The Dungeon

Like I mentioned before, I am trying to improve my writing skills and I want to be able to create pictures with words. The room where I stayed the first night in Beijing is a good opportunity for me to do this. I’ll include pictures at the end so that you can compare the image in your head with what I describe. (I'm having trouble so I'm going to put the pictures in later.)

The hostel where I stayed had rooms both above and below ground. Mine was underground. As I descended down the three flights of stairs, I remembered all of the sketchy places I had stayed in the past. This one was surely going to be memorable, whether or not it made my top ten list of weird cheap lodging.

At the bottom of the stairs was a dimly lit hallway with a low ceiling. Had the walls been hewn of rough stone, it would have resembled the dungeon of a medieval castle. There was an open door to the left that seemed to go into the basement of the next building. I’m not sure—the sign by the door was written in characters unfamiliar to me. Turning right, I shuffled up the hall, remaining alert to anything that might jump out from behind the next corner. To my left I saw another hallway that had a few rooms. It was so dark down there that I could barely see the numbers on the doors. Passing through another doorway I turned down another short hall to the left. At the end, on the right side, was my room.

The first time I went to my room, I stuck the electronic key card into the slot. It beeped at me, refusing to open. Several times I tried to open the door before giving up. I tried to look at the card for clues, but it was so dark down there that I couldn’t read the card. I walked back towards the bathrooms, where the light coming through the open doors was somewhat better, and I saw that I had been inserting the card upside down.

The key worked fine once I put it in the right way, and I opened the door to my…cell. The room was about as long as a large couch, and not much wider. About halfway in, the room widened from four feet to five feet. Directly in front of the door sat a curved lounge chair. In the corner on the right side, a small, gray, color television sat on top of a small table. Next to the TV was a small glass table. In the far left corner of the room, rising up to the ceiling, was a narrow steel ladder with wooden slats. Moving counterclockwise from the ladder, there was a small black wastebasket in the corner formed where the room widened. All of these things left me not quite enough room to fully unfold my suitcase.

The ladder led up to a bunk that ran the full length of the room, approximately 9 feet long. There was a surprising amount of room, considering the space that was below it. At one end, a compact fluorescent light bulb dangled room some wires. and directly overhead there was a vent that was moving a small amount of air into the room. The bed consisted of a thin, soft mat placed directly on the floor of the sleeping space. There was a blanket and sheet folded up at one end, though these would be unnecessary, given the high temperature and humidity of the room, currently hovering around 80 degrees and 95%, respectively.

It was so humid in the room that my hanging shirt, which was completely soaked with sweat from my walking around, did not dry at all before morning. The humidity hung heavily, making the room nearly unbearable for anyone who liked to feel clean and dry. Fortunately, I was okay with it, but it did put my tolerance of stickiness to the test.

The whole room was not terribly inviting (unless you were a bat), but it was the measure of luxury compared to the foul-smelling bathrooms. The bathrooms had no doubt been constructed earlier than the rooms themselves and had some very curious features, at least to my American eyes. They did have running water, so I will not complain, but it will be impossible to really understand my experience at the hostel without a clear picture of the bathrooms. There were separate men’s and women’s bathrooms, so I am only going to describe the men’s. From what I could tell, though, the two spaces were mirror images of each other.

The bathroom was located at the open end of the hall where my room was. To enter, you had to climb three steep steps and go through a frosted glass door that was similar to the doors you see at bar entrances in old Western movies. The door did not close by itself as it once had. Upon entering, there were two open squat toilets immediately to the right. They were separated by a small wall, but they faced the wash sinks and mirror that were on the left side. There was not much concern for privacy here. in fact, if you leaned forward a little, it was easy enough to see out into the hall while you were squatting.

At the back of the bathrooms was a frosted glass door that led to a shower room. The shower patrons had to rely on the light that passed through the doors. There was no light, and the fan that had once pushed vapors out of the room was broken, hanging halfway out of its cutout in the ceiling. Showering in the dark was not bad. It was like showering in a cave beneath a waterfall, if you used your imagination.

The most striking thing about the bathroom was its smell. There was a rancid, acidic smell that assaulted my nose as I walked in. Although there was running water in the toilets, it appeared that flushing was optional if you did not conduct major business there. The vapors coming up from the toilets collected in the air and built up over time, making the dominant smell of the bathroom a rank urine smell. Strangely enough, despite the inherent uncleanliness , I still used the water in the sinks for brushing my teeth. To date, I happily report that I have seen no ill effects.

Hopefully it does not sound like I am complaining about my accommodations. The room was quiet and I slept as well as I could expect to, given the heat and humidity and jet lag that I was trying to get used to. Spending a night in the dungeon was better than sleeping out on the street, as some of the vendors that I saw down the block did.