I was in China recently and I nearly died… maybe not actual death, but something that felt close. We were in this small village just outside of Lijiang and had stopped for lunch. The restaurant was a bit questionable, but considering the village I was in, it seemed par for the course. The bathroom for instance was a stand-alone bathroom that had a squatter toilet and a sink, but the sink didn’t work. There was a soap dispenser on the sink, but you needed to go outside to wash up. I suppose that was the first red flag.
The second thing that alerted me that this restaurant had unsafe food preparation practices came when Sarah pulled a long black hair out of the large communal rice bowl. I had just scooped my rice, but had yet to eat it. Thinking I was ahead of the game, I ate the standard foods that I had been eating for the past two weeks – fried chicken and steamed vegetables – both I would consider as fairly safe. I always try to be cautious of what I eat while travelling. Fruit and rice are common cesspools of bacteria that I try to avoid.
After lunch I felt great. The tour continued onto a small village that was really beautiful. The landscape was fit for some stunning photos, which we took lots of. There was a stream that ran along both sides of the old street, and the architecture looked like it was a thousand years old.
Along the way, I spotted a bathroom, but for some reason the door was locked. I didn’t even really have to go, I just like to know where the bathrooms are in case of an emergency. Sarah and I decided to get off our feet for a bit and enjoy the scenery. She was reading a book on her phone, and I watched a lady scoop water out of a stream with a bowl and splash it on her garden. There was something hypnotic about her rhythm and how skillfully she was able to distribute the water.
Upon sitting, my stomach started to feel a bit funny. At first, I thought it was hunger since I hadn’t eaten that much during lunch. I had an apple in my backpack, so I fetched it from my snack bag and began eating it. Within a short while, the pains got worse and I stressed my urgency to Sarah that I might need to locate a bathroom quickly.
I wouldn’t say that I felt nauseous, but there was a hint of that. This added an extra step to my already hurried pace. I found an external bathroom where the door lead to the outside, kind of like a motel for bathrooms, and it was up a flight of stairs. At the bottom of the stairs, a worker was scooping feces out of a hole and into a bucket. Sorry, I don’t have a photo of that. As you can imagine, the smell was absolutely horrendous and did nothing to help my ailing condition.
I held my breath, walked up to the bathroom, and locked the door behind me. The bathroom was one of those stand-alone squatter deals and was just as disgusting as the other public toilets I had been accustomed to in China. Also, I should mention that whenever you are in a public toilet, you have to bring your own toilet paper, and you also cannot flush the paper. There is always a small basket in each stall where you are to discard your waste paper. This makes the room smell lovely!
So there I am, I found a bathroom, and I have a nice comfortable squat. Everything was standard procedure, nothing to cause concern. I had been in China for two weeks at this time and up until that point, I felt fine. I didn’t have diarrhea or upset stomach at all. I took pride in that for some reason.
I left the bathroom, walked past the guy with the mud bucket, and proceeded to find Sarah. It started to rain so I took out my rain jacket and put it on. I still didn’t feel amazing, but assumed the prior stomach pains I had were now resolved. I met up with Sarah and walked with her in an out a variety of shops. She was looking for some kind of pastry and couldn’t make up her mind as to which one to get. The whole time, my condition was worsening. I told Sarah that I needed to sit down.
I found a wet step outside of the pastry shop and sat in the rain, huddled up. By now, I was feeling a bit feverish and my stomach pains had gotten worse. The hint of nausea was still there, but never did I think I was actually going to vomit. I felt it was a mental thing and if I didn’t focus on it, it would go away.
After a few minutes of sitting, I decided I should head back to the bathroom. If you listened to my story from Bagan Myanmar (Episode 15 of The Edward Mullen Podcast) you’ll know that I am a bit paranoid about not being close to a bathroom.
I advised Sarah of my decision and headed down a narrow street in this quaint village to where the bathroom was located. As I approached closer, the damp smell of raw sewage filled the air and hit me like a punch in the face. I made my way past the man with the scoop and walked up stairs into the same stall I had used on my first visit. This time, as soon as I closed the door, I immediately projectile vomited and made a huge mess everywhere. I did that a couple more times and then proceeded to squat. Like a raging river, the most vile liquid gushed out of my body. I’m talking pure liquid. Not the prettiest image, I know, but I have to do the story justice.
So I’m in the bathroom and I completely murdered this poor stall. I stood up and turned around to look at the damage. It was total, unrelenting annihilation. I felt so bad that I actually grabbed a nearby broom and pushed as much vomit as I could into the centre of the porcelain receptacle and then proceeded to flush several times.
I felt reasonably better, but still didn’t feel good. I exited the stall and was outside in the rain. As I had done upon the first visit, I went downstairs and washed my hands in the separate sinks they had. I walked past the bucket guy, down the narrow street, and back to where I had last seen Sarah. I couldn’t find her, but I found the two guides that were in charge of our tour group. I told them of my illness and they said it was altitude sickness and that what I was feeling was very common. I hadn’t read up on altitude sickness, but I was sure it was food poisoning from lunch. When I told them that, they looked at me like I just admitted to kicking a puppy. They were like, “Food poisoning!… No, this is definitely altitude sickness.” For the record, it was food poisoning.
I sat on the same wet step for another couple of minutes. My hood was up to protect me from the rain and I had my hands were stuffed into my jacket pockets. After a few minutes, I decided that the bus would be a more comfortable place for me to sit and relax. I advised the guides to inform Sarah where I was going, and stumbled back to the bus. I felt I could vomit at any moment if I paid enough attention to it so I tried to keep my mind clear of those thoughts. Just in case, I was looking for a spot to puke. The streams that ran along both sides of the street seemed like a reasonable spot, but I didn’t know if it was the town’s drinking water. What kind of asshole would I be if I hurled in the town’s drinking water?
It was a bit of a walk to get to where the bus was parked. I had to walk down a long and winding road, but I eventually found it. When I got on the bus, there were some of my other tour mates there. They told me I looked like crap and I explained to them how I was feeling. I spared them most of the gory details, but mentioned I had gotten sick.
Thinking the worst was behind me, I reclined my chair and tried to get comfortable. I didn’t last more than two minutes before I got up and searched for the bathroom. Fortunately, there was a bathroom by the parking lot, but it cost one Yuan, which was like 20 cents Canadian. Not a big deal, but I wasn’t sure if I had any Yuan on me and I don’t really like asking people for money, even if it’s pennies.
In the sleeve of my sweatshirt was a small zippered pocket. By chance, there happened to be a roll of small bills that I put there a few days ago. I usually let Sarah keep all the cash, but I must have bought something and stuck the change there without really thinking. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise for me. I approached the bathroom, paid the lady, and found a stall — same squatter toilets, same disgusting smell.
I’ll spare you from all the graphic details, but it was really, really bad in there for me. It was coming out of both ends and was relentless. I was in a lot of pain. After a while I went back on the bus, reclined my seat for two minutes, and then ran back to the toilet. I paid my money and found myself back in the same stall. For the next several minutes, I felt like I was exorcising a demon. I’m talking every last ounce of fluid from my stomach and bowels was coming out. I had nothing left in my stomach and was puking small amounts of this thick yellow mucous.
I’m not a religious person, but I tell you what, I was praying like a nun in there. I mean, pants around my ankles, in a fetal position, praying to God to relieve me of this pain. I was like, “I’ll go to church, I’ll knock on doors and spread the good word, I’ll do anything! Please make me well again, I can’t take it anymore!” And guess what? God didn’t answer my prayers.
I must have been in the bathroom a long time because by now the tour group was all back on the bus and were waiting for me. Several men from the group came in to check on me, and then Sarah came in. I had run out of toilet paper a long time ago and after telling Sarah I was dying, I asked for more paper. She found my stall and passed some under the door.
Eventually, I staggered out of the bathroom, probably looking like hell, and made my way onto the bus. It was about 4:00 p.m. and I was eyeing the taxis. I asked if I could take one back to the hotel because there was no way I could continue on to the next adventure. I was done. I needed to lay down and be near a bathroom. The local guide told me that we’ll take the bus into the city and drop me off. From there, I could take a taxi and it would be much cheaper. So that’s what I did.
I had a small garbage pail on my lap and used it several times on the way to the city. I had learned that another person on the tour was experiencing what I was going through and for some reason that made me feel better. I wouldn’t wish what I had on anyone and I’m not sure why it made me feel better, but it did. I guess in those moments, I didn’t want to feel alone. So there was me, this other sick lady, Sarah, sick lady’s mum, and our national guide, Jeff. We all got dropped off at some random hotel in Lijiang. While our guide hailed a taxi, I ran into the hotel and had several more pukes and diarrheas. When I came down, we got into a taxi van and drove to the hotel.
I was wearing sweatpants, a hoody, a toque, a down vest, a down jacket, and was under two down blankets, and I was still cold. I laid in bed, shaking, and wishing I would get better. Moments later, Jeff came into my room and said, “I think we should go to the hospital. Urgently.” I was happy to just lay in bed, but he sounded pretty convincing. In fact, his tone and word choice scared the heck out of me. I thought for a moment I was dying.
Me, Jeff, and sick lady found a taxi and drove to the People’s Hospital of Lijiang. Sarah and sick lady’s mum took a separate taxi and met us there. While on our way, sick lady was puking into a bucket and moaning like she still had a demon in her. She told me, “This isn’t altitude sickness” in which I responded, “Yeah, I know.” She then said, “They’re just trying to save face.”
When we arrived at the hospital, we had to walk through a bunch of buildings to get to the ER. Inside, I laid on a metal bench and closed my eyes. Shortly after, Sarah and sick lady’s mum showed up and asked me how I was feeling. I told them I was dying. Yes, I’m a little dramatic!
It took forever to get to an actual hospital room where medical things could happen to me. In the meantime I visited the bathroom several more times. When I got to the room, there was a messy bed waiting for me. This thing had blood stains on it and looked like they had just dragged some poor soul out of it minutes before, but I didn’t care. I laid down on the blood stains and tried to get comfortable. I shared the room with sick lady and one other random Chinese person. The entire time, sick lady was incessantly moaning, making the whole experience much worse than it needed to be.
By now, it was quite late in the evening. The sun had set and we were all pretty worn out from the day. Me and sick lady were the only ones lying down, which I felt bad for. As I looked around the room, I noticed faded paint on the walls, large cracks in the ceiling, and equipment that looked like it was from the 50s. In fact, it felt like I was in a war museum, the kind where they show you an old hospital from World War II. It was janky as hell, but that was probably standard for China. No offense.
A nurse eventually came to check on me. Jeff told her everything that was wrong and then she withdrew blood from my arm. The results of the blood test took over an hour, but when they came back, they revealed that I was severely dehydrated – big surprise right! I then had another needle stuck into my arm, this time it was for a large IV bag. There were four bags that I had to have slowly drip into my arm through a thin tube. At the rate of the drips, I estimated it would take at least two hours for one bag to drain into my arm. And there were three other bags! I did the math and figured I would be in the hospital until about 3:30/4:00 in the morning. I settled in for the long night and tried to get some sleep.
Jeff stayed awake and spoke with the nurse every so often. The local guide came in at some point, but then she left. Then another lady in plain clothes came in for a while to check on things, but then she left as well. Meanwhile, my mouth was desert dry as I was instructed not to drink or eat anything. I kept envisioning being back home, going into my fridge, and chugging an entire gallon of cold juice. Not to be dramatic, but I felt like if I didn’t get some water in me, I would be dead within the hour.
I asked Sarah to give me just a small cap of water and she obliged. She took off the cap from a water bottle, filled it with water, and poured it into my mouth. It’s funny how we take the smallest things for granted. I swear, the moment that wonderful liquid hit my mouth, I was in heaven. I immediately asked for another cap, then another. I didn’t care about the doctor’s instructions, I was dying! The last mouthful I just let swash around for a moment to keep my mouth moist, and then I swallowed.
I was trying to be as disciplined as possible and fight off the insatiable thirst I was feeling, but self-preservation is a powerful motivator. After ten minutes I asked Sarah for another cap. They always came in threes and the last cap always lingered in my mouth for a bit just to savour it. As soon as I swallowed, I counted down another ten minutes until I could ask again. The entire time, my body was sore, my stomach hurt, and I was visualizing cold glasses of water being poured into my mouth. I didn’t make it to the ten minute mark. After about eight minutes, Sarah was standing over me pouring caps of water in my mouth. I thought spacing them out every so often would be good enough and wouldn’t hurt anybody. Then I got greedy.
The next time I asked, only about five minutes had passed. Then two minutes after that, I had convinced myself that I was better and able to drink as much water as I wanted. I told Sarah to give me the bottle and I proceeded to chug it like a dying man in a desert. As one might expect, all this water was not good for me. Soon after, I needed to go to the bathroom, quite urgently.
Going to the bathroom presented a bit of a challenge. First, I was connected to an IV bag, which was not on a stand that could be wheeled around. It was connected to a hook that dangled from the ceiling. I advised Jeff of my situation and told him I’d just carry the IV bag. He then said that would not work because the bag needed to remain at a certain elevation. Being a nice guy, he offered to hold the IV and accompanying me to the bathroom. Bless his heart.
I slowly rose from the bed and squeezed into my shoes. Together, Jeff and I walked down the long hall toward the bathroom. When we entered the bathroom, there was a squatter toilet, a urinal stall, and a regular sit-down toilet – all out in the open with no privacy. There was another guy in there at the time, but he was at the sink if I remember correctly. Jeff asked me which one I needed, and I opted for the squatter toilet. For some reason, I had grown accustomed to them. Sit-down toilets are good for slow, relaxing bathroom situations, but this wasn’t one of those times. I got about a foot from the squatter toilet and immediately expelled all the precious water that I had been sneakily consuming for the past hour. Next was the other end. With Jeff standing at arm’s length in front of me, I pulled down my pants and released a fountain of liquid. Never once did Jeff complain or say, “Ah, come on dude, seriously!” No, instead he stood tall, holding my IV bag like a champ, and then handed me toilet paper. Again, bless his heart.
That situation I described happened three more times throughout the night and each time, Jeff had my back. I thanked him profusely and made a mental note to remember this moment for when I would decide how much to tip him at the end of the tour.
We walked back to the room and I crawled into bed. I wasn’t able to sleep, although I tried. At one point, Sarah crawled into the disgusting bed with me and tried to get some rest herself. Never once did I feel comfortable. I had my eyes closed mostly, and whenever I opened them, it was to check the IV progress. I’m not sure if me watching the IV made it drip slower, but it seemed like it was taking forever. At a certain point I think the IV had stopped and we had to call a nurse. She opened up the flow so it dripped faster, but that made my vain swell up and feel like it was going to explode. I trusted she knew what she was doing and I tried to ignore the discomfort.
As I expected, we didn’t end up leaving until around 3:30 am. Sick lady and her mum had left hours before so when we left the hospital, it was just me, Sarah, and Jeff. My arms were draped across their shoulders and they were helping me walk as if I was a wounded comrade in war. I used the time to thank Jeff and Sarah for what they had done for me. We waited curbside for less than a minute before a taxi showed up and took us back to the hotel.
Back at the hotel, I settled into bed and tried my best to put this horrible experience behind me. Jeff accompanied us to our room and made some kind of salty beverage that was supposed to help restore my electrolytes. I slowly sipped it and was able to keep the fluid down, but it did nothing to make me feel any better.
I slept decently for a few hours and in the morning, I decided to skip breakfast. Jeff called me and asked me how I was feeling. I explained to him that I still wasn’t feeling good and told him I was going to skip the day’s activities. Sarah was a bit tired, but other than that she felt fine. She went out with the rest of the group and I laid in bed all day.
Jeff called me around noon and offered to bring me some food for lunch. I declined, but it was a nice gesture. He told me that many other people had gotten sick and were also at the hotel resting. Sometime in the afternoon, Sarah came back to check on me. I hadn’t moved all day and was still feeling awful. She then went outside of the hotel to look for some crackers and juice for me. She returned shortly after with saltine crackers and a Vitamin Water. I slowly nibbled the crackers—the only thing I had eaten in the past 24 hours—and chugged the Vitamin Water.
That day went by and I had skipped breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I was fatigued and still feeling nauseous. I didn’t feel good while standing and I only felt slightly better laying down. The next morning, I went to breakfast in the hotel and just ate some fruit and a piece of toast. I also had a couple glasses of juice. There were no activities scheduled for the day, which was good, but at around 2:00 p.m., we had to catch a flight to Chongqing. I remained close to a bathroom at all times and had to use it on several occasions. The bus ride to the airport was about an hour, and then the flight was about two hours. I kept it together and didn’t have any emergencies.
We landed in Chongqing at night and I had skipped lunch, which was greasy KFC—probably the right call! From the airport, we boarded a tour bus and drove through the busy metropolis to our cruise ship. The local guide was at the front of the bus and was explaining to us that Chongqing has over 32 million people—almost as much as the entire population of Canada! She said that there were a lot of factories there like Ford and Apple. With such a dense population, the traffic was really bad. I’m assuming the pollution was bad too, but it was night time so I didn’t notice it.
We arrived on the cruise ship about one and a half hours later. I felt really fortunate to get sick when I did (as opposed to some other time) because for the next five days I could just rest in my room on the ship. No other time during our trip would have provided me with this opportunity. We were constantly moving from place to place and it would have been really hard on my system. For the next three days or so I took it easy, mostly remaining in bed. I slowly regained my appetite. First, I was eating just small portions of plain noodles without any sauce, and then by day three on the ship, I was feeling much better and my appetite had fully returned.
I’ve had food poisoning before, but nothing like this. It was really nasty. China was an amazing experience and despite this incident, I really enjoyed my time there.
For more stories from my trip to China, or other travels, check out Episode 20 of The Edward Mullen Podcast.