.

Last week was a lovely hotel experience, two days at the Shangri-La in Shanghai and it was, as to be expected, lovely.

Room service on a crisp, white table cloth with freshly squeezed orange juice and the morning English language paper, a bathtub and  a separate shower. The curtains opened and closed with the touch of a button by the bed and the bed, oh the bed. Huge, soft and white with delightfully fluffy pillows and a beautiful and inspiring view of the famous Bund from the 18th floor.

This is unfortunately not the type of hotel that I normally stay in.

Throughout my time in China, particularly when I was tour leading or, god forbid, on dreaded research trips to the far reaches of this wonderful but insane country, my hotel stays were of the budget variety. They were called "adventure class", though at the time I hadn't understood that the "adventure" was often the hotel room itself.

I no longer sleep very well in hotel rooms if I'm on my own, and nearly always need to sleep in a strange room with a light on. Of all of my experiences, the most genuinely traumatising didn't even directly happen to me, but in a room a few doors down the hall one night in one of my favourite little tourist towns in China. I woke up to a commotion in the late morning - it turns out that the cleaning crew had found a dead woman stuffed under the bed - a well known and well liked working girl in the area. I didn't know her, I didn't hear anything and I was obviously not involved, but the fact that something so horrific had happened in such close proximity has freaked me out for life.

Thus my creepy habit of entering a hotel room and immediately checking for dead hookers under the bed and in the closets.

Hotel from Hell - Beijing

Of all the places I have stayed in Beijing, no hotel gave me the creeps more than one that looked deceptively clean and respectable. After a restless night I woke up in the morning to sharp shabby things in my side, arm and lower leg. Thinking that I was being assaulted by creepy crawlies with sharp little teeth I flung off the covers and jumped out of bed to discover that I was partly right.

I had been sleeping with 7 human teeth in the bed with me. They looked to have been freshly knocked out of someone's face the night before.

I was too creeped out to go back to sleep and just got up and left. Ick, ick ick.

Hotel from Hell - Changchun

Although the teeth in Beijing were creepy and gross, nothing beats the level of filth that was my hotel next to the train station in Changchun. I'd just gotten off a 20+ hour train, it was the middle of the night and I was beyond exhausted. I just wanted somewhere cheap, safe and close to get a couple hours of sleep before heading out to the palace the next morning - so a dirty train station hotel seemed like a logical choice.

I checked in and immediately regretted my decision to stay there, but was too tired to care. The walls were  crawling with bugs - cockroaches and multi legged things, moths and a fine layer of dirt on the floor and bed. The room was so gross that I slept on top of the covers with my shoes on, in case I had to make a quick getaway in the night.

The night was fine, if I had eaten any bugs during my sleep I couldn't taste them now anyway so I wasn't too bothered. Wanting to just get out of there and on my way (and opting to brush my teeth on the street with a bottle of water rather than go anywhere near the bathroom down the hall) I quickly drew my bag closed, strapped it onto my back and headed out the door.

As I was walking down the street I heard a strange scratching from somewhere deep within my bag, strapped to my back. The scratching got more frantic and I could eerily feel something moving inside. Something large. That did it for me, I flipped out, started screeching and threw my bag down onto the pavement. Now, a foreigner in China tends to draw a lot of public attention on their own, but as a screaming foreigner pointing and flailing at their own bag on the ground and doing the heebie-jeebie dance around it, I was now stopping traffic and drawing a significant crowd.

The scratching got more frantic and I could see a bulge in the bag moving around. I reached down and lightening quick I opened the top of the bag and jumped back toward the crowd as a giant freaking rat scampered out of my backpack and down the street.

Suddenly aware of the amount of people staring at me and my disheveled bag, I mustered up as much remaining dignity as possible, scooped my things back into my bag, closed it up, popped it back up onto my back, hailed a taxi and got the hell out of there.

Hotel from Hell - Ibis in Guangzhou

There's nothing like staying in a nice, clean, well known hotel and then realising that your neighbouring visitors are freaks that make barnyard animal sounds while going at it like rabid monkeys all night.

They both had a thing for goats, apparently.

'nuff said.

Hotel from Hell - Qingchung Mountain, Sichuan

Oh dear. This one is nearly deserving of it's own post. So many things led to myself and my three friends Tiffany, Nicole and Shannon being stranded on the top of a frigid, wet mountain, drunk off kiwi wine with international flights the next day and mad as hell.

Hiking up Qingchungshan in Sichuan, up the back, less tourist focused side of the mountain is an experience I've had the pleasure to enjoy more than once. The scenery on the 8 hour hike up is incredible and right out of the images of China that people have before they get here. Natural beauty in lush green trees, ferns and plants, old wooden buildings, waterfalls and rickety wooden footpaths and bridges hugging the mountainside all the way up to the top, where a temple sits above the clouds and the monks sit down with you to drink sweet Kiwi wine. A gondola is perched a short way down to bring weary travellers back down to the base of the mountain and on their way.

However, it turns out that if you miss the last trip down the gondola, or they close it early to keep you and your friend's spending money on the mountain top, you're screwed.

So after a slightly violent encounter with the gondola operator, and even the failing of bribes, we were faced with spending the night on the mountain as the only patrons of the only hotel. Brilliant.

The room was fine enough, two single beds with clean white sheets, but the direness of our situation started to become clear as the temperature started to drop in the damp air and we discovered that the portable heaters they had given us didn't work.

In a panic to keep in whatever little heat we had accumulated in the room I left my three friends there to continue huddling while I ran from room to room with the family that owned the hotel grabbing all of the spare heavy blankets that I could to hang in the doorways and windows of our room, and to layer over my shivering friends. The thee of them looked about ready to lynch me.

The blankets were working, but not enough and we were worried that we may not make it through the night if it got any colder. Hot eggs and mountain spinach from the hotel family warmed us up but for only a short time. The thermos of hot water for tea was the same.

Even I had never felt so cold. I debated bringing our little group down the mountain with torches, but a 5 hour hike in the dark down the lesser used side of a mountain, although would have warmed us up through activity, was too dangerous and it had started to rain. We were stuck there and simply had to make the best of it.

I again left them in the room and went to find the family that owned the hotel again, to beg for something to keep us warm and to explain just how severe this was turning out to be. When they let me into their single room home I saw that they not only had a Kong ( a single wooden bed warmed by woodsmoke from the stove for the entire family to sleep on ) but also a small barrel of coals in the centre of the room keeping them warm. I couldn't take the barrel from them, they had young children and it was a cold night, clearly, but I needed something similar.

I walked back into our room dragging behind me a medium sized steel barrel filled with bits of wood and rubbish given to me by the family - and lit it up in the middle of the room. We sat around that barrel and finally warmed ourselves to the point that we could sleep.

Huddled together around a burning barrel. Like proper hobos.

Can you believe that wasn't actually my worst hotel experience?

Hotel from Hell - The Mausoleum of Ghengis Khan

This is another one that was so bad that it will probably get it's own post at some point when I find the time to load my pictures from my old laptop to my new one. It's one of the few (very few) stories from my younger traveling years that I don't find any real humour in, but it's not something that I'm likely to ever forget. Definitely the worst hotel ever.

I was on another research trip for my tour company that took me through Inner Mongolia and the far west desert provinces in search of a section of the Great Wall of China that splits into two parallel sections. On the way was an opportunity to find and report on the Mausoleum of Ghengis Khan. There were very few writings available on this mausoleum or area of China and I was keen to find it, report on it and get back to civilisation as soon as I could.

I made it to the nearest town's long distance bus station and was able to communicate where it was that I needed to go. After much surprise on behalf of the man selling bus tickets ( and the bus driver, and the people that followed me around listening to my conversations with ticket sellers and bus drivers ) I was directed to board a bus and told that they could take me as far as one point and then I'd need to find something else for the rest of the way. I'm used to traveling like this and wasn't too bothered, so I got on the bus.

I've never regretted an action so much in my life.

After about 2 hours down a desert highway the bus came to a desolate intersection and pulled over - in the middle of nowhere - to let me off.

I didn't want to get off the bus. All I could see in each direction were towering sand dunes and long deserted stretches of highway. I asked the bus driver what I was meant to do, would another bus come? He didn't know, but the mausoleum was "a couple of hours by foot that way. Faster if you can get in a car". I didn't see any cars, and asked him again how many hours of walking I might be in for. He said maybe 2, 3 at tops. I could handle that, I had plenty of water and my sand scarf with me. As I got off the bus an elderly woman offered me an additional bottle of water that she was carrying. That wasn't a good sign.

I got off the bus and the driver pulled away - that was the last vehicle I saw for hours.

I wasn't too panicked yet, by that point I had been leading camel camping treks in the Chinese desert for a couple of years and more or less knew to keep my head and mouth covered, keep hydrated through sipping, save water as much as possible, eat chocolate (I always kept an emergency snickers with me) and to turn off my mobile so as not to run out the battery in case I needed it later. I also knew that with a well maintained road such as this that there was bound to be a car coming along at some point, and that I could probably bribe a ride out of it's driver. I also knew how cold it would get when the sun went down and the urgency of finding a place to stay before that happened.

I walked for nearly 6 hours along that stretch of highway before a car finally came along.

When it did, I didn't care that it was driven by 2 men and that by getting into the car I could be getting myself into an even worse situation than I was in now. They seemed nice enough, once they got over their shock at seeing a blonde Canadian woman marching resolutely down a deserted highway in Western China. They laughed when I told them where I was going and what I was trying to find, and offered me a ride to the Mausoleum. I had done well, I was only about another hour away by foot, but I was exhausted, overheated and grateful for the ride. When we arrived they wouldn't allow me to pay them for the ride, or even buy them a drink. They were well known in the little town and the rep of having shown up with the haggard foreign chick in their car was enough reward for them. They were suddenly more interesting than I was, which I was also very grateful for. I checked into the tiny town's only hotel, had a quick dinner of potato, carrot and onion stew and went to bed, exhausted.

I woke up in the dark to the sound of my door being opened and barely had time to sit up before 4 drunk Chinese men burst into my room, calling me a Russian prostitute and egging each other on for who gets the first go with me. I was in shock and terrified but thankfully adrenaline took over and I flew out of bed and toward the men, screaming obscenities at them in Chinese and forcing them back out into the hall. I was fortunate in that their drunken state combined with the surprise of this foreign woman rushing toward them yelling at them in Chinese was enough to catch them off their guard enough to get them out into the hall, waking up the other hotel guests enough for a few to start popping their heads out of their doors and out of my room enough for me to slam my door, lock it and push the bed up against it.

They were embarrassed and angry now, and they were trying to force their way back into my room - at this point I realised that they had an actual key to my room. The manager of the hotel must have sold it to them. I was eternally grateful that I had pushed the bed up against the door so that they couldn't get back in.

I remember that after they finally left I sat on the floor with my back against the bed and sobbed. The adrenaline had left me and I was left with the understanding of exactly where I was and what nearly happened to me. I'd never wanted to return to Canada so much in my life.

But like everything else in life, you just have to keep going, and if I had let this experience scare me off then I would have missed out on some amazing and wonderful experiences that were yet to come in the years following.

But it reinforces my determination for my daughters to be full on ninjas by the time they are 8.

Just in case.
Hotel from Hell - Langmusi

I've had hotel from hell stories that were much less traumatising, though bizarre and frustrating at the same time.;postID=7868011010555451083

In this one I was locked in a hotel room on the Tibetan Plateau. That turned into quite an ordeal, especially after I declined the hotel staff's suggestion of climbing from one room to the next through the window. Good times.

This one wasn't really the hotel's fault - Beijing

Oh, the trouble I can get myself into.

Paul's mother, Sylvia, had come to China to visit us. We had travelled to Beijing to show her around and stayed in a reasonably nice little hotel, very clean, very full of other tourists, everything was fine. Having lived away from all westernisation for too long, Paul and I completely gorged on western food like pizza, Subway, cookies, McDonald's, everything we could get our paws on that reminded us of home.

This was a bad thing, and it resulted in the complete and total blockage of our hotel toilet. We needed a plumber and, my Chinese being piss poor but still better than Paul or Sylvia's at that point, I called down to reception to get one. Sylvia listened to my conversation to the receptionist and was well impressed with how fluent I sounded. Hell, even I was pretty darn proud of myself for it. I didn't know the words for bathroom, plumber, plunger or toilet, but had managed to successfully communicate what I needed. She asked me what it is that I said, and I translated my end of the conversation to her -

Hello. I'm in room 214. I have a small problem in my room. Please send me a man. He can fix it for me. Don't worry, it will be very fast. Thank you.

It's at that point, when I contemplated what I had actually said in English to the receptionist, that both Sylvia and I started to feel a bit concerned about what exactly they were sending to the room. We didn't have much time to ponder as a few seconds later there was a knock at the door, and I cautiously opened it to find a male prostitute having propped himself up against my doorway in a sexual stance, ready to service my needs.

I was horrified. Not only that I had called a prostitute instead of a plumber, but that I had done so in front of Paul's mother. I'd never live this down. So I did the only thing I could, burst out laughing, swung the door open to show Paul and his mom what had arrived at our door and pointed the poor man to the bathroom, charading that I'd like him to please fix the toilet. The poor guy turned bright red and left, and a proper plumber showed up a few minutes later to "fix my problem".

I wanted to crawl into a hole and die.

This one really wasn't the hotel's fault either - Hong Kong

Which brings me to my crown jewel of hotel horror stories from my travels - the Elevator Story.;postID=6547392828391985680

It was bad. I'll just say that.

So traveling with me is not always the safest or most relaxing thing a person could do.

But at least it's not boring.

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