August 6, 2005
Mainland China is home to some of the world's finest hotels. This post is not about those establishments, this post is about the average small hotel you will find in just about every city, the kind of hotels regular Chinese people endure daily.
Generally the hotel is in a courtyard set back from the street. White brick tile and blue tinted windows are de-rigor. There will be brass pillars at the entrance, and elaborate chandelier, and smartly dressed women behind the reception desk. On the wall, many clocks with exotic world cities. But look a little closer, none of clocks are set to the correct time, some of the city names are missing letters, and that chandelier, it probably doesn't work and there is a leak stain around it's base. The women's uniforms don't match and are often dingy. But still the lobby is presentable, and tidy despite the four guys smoking, drinking bai-ju, and spitting sesame seeds in the corner. Ignore the wilted plastic plants. Now walk up the stairs to your room. The hallways are covered with grimy handprints. Electrical fixtures are missing. There are strange leaks running down the wall leaving a streak of mould. Someone has put up a large poster of a random city (not the one you are in), but the frame is broken and the poster is faded beyond recognition. Again more wilted plastic plants.
When you get to your floor, you will have to wait for a fu-yuan, a chambermaid, to open the door. The fu-yuans are rarely more than 19 years old, and are often in their rooms watching TV, doing their nails or enjoying an illicit cigarette. When the fu-yuan finally arrives she will glumly lead you to your room and open the door, that is if she brings the right key which she often doesn't. Every fu-yuan I've encountered on this trip has had a nasty cough.
The room is grim. Bedsheets that have been straightened but not changed or washed. Odd stains dot the floors and wall, cigarette butts, and hair--Long black hairs on the pillows short curly hairs on the curtains. The light fixture is always at an odd angle. There is no shower, sink, or toilet instead a mug of hot water is helpfully provided. The water smells of coal.
The bathrooms are a disaster. I needn't go into the details for fear of offending my more sensitive readers, but imagine the worst thing you can imagine in a bathroom and it's worse. Usually bathrooms = squat toilets or a trough, not showers.
If you are lucky there might be a paid shower downstairs near reception. In today's hotel the shower stalls were a long walk past filthy massage rooms and a half-collapsed sauna. The smell of mould was overpowering. Again, coal scented water. Still, the shower was a blessing, most places do not feature such luxuries.
Wandering around the hotel you will find random groups of men playing cards in the lower rooms, the doors slit open. There are always a couple of police around, often chatting up the girls. Upstairs there is a disco complete with disco ball. Here the fu-yuan and other hotel ladies dance with each other. Eventually men (sitting in groups or 3 to 5 smoking cigarettes end to end and heavy drinking) call over a girl or two and negotiations take place. They disappear in pairs.
Sleep is difficult, between the pounding music, the smell of the bathrooms, and the uncomfortable beds you are lucky if you get a few hours.
And these are the nice hotels. Guesthouses, are another level of "real".
This is not a complaint. I accept this as the reality of travel around China's non-touristy cities, but it's a counter to those who fear China's economic might will subsume the West. Much of the China foreigners see along the East Coast is something of a Potemkin village. Scratch behind the surface even in Beijing or Shanghai and you will find masses of people struggling with the basics. Potable water, simple sanitation,low-level cleanliness. Something to think about the next time you read about the powerhouse that is China.