For me, one of the more worrisome moments of travel is when illness strikes. I’m not talking about your everyday run-of-the-mill sniffles, or a bout of the runs after a dodgy street kebab. I’m talking about the more serious aches and pains that you slowly realise might need more than a paracetamol tablet to fix. After four days of constant pain in my lower abdomen and groin, it dawned on me this could be something which wouldn’t take care of itself. I might be in need of expert consultation.
In such times of need, like always, I turn to my closest, most trusted ally: Doctor Google. Doctor Google is a pessimist at the best of times, and after typing in my symptoms, I was highly disappointed to see that with months left to live, I really should splash out on that dream holiday sooner, rather than later. Thinking rationally, I crossed off the more serious ailments from my growing list of possibilities and narrowed my search down to just the one; a hernia. The pain, swelling and symptoms all fitted and with my Great Wall of China Marathon only weeks away, I knew the sooner I had the necessary surgery, the more chance I would have to make it to the start line.
Within an hour, I was racing towards the best hospital in town, with my concerned boss and his wife. For once I was happy to be a foreigner in a small Chinese city, as I was ushered past the queuing casualties in to an examination room, where seven worried doctors battled for my attention. My Chinese isn’t the best, but I could recognise from their arm-waving motions, they wanted me to strip to my birthday suit. I felt a little self-conscious as my boss’s wife watched with a, ‘yay, I get to see a foreign peni* for the first time’ look. A dirty scowl and a few choice words from my boss, soon had his wife retreating for the door. My boss tried to follow, but was apprehended since he was the only person in the room who could speak both English and Chinese.
With the added stress of standing naked before my employer and seven chatty doctors I think I failed to do the age-old ‘East-West size difference’ arguments justice. As my boss looked embarrassingly on, all seven doctors took it in turns to grope, prod, pull, twist and poke my nether regions to try and identify the problem. None of them could, and before I knew what was happening, I was being frog-marched to another area of the hospital where my boss informed me they wanted to ‘take a photo’.
I wasn’t quite sure what a Polaroid picture would do to diagnose my complaint, but I asked no questions. Luckily the photo turned out to be an ultrasound and as I lay on the examination table having my insides examined like a pregnant lady, I became aware of some strange happenings. Either the three doctors residing over me were the only authorized paperwork signing personnel in the whole hospital, or news of a naked foreigner having an ultrasound travels around the hospital like a wild fire. I counted twelve giggling, staring nurses entering the room, before I was able to dress and reclaim my modesty.
The verdict? I had nothing but a ‘muscle infection.’ In other words, a pulled groin muscle. I wouldn’t like to point the finger and call myself a pathetic little hypochondriac, but the evidence would prove otherwise. It was several weeks before I could look my boss in the eyes again.
Benxi is a mountainous city built on huge iron ore and coal deposits (the worlds worst mining disaster took place in this city back in 1942 when 1549 miners lost their lives). With my Great Wall of China Marathon including large sections of this formidable man-made masterpiece, living in such a mountainous city, with ‘step-enhanced’ mountain climbs has it’s benefits. With the groin ‘injury’ gone and the city finally clear of snow, I was at last able to enjoy a spot of marathon training outside on the polluted streets of Benxi, rather than on a gradient-free, gym-trapped treadmill. Climbing the two-thousand steps to the summit of the nearest mountain, even a heavily sweating, red-faced foreigner can’t break the locals’ tai-chi practising and opera singing concentration levels. Running down the opposite side of these surrounding mountains is like entering another world. No more haze, pollution or city life. Only nature, clean air and tranquillity.
Logging all those miles in preparation hasn’t stopped the opportunities for socialising with local friends. There are two things you can be more or less guaranteed when visiting the families of Chinese friends. Firstly they love to teach you the art of making dumplings. After so many dumpling making lessons in these circumstances, I’m becoming quite the expert. Considering the antics of one disgruntled Chinese worker, having this skill is certainly beneficial. Discontented at his pay and work conditions, one man decided to add in the extra ingredient of insecticide at his dumpling factory. After similar ‘tainting’ cases, I think the best this man can now hope for is life imprisonment.
Secondly, it’s only a matter of time before the father will want to test your ability to consume vast quantities of alcohol. There is just one rule to this drinking malarkey; the more you can drink the more respect you earn. I love respect, but I can’t say I’m an impressive drinker. On my last visit to a local Chinese friend’s family I was immensely relieved to realise the father I was enjoying a few swift glasses of beer with, was nothing but a champion lightweight. He knew this, and to prove he was still a better man than me, I was forced to participate in an exhibition of strength. After being comprehensively beaten in press-up, sit-up, arm wrestling and ‘who weighs less’ contests, I conceded defeat, much to his pleasure. He refused my offer of a ‘double or nothing’ thumb-wrestling match and basked in his victory. Competitiveness seems to be an integral part of daily Chinese life.