“Oh, look! There are little things in the bathroom!”
Pam and I had just checked into the Tibet Hotel Chengdu, a five-star hotel that advertises “a unique Tibetan lodging experience.” We had wondered if that meant something like a yurt, but it turned out to be a conventional hotel with Tibetan-inspired décor. I was unpacking in the main room, marveling at the luxury — a full-size sofa and ottoman, wood-and-upholstery headboards that reached the ceiling, needlework wall hangings, crisp white sheets that actually fit the bed — when I heard Pam’s voice. Little things? Like bugs? That didn’t seem in keeping with our surroundings. But her dreamy tone didn’t suggest bugs. Suddenly I understood.
Little soaps. Bottles of shampoo and bath gel. Shower caps, razors and toothbrushes, individually wrapped. Tiny tubes of toothpaste, just enough for one or two brushings. All neatly arranged in a carved wooden box.
Home at last.
After nearly six weeks, I was growing accustomed to my seriously no-frills campus apartment (Ever so humble, March 3). Pam’s new place on North Campus is larger and more modern than mine but still has its challenges. Every now and then we yearn for a reality check, a reminder, beyond Spa Day, that some parts of China are further along the development scale than others. What could be better than a weekend in a five-star hotel?
In China, five-stars are cheap, by American standards. The one in Chengdu came with our Sichuan tour, but the week before, I had paid $73 to spend a night in the part-stately, part-glitzy Dolton Hotel in Changsha. (Even the very comfortable Novotel in Shanghai cost me only $58 a night, pre-Expo season.) It was my maiden solo voyage outside Xiangtan. I desperately needed a brief escape, a couple of days in a city that had things I could recognize as touchstones of my life: clean sidewalks, museums, nail parlors, maybe a movie theater. Most urgently, a swimming pool.
Changsha had the first three, and the Dolton supplied the pool. After a full month without a swim – all but unheard-of in my many years of travel – the ninth-floor pool area overlooking the city felt like heaven. In the hotel’s Chinese restaurant, I’d already had a lunch that makes Shun Lee on the Upper West Side look like chopped liver: shrimp-and-chive dumplings, heavy on the chive, in a skin so thin I could see the green inside; a beautiful dish of finely shredded beef filet with hot red peppers and an unidentified chewy vegetable that looked like crinkled yellow cellophane; chilled broccoli florets, sautéed with garlic. Then I ventured outside for a brief look around before turning back to what I had really come for. More than 25 meters long, just warm enough to be comfortable and not soporific, and with a drop-off that gave me just the right shoulder-depth for water aerobics, the pool fully lived up to the picture online that was my main reason for booking the Dolton. I did my hourlong aerobics routine, followed by 15 minutes stretched out on a chaise, before going upstairs to clean up in a real bathroom — one with a toilet and a sink in the same room, where I could look in a mirror while I washed my face, and a shower that drained into a bathtub. And little things that smelled very nice. The next morning, I was back in the pool for a full set of laps before checkout.
The Tibet Hotel didn’t have a pool, but even if it had, there wouldn’t have been time to use it; our tour whisked us off almost immediately to a fine Sichuan dinner, followed by an evening of Peking Opera Lite. Never mind. The bathroom seemed roughly the size, shape and color scheme of the ladies’ room at Zankel Hall — a long rectangle – but instead of a row of toilet stalls (ours was glassed-in) it contained a tub with separate shower. “I am going to take such a shower in the morning!” I announced to Pam at bedtime.
In the event, she went first while I read in bed. “The water doesn’t really drain,” she reported.
“Does it flood the rest of the floor?”
“No. It’s fine if you don’t mind standing in water.”
After six weeks of wading to the toilet daily, I didn’t.
(I do have to report a disturbing trend, first noticed in European hotels last summer: those “little things,” or at least the ones that come in bottles, seem to be on their way out, replaced by larger wall-mounted squeeze bottles. Hotels wave the “green” flag, but I suspect their real motive is saving money, since we travelers do tend to scoop up those little bottles rather shamelessly to restock our Dopp kits. A sign in the Dolton bathroom said Chinese hotels were now required by law to charge for used or missing toiletries. Well, I suppose we can always save those little bottles and refill them while in residence.)
The next night took us to the Hong Zhu Hotel in Ya’an. Iris, our tour director, kept warning us not to expect too much: “This is only a four-star hotel. A regional four-star. But it’s the best in the area.”
“You haven’t seen where we live,” I said.
It was good enough for us. It had a pool – outdoor, unheated, the water looking as black as the South Campus pool, with patches of something growing on it – but none of that mattered, since it was too cold for even me to swim, and again there was no time. No, the bathroom wasn’t as nice as the one in Chengdu, but everything we needed was in it, and worked. There was an electric kettle, though no refrigerator, and the beds were the most comfortable to date in China, with a little more padding over the usual hard mattress, and extra comforters available. In the morning it was hard to pry myself out of it, even for pandas.
We landed back in Changsha late Monday night, and our patient driver was waiting at the airport after a 40-minute delay. It was pouring rain when, in the dark, he inadvertently dropped me off a couple of blocks short of my street. I ran through the rain, over the usual thin layer of mud on the sidewalk, reached my gate and climbed to the fourth floor. Inside my apartment, everything was just as I’d left it – no better, no worse. But after two nights of unaccustomed comfort, it looked a lot more manageable.