Camping indoors, Soviet style

When staying in former Soviet hotels, be sure to pack some tools. And tip on the first day.

I don't deliberately stay in rundown Soviet-era provincial hotels so I can write about them later. Sometimes, there's just no alternative.

That was the situation I faced in Djalalabad in southern Kyrgyzstan a few years ago. The only establishment in town with a faded gastinitsa (hotel) sign was the municipally owned Hotel Molmol. I was going to be in town for three days, so there was no other choice.

It was probably a decent place in Soviet times, when party bosses came to town to roll out the latest five-year plan, cook up inflated statistics on the cotton harvest, relax in the hot springs at the local spa, and dine in the hotel ballroom. There also used to be tourists - factory workers and their families. But few officials (and no tourists) had been there for almost a decade, and the place was in sorry shape.

I paid the foreigner's price of $10 for a "luxury room" that consisted of a dormitory-style bed, a chest with broken drawers, and a few cockroaches. There was no running water. The staff - cheekily described as "breathtakingly rude" in the Lonely Planet Guide to Central Asia - told me the electricity would go off at 10:00 p.m. By 8:30, I was sitting in the dark, feeling hungry. The hotel restaurant was closed - for renovations, or so they said.

Buffet No. 37 - the sign was a throwback to communist times, when all eating establishments were state-owned and numbered - in the lobby offered a breakfast of cold piroshki (a filled pastry) and tea. It was one of the better breakfasts I had on this trip.

Most Soviet-era hotels reflect the ostentatious public architecture of the Stalinist and Khrushchev eras with their high-rise apartment blocks, massive squares, and government buildings with colonnades and cavernous lobbies. The impressive facades often conceal dark and drab interiors, with poor heating and ventilation, dangerous wiring, and leaky pipes.

The Soviets built their hotels large, and even small cities boast establishments with several hundred rooms. Of course, the number of rooms bore no relation to the expected number of guests. In an economy based on artificial production quotas, not on actual demand for products and services, there was no place for market research.

So there they stand today - large, and largely empty. Hotel occupancy rates may still be a state secret in some former Soviet republics, but my guess is that most government hotels in provincial centers don't fill more than 20 percent of rooms most of the time. And without guests, they don't have the money to modernize.

In capital cities, Western-style hotels (with Western prices to match) have been built for business travelers and tourists. But in the provinces, the only hotel is usually the old government one.

This gives them a monopoly on accommodation, and the chance to charge exorbitant prices to desperate travelers. A few weeks after my $10-a-night stay in Djalalabad, I checked into the Hotel Ordabasy in Shymkent in southern Kazakhstan. There were two room rates - $25 and $100. What's the difference, I asked? Is the $100 room larger and more comfortable? No, said the clerk. The $100 rooms have hot water-at least in the evenings. I went for the budget option. Seventy-five dollars seemed just too much to pay for a shower.

My interpreter and I were the only customers for breakfast in the 200-seater restaurant, with its dark velvet drapes and chandeliers. All that was on offer was cold grichka (buckwheat). I found myself feeling nostalgic for Buffet No. 37.

I've had better experiences. I arrived in Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan on the same bitterly cold day as then-President Askar Akayev who was on an election swing through the south. For three full days, the Hotel Osh (formerly the Hotel Intourist) had heat and light, although the power cuts returned the day Akayev left. I've also had kindly dezhurnayas, the floor ladies who keep the room keys, rustle up late-night cups of tea and retrieve blankets from secret stashes.

On a recent trip to Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia, I learned that conditions in other former Soviet satellite states were similar. I asked a friend who had traveled to the provinces to rate the hotels. "Pretty grim," she said. "Rather like camping indoors."

In 10 years of traveling in some of the remoter parts of the former Soviet Union, I've learned three valuable lessons about camping indoors. If you're six-foot (as I am) or taller, sleep at an angle because the beds are short. (They must all have been manufactured at the same Soviet factory from standard lengths.) Carry a few tools so you can fix the furniture and, if you're handy, the plumbing, too. Oh yes, and tip the floor lady on the first day of your stay.

David Mould teaches mass communications and international studies at Ohio University. He was a Fulbright senior scholar in journalism and mass communications in Kyrgyzstan.

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