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The Jellyfish Factor, a short story from China.

Beach 2 Yantai Shandong Province China

The Jellyfish Factor, a short story from China.

After a prolonged period of stability, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and traveling.

We’d been hanging out in Qingdao for just over a week when S and I decided on a change of scenery. Not that we were getting sick of the place, quite the opposite! By now we’d uncovered some much better beaches on the outskirts of town. We’d also dove deep into the city’s excellent restaurant scene and were pretty much part of the furniture at Lennon Bar. “Where you go?” asked Paul Ramon, affable lead singer of the bar’s resident rock band. “To Yantai!” I replied excitedly. “Just for a break… we’ll be back in a few days”. “Ok, ok” he hummed thoughtfully. 

“Yantai is ok… but be careful about jellyfish… they fucking everywhere”.

Smiling politely, I couldn’t work out what exactly Paul was talking about. There were lots of jellyfish? Lots of jellyfish having sex? Both? Whatever the case, I figured it would be fun to go, explore, and find out.

The Jellyfish Factor a short story from China.

Yantai, China.

Prior to departure, we booked a room at Yantai International Youth Hostel. It had looked like a decent choice when we discovered the place online. However, on arrival I quickly realised what a depressing little dive it was. The word international obviously being some kind of sick joke. Indeed the disinterested girl moping around at reception spoke not a word of English, while all the information boards and notices were exclusively Chinese.

Then came the farcical process of checking in! First the girl claimed to have no record of our booking. Moreover, she blatantly tried to overcharge us for the room. Having agreed a new price, she then revealed there was no change in the register. It would be another two days before we eventually got our money back. With no elevator available, we had to climb the four floors to our room, which appeared to be a mosquito breeding chamber.

“No!” growled S decisively, grimacing at a section of bloodstained wall.

Yantai International Youth Hostel Shandong Province China

Just another shitty Chinese hostel.

Back at reception, the girl begrudgingly gave us a new set of keys. And while the resulting second floor room was undoubtedly better, nobody had actually bothered to clean it. When that was finally done, nearly an hour later, I had to go back down to reception to ask for towels and toilet paper. Even at this early stage I could see that reception girl was beginning to despise us. With the hostel channelling the charm of a hospital waiting room, S and I resolved to get out of dodge and see what the city had to offer.

The Jellyfish Factor, a short story from China.

It didn’t take long for us to see that Yantai was an exceptionally sleepy place. In fact, there was vey little happening across its two and a half kilometres of beach that first day. This made for a really pleasant afternoon, as we strolled the entire length of Yantai’s golden sands.

For the most part it was perfectly peaceful, though we did bump into a large group of some kind of company day out. They seemed to be holding a sandcastle building competition, which was fun to watch. 

Yantai Sandcastle Compeition Beach Two Shandong Province China

The Jellyfish Factor, a short story from China.

I remember stopping at some point and revelling in the fact that there was nobody as far as the eye could see. Even the beach attendants were conspicuous in their absence. This enabled me to clamber up one of the many unmanned lifeguard stations for choice views across the coastline. My own private beach kingdom sweeping before me.

“King of the world!” 

Beach 2 Yantai Shandong Province China

Beach 2, Yantai.

Despite Paul Ramon’s warning, I was taken aback when we stumbled upon the first dead jellyfish. It was disgusting, an unsightly pile of grey sludge brought in by the tide. Then there was another… a couple more splattered forlornly by some empty deckchairs. Suddenly, I spied a man in red swimming trunks striding towards us through the water. He had a wide grin pasted across his face and a large, silvery jellyfish clutched in his hands, like some macabre trophy.

Stopping before us, the man fired off some speedy sentences in thick Mandarin before posing proudly for a photo. And then he set to work, ripping off the poor thing’s tentacles, until only the head was left. This, he duly popped into a plastic bag for safekeeping. 

“Oh god he’s going to eat it, isn’t he?” I whispered.

Beach 2 Yantai Shandong Province China

The Jellyfish Factor, a short story from China.

Back at the silly hostel, we were amused to see that the cleaner had taken away our large towels and replaced them with what appeared to be loincloths. They were so comically small we just had to laugh. I figured after my next shower I’d have to choose which part of my body to dry. Perhaps the back of my neck, or say my right foot.

We also discovered a hilarious Self Laundry Room at the end of our corridor. This poky windowless cell was almost completely empty, save for two rusty old sinks. On the ground floor, by the common room, we found a large, glass box-room called Supermarket. Dark and dusty, with metal bars over the windows, it seemed unlikely that the place was going to open up during our stay.

The Jellyfish Factor a short story from China

The Jellyfish Factor, a short story from China

Hostel nonsense aside, our Yantai days unfurled happily and uneventfully. Beyond the shopping malls, restaurants and street markets, there wasn’t much to see or do. We simply passed the days sunbathing, reading, swimming and avoiding dead jellyfish.

When hunger called, we dined at the only beachside establishment we could find. The wooden shack called itself BAR and proved perfect for our daily lunches. Their menu was somewhat limited, but we always enjoyed the stir fries and meat sticks they served.

Every morning, on our way to the beach, we’d stop at the same metal cart by the side of the road where a jolly woman sold slices of fresh melon. Her face always brightened up when she saw us approaching.

Melon seller Yantai Shandong Province China

“You’re twisting my melon man!” etc.

The Jellyfish Factor, a short story from China.

In the evenings we’d invariably visit a nearby food market, where the ordforer of the day was cheap chow at plastic tables. There were some really wacky dishes on offer, such as deep fried chicken head, octopus stir-fry and fried jellyfish noodles. While I did my best to sample a little of everything, our preferred dishes were tried and tested favourites like pork dumplings and kung pao chicken.

Street food market Yantai Shandong Province China

Street food market, Yantai.

One night, on our way back to the hostel, we came across a pool hall inhabited by a dozen or so serious-looking Chinese men. “Fancy a game?” I asked S with a grin. You could have heard a pin drop when we walked inside. A couple of guys even stopped their game to watch us play.

We were on our second frame when a floppy-haired teen sauntered over and began giving me tips as I was lining up my shots. Annoyingly, he seemed oblivious to the fact that a) I couldn’t understand what he was saying and b) I wanted him to sod off and leave us alone. Eventually, and I knew it was coming, he challenged me to a match.

The Jellyfish Factor a short story from China.

The Jellyfish Factor, a short story from China.

The mysterious white guy versus Yantai’s very own Vincent Lauria caused much excitement. So much so that all the other players abandoned their rivalries to come and watch. Disappearing into a back room, Lauria returned a few minutes later with a can of coke, a fancy polished cue and a white glove Michael Jackson would’ve approved of. Amusingly, the boy put on quite a show slowly and carefully putting the glove on. 

“International standard!” whispered one of the onlookers, leaning in close to my ear.

white Michael Jackson style snooker and pool glove

International standard!

Chalking a cue with my own gloveless hand, I looked on as the waitress came over to rack up and signal the start of the game. Without consulting me, Lauria broke off with a ferocious hit that smashed open the entire triangle. By the time the balls had stopped moving, I realised he’d potted two stripes! He then sank another ball, before crunching a fourth into the bottom right pocket.

When he finally missed, I managed to compose myself enough to awkwardly force one of my balls into a middle pocket. Phew, at least I was keeping things respectable. Sadly, I screwed up my next shot, thus I had no choice but to sit down and accept that it was almost certainly game over.

The Jellyfish Factor a short story from China.

The Jellyfish Factor, a short story from China.

And yet… over the following minutes… with missed ball after missed ball… I realised that his approach to the game was irredeemably flawed. All he had in his locker, it seemed, was an inflexible barrage of cannon-blasting wallops. With no positional or safety play whatsoever.

Hence I patiently wore him down. Tapping a loose ball into the bottom right. Covering another pocket with a shot that left the white ball safely against one of the cushions. The more I clawed my way back, the more impatient and frustrated he became. Until finally, after a lengthy comeback, I defeated him on the black ball and a healthy round of applause echoed around the hall! The guy was actually very gracious in defeat, praising me through a friend, who spoke a bit of English.

“He want take you to food as congratulate! 

Do you like jellyfish?”


Yantai had been a fun distraction. But after four nights we decided to follow our hearts back to Qingdao. With The Old Observatory Hostel fully booked, a change of digs was in order. Taking care not to repeat the mistakes of Yantai, we researched hard before deciding to bed down at Kaiyue Hostel.

Our new home lacked The Observatory’s peaceful location and sweeping city views. But it did have the amazing Old Church Lounge, easily the most impressive hostel bar of our China travels. Stuffed with comfy sofas, modern furniture, intimate alcoves, a gaming corner and a movie room, I was so contented we ended up staying the entire night ordering pizza, pasta and beers.

Kaiyue Hostel Qingdao Shandong Province China

Kaiyue Hostel, Qingdao.

The Jellyfish Factor, a short story from China.

Our remaining time in Qingdao sped by in a blur of sightseeing days and Lennon Bar nights. One day we hiked up Xin Hao Shan Park (Signal Hill Park), a now familiar steep-hill-with-stone-steps setup complimented by a few kooky exhibits.

Views over Qingdao from Xinhao Shan Park Shandong Province China

Xinhao Shan Park (Signal Hill Park), Qingdao.

The most amusing of these was The Blockhouse, a simple, timber structure dating back to the German occupation. It wasn’t much to look at, but luckily the accompanying information board provided some entertainment. 

“The Blockhouse, built in 1897, is evidence of Germany’s crime invading Qingdao. Now it works as the educational base of patriotism. And tells our offspring not to forget the contumelious history of our country.”

At the park’s summit there were fine views from a rotating tower. Inside, we met a large Chinese family who insisted on having their picture taken with S. Not all together, of course, but one by one. A picture with the dad… a photo with Auntie Zhang… a shot with Grandma Wu. And so on. 

Qingdao Christian Church Shandong Province China

Qingdao Christian Church.

We also paid a visit to the bulbous Christian Church, probably the city’s most remarkable European structure. Built in 1910, the highlight was climbing the steps to the auditorium, a giant chamber capable of holding a thousand people! According to a sign, the church held weekly language exchange meetings between expats and locals.

The Jellyfish Factor a short story from China.

Tsingtao Brewery, Qingdao.

With the clock ticking down on our impending return to Beijing, we made sure to sneak in a visit to the Beer Museum at Qingdao’s famous brewery. Situated on the lively Beer Street (Dengzhou Road), the museum took us through the brewery’s history and offered a brief glimpse of the  production floor.

There were also free samples, bottle-top artwork and a look at white-coated workers carrying out “quality control” tests in a laboratory. Most amusing of all was the Drunken House, where visitors get pulled around by unseen magnetic forces. At the exit turnstiles, for reasons that will forever remain unknown to me, stood two life-size statues of Laurel and Hardy.

The Jellyfish Factor a short story from China.

Beer Street, Qingdao.

It seemed only right to have our final Qingdao dinner on Beer Street itself, our table sitting beneath a hulking neon sign.  

“Tsingtao beer can give you passion and happiness!

Below this dubious proclamation, sat a massive portrait of Jesus floating among some clouds. If this wasn’t ludicrous enough, Mr. Christ was flanked by frothy beer mugs and a pair of dancing jellyfish.

Beer Street Qingdao Shandong Province China

Beer Street, Qingdao.

It felt weird hailing our taxi for Qingdao Railway Station. Our cross-country Chinese adventure was finally coming to an end and it was time to return to Beijing. We’d had an amazing four-week jaunt, taking in Tianjin, Jinan, Zhujiayu, Qufu, Tai’an, Shanghai, Yantai and Qingdao. Back at the capital, teaching jobs of some description allegedly awaited us. As much as I’d loved our China escapades so far, I was only too aware that a year living in the capital was going to be a whole other experience. That said, I remained genuinely clueless as to just how many twists and turns lay ahead.

‘The Jellyfish Factor’ is the eight part of my short story series Challenged in China.

I’ve also written hundreds of travel reports from all across China.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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  • Memo

    So what was your favorite jellyfish dinner?

    August 14, 2020 - 10:53 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Oh lord, a favourite? I think it was the one that didn’t have any jellyfish in it.

      August 14, 2020 - 11:08 pm Reply

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