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GUIDE TO CHINA

ACCOMMODATION


Accommodation in China is generally disappointing. Acres of marble and chrome aside, the Chinese rarely seem to realize that a hotel can be more than just a functional place to stay, but could be an interesting or enjoyable place in itself. What's lacking is variety - characterful old family-run institutions of the kind that can be found all over Asia and Europe simply don't exist in mainland China . Instead, most hotels are entirely anonymous and unmemorable, comprising purpose-­ built blocks with standardized interiors.

Despite the lack of variety, there is a vast range of quality in terms of comfort and service. A general rule is that newer hotels are most always preferable, enjoying a honeymoon period of enthusiastic service and stain-free carpets before poor mainte­nance to take its toll. Price, however, is a poor guide to quality: Eastern China, for example, is far more expensive than western China and large cities are more expensive than small ones. Hotels seldom seem together prices either, so a once upmarket place might still charge high rates long after the facilities have deteriorated to the point of no return. In any case, room rates on display reception often turn out to be merely starting point in negotiations; staff are almost always amenable to bargaining. Getting thirty percent off the advertised price isn't usual, and you might get even more discount in low season or where there's plenty of competition. Conversely, at popular tourist destinations during peak season hotels can charge considerably more. Polite enquiries might also persuade the receptionist­ to mention the existence of hitherto unsuspected cheaper rooms or a dormitory in another wing of the hotel.

One specific irritation for foreigners is the fact that plenty of hotels - normally the cheap ones - can't take them at all. Such hotels have not obtained permission to do so from local authorities and if they are caught housing foreigners illegally they face substantial fines. Nothing is ever certain in China, however. Sometimes the reception­ ists don't know that foreigners aren't allowed to stay and, if it is late at night, or if there is only one hotel in town, you will normally be allowed in anyway (being able to speak Chinese improves your chances, as does having a Chinese student card). And things may be changing: Yunnan recently passed a law allowing foreigners to stay at any avail­able accommodation within the province.

Hotels in China are reasonably secure places, although you would be foolish to leave money or valuables lying about in your room. If you lock valuables such as cameras inside your bag before going out you are unlikely to have problems.

Finding a room

For International-class rooms, booking ahead is a routine procedure and you will undoubtedly find receptionists who speak English to take your call; besides hotel phone numbers, we've listed fax numbers or websites/email addresses throughout the guide. For any hotel below this category, however, the concept of booking ahead may be alien, and you won't make much head­ way without some spoken Chinese - though it's a good idea to call (or to ask someone to a call for you) to see if vacancies exist before lugging your bag across town. One of the y easier ways to book mid-range or better n accommodation is to use a dedicated web­ site-* www.sinohotelguide.com , for exam­ple, lists brief hotel descriptions and room rates in US dollars for several hundred hotels across the country.

To find a room upon arrival, time things so that you reach at your destination in broad daylight, then deposit your bag at a left-lug­-gage office at the train or bus station and check out possible accommodation options It's considered perfectly normal to ask to see the room before deciding to take it. If you can't find anywhere suitable, CITS can often tell you of convenient places to stay and can wrangle respectable discounts, though they only deal with two-star accommodation and up.

In some places, touts with hotel brochures and name cards will approach you outside stations. You won't lose much by following them as they are paid directly by the hotels concerned, not by surcharges on your room price. Sometimes, however, touts can inadver­tently waste your time by taking you to hotels which turn out not to accept foreigners.

Checking in and out

The checking-in process involves filling in a detailed form (see opposite) giving details of your name, age, date of birth, sex and address, places where you are coming from and going to, how many days you intend staying and your visa and passport num­bers. Filling in forms correctly is a serious business in bureaucratic China and if poten­tial guests are unable to carry out this duty the result is impasse. Upmarket hotels have English versions of these forms, and might fill them in for you, but hotels unaccustomed to foreigners usually have them in Chinese only, and might never have seen a foreign passport before - which explains the panic experienced by many hotel receptionists when they see a foreigner walk in the door Opposite there's an example of this form in English and Chinese to help you complete it correctly.

You are always asked to pay in advance and, in addition, leave a deposit which may amount to as much as twice the price of the room. Assuming you haven't broken any­thing - check that everything works properly when you check in - deposits are reliably refunded: just don't lose the receipt Note that as the official hotel day begins at 6am, arriving before this time means you have to pay a portion of the rate for the previous night If you're staying several nights, either pay the whole lot in advance, or check in again every day.

Except in upmarket places, you hardly ever get a key from reception; Instead you'll get a piece of paper which you take to the appropriate floor attendant who will give you a room card and open the door for you whenever you come in. Sometimes the floor attendant will offer you the key to keep, though if you want it you'll have to pay her another refundable deposit of Y10-20. If your room has a telephone men are advised to disconnect it if they don't want prostitutes calling up through the night - this can be a headache even in upmarket hotels.

Check-out time is noon, but if you have to leave early in the morning to catch a bus, for instance, you may be unable to find staff to refund your deposit, and might also encounter locked front doors or compound gates. This is most of a problem in rural areas, though often the receptionist sleeps behind the desk and can be woken up if you make enough noise.

Hotels

The different Chinese words for hotel are vague indicators of the status of the place. Sure signs of upmarket pretensions are the modern-sounding dajiulou or dajiudian, which translate as something like "big wine bar". The far more common term binguan is similarly used for smart new establishments, though it is also the name given to the older government-run hotels, many of which have now been renovated: foreigners can nearly always stay in these, Fandian (literally "restaurant") is used indiscriminately for top­class hotels as well as humble and obscure ones, Reliably downmarket - and rarely accepting foreigners - is zhaodaisuo ('guesthouse'), while the humblest of all is buns, pickles and rice porridge is served, usually between 7am and 8am .

 

Upmarket

In the larger cities - Including virtually all provincial capitals-you'll find upmarket four­or five-star hotels, often managed by for­eigners. Conditions in such hotels are com­parable to those anywhere in the world, with all the usual international facilities on offer - such as swimming pools, gyms and busi­ness centres - though the finer nuances of service will sometimes be lacking. Prices for standard doubles in these places are upwards of Y800 (0 in our price-code scheme) and go as high as Y1500, with a fif­teen percent service charge added to the bill; the use of credit cards is routine. In Hong Kong and Macau the top end of the market is similar in character to the main­land, though prices are higher and service more efficient.

Even if you cannot afford to stay in the upmarket hotels, they can still be pleasant places to escape from the hubbub of life in China, and nobody in China blinks at the sight of a stray foreigner roaming around the foyer of a smart hotel. As well as air condi­tioning and clean toilets, you'll find cafes and bars (sometimes showing satellite TV), tele­phone and fax facilities and seven-days-a ­week money changing (though this is not always open to non-guests).

Mid-range

Many urban Chinese hotels built nowadays are mid-range, and practically every town in China has at least one hotel of this sort. When new, they generally have clean, spa­cious, standard double rooms with attached bathroom, 24-hour hot water, TV, and air conditioning - though after a couple of years the facilities can go into decline. Single rooms are rarely available in these places.

In remote places you should get a double in a mid-range establishment for Y'150-250, but expect to pay at least Y350 in any size­able city. Some mid-range hotels built during the dawn of tourism in 1980s, however, have been successfully upgraded, and might retain older, cheaper wings - though staff may initially deny their existence. These are often well maintained. if threadbare, and cost Y100-200 for a double with bathroom, and as low as Y25 for a dorm bed - but as staff seldom allow foreigners to share with Chinese, you may be asked to pay for a whole room.

Budget hotels

Cheap hotels, with doubles costing less than Y100, vary in quality from the dilapidated to the perfectly comfortable. In many cities, they're commonly located near the train sta­tion, though in the major cities such as Beijing or Shanghai you may end up far from the centre.

Where you do manage to find a budget hotel that takes foreigners, you'll notice that the Chinese routinely rent beds rather than rooms - doubling up with one or more strangers - as a means of saving money. Foreigners are only very occasionally allowed to share rooms with Chinese people, but if there are three or four foreigners together it's often possible for them to share one big room. Otherwise, the saving grace for budg­et travellers is that tourist centres, including large cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, tend to have one or two budget hotels with special foreigners' dormitory accommodation, costing around Y20-50 per bed. The surest way to save money on accommodation in China, though, is to go west. Hotels in all of the Northwest, as well as Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan, can be absurdly cheap, with double rooms available for as little as Y50.

Hostels and guesthouses

There's a thin scattering of IYHA hostels on the mainland and in Hong Kong, where mem­bers get minor discounts, Hong Kong and Macau also have a large number of privately run guesthouses and hostels. They come in all shapes and sizes and the sheer variety comes as a serious relief after the dullness of mainland hotels. Prices for double rooms in these guesthouses are generally cheaper than in hotels in most of eastern China, and very cheap dormitories are also plentiful.

University accommodation

Another budget possibility always worth try­ing rooms in universities, as more and e of them are willing to accommodate foreign tourists. These will have a building on campus termed something like the “Foreigners Guesthouse” (waibing zhao­daisou) or the "Foreign Experts' Building" waiguo zhuanjia lou), designed primarily to accommodate foreign students or teachers. You would be unlucky not to find some obliging English-speaking student to help and the right block once you're inside campus. These buildings act like simple -As and you have to fill in all the usual forms. Expect to pay around Y50 a night,

though some places are now charging tourists substantially more. Sometimes you find yourself put in to share with a resident foreign student who may be less than gra­cious about having you - but this happens only if the student concerned has paid for only one of the two beds in their room, so you needn't feel guilty about it. Although uni­versities are friendly places to stay, the com­munal washing and toilet facilities can be grim, and campuses are often located far out in the suburbs.

Camping and pilgrims' inns

Camping is only really feasible in the wilder­nesses of western China where you are not going to wake up under the prying eyes of thousands of local villagers. In parts of Tibet, Qinghai, Xlnjiang, Gansu and Inner Mongolia there are places within reach of hikers or cyclists where this is possible, though don't bother actually trying to get permission for it. This is the kind of activity which the Chinese authorities do not really have any clear idea about, so if asked they will certainly answer "no". The only kind of regular, authorized camping in China is by the nomadic Mongolian and Kazakh peo­ples of the steppe who have their own high­ly sophisticated felt tents (mengu bao), which tourists can ask to stay in.

An alternative to camping are the pil­grims' inns at important monasteries and lamaseries. These are an extremely cheap, if rather primitive, form of accommodation, though vacancies disappear quickly. Foreigners are warmly welcomed in such places and, though the authorities are not particularly keen on you staying in them, you are most unlikely to be turned away if it is late in the day and you are real­ly stuck.