Backpackers Behaving Badly
by Tom Carter, author of CHINA: Portrait of a People
As a veteran backpacker of both hemispheres who has traveled extensively throughout all 33 provinces of the People's Republic of China, this writer came to depend heavily on hostels. Without them I could not financially (or emotionally) have lasted the 2 years I was on the road. As such, I've brooded on the etymology of the word.
Hostel: a term that has become synonymous with world travel. From the Medieval Latin hospitium, it has been co-opted by over 80 different countries, beginning in 1912 Germany whence originated the idea of the modern youth hostel. Yet in spite of its global popularity, hostelling has continued to remain a relatively underground experience.
Budget backpackers, considered at once hipsters and hobos, rely on hostels for their comparatively affordable accommodations. But youth hostels are also a retreat from the road; a refugee camp for foreigners journeying abroad. China might have opened its doors to westerners, but we are still strongly urged by the national tourism bureau to check in to pricey hotels while economical boardinghouses, luguan, are for locals only.
Hot destinations, however, like Beijing, Yangshuo and Dali are renowned for their selection of lively hostels. I've been to them all, and I've seen it all (there ought to be a reality TV series called Backpackers Behaving Badly). There is one hostel I shall especially never forget, where the vibe was so deliciously laid back that my intended two-day stopover turned into seven.
DAY 1: Arrive 8pm in Chengdu, Sichuan's sweltering capital city, and check into the Stir-Fry hostel. The attractive Chinese front-desk staff in short shorts confirms what I've heard about Sichuan girls. Get a bed in a 6-bunk dorm and immediately crash out. Woken at 2am by five inebriated Australians returning from a disco vociferously complaining that Chinese girls spend all day playing online dancing games at internet cafs, but at a nightclub they just stand against the wall.
DAY 2: Browse the three-story hostel premises, drying laundry whipping in the wind like the flag of the backpacker. Take a stroll around Chengdu then return to find my previous bunkmates replaced by a guy named Pickle from Hawaii who road a motorbike across Sichuan. Pickle's first words to me are "Mind if I smoke a bowl?" At 5am a drunk Dutch girl falls into her bunk and passes out in nothing but her g-string. The next morning she tells us "I dreenk haalf day un sleep other haalf. I need to sleep less so I caan dreenk more." I would be stupid not to stay another day.
DAY 3: New guy in our room, a University of Oregon grad named Sven (who looks nothing like a Sven). Pickle wakes up at 2pm and suggests our little American clique have lunch at a Tex-Mex restaurant across town. I feel guilty not eating Sichuan hot pot like I'm supposed to, but my conscience is quickly lost in a world of melted cheese and refried beans. Nighttime at the Stir-Fry is hopping, the open-air courtyard crowded with people from every country imaginable sitting around drinking and chatting, their accented conversations invariably beginning with "Where are you from?" followed by "Where are you going?" Happy laughter is a constant. Our world leaders would do well to study life in a hostel. A British bloke wearing a polo shirt with an upturned collar alternates between hitting on the Chinese front-desk girls (now uniformly wearing size-too-small summer skirts) and asking everyone "Are you going out tonight?" Me, Pickle and Sven opt for watching the Quentin Tarantino blood-and-breasts fest "Hostel" on the lounge DVD player. It's almost like the Stir-Fry, except everyone gets killed.
DAY 4: Said British bloke, his collar now only half-upturned, is passed out drunk on the lobby couch till late afternoon. He was supposed to have caught an early-morning flight back to the UK, the receptionist tells us, but they couldn't wake him. Evening at the Stir-Fry once again turns out to be quite the social scene. A French guy with tribal tattoos and a Vanilla Ice haircut queues up a jungle drum & bass mix on the lobby sound system and everyone at once stops what they are doing to dance and bob their heads, like a scene out of some musical. A blonde girl with a nose ring unabashedly drinking backwash out of beer bottles littered around the courtyard convinces Pickle to go with her to a local caf named the Pot Palace. I shouldn't be surprised that such an establishment exists in a province where weed grows wild as a weed. Pickle returns at 4am floating. The last he saw of the drunk nose-ring girl she was fighting with a Chinese taxi driver before running out of the cab without paying.
Day 5: It's too humid outside so I beeline to the air-conditioned lounge, where we watch seven pirated DVDs (technically only four because they kept skipping). During this time we visit Africa, various regions of Europe, Los Angeles and prison; it's almost like traveling! An Italian girl comments, "I shoulda be outsidea meeting Chinesea people anda doinga Chinesea things," but then settles back in the sofa when the next movie begins. At night I chat with a pair of Israeli girls who confide, "We come China to experience culture, but here have too many Israeli backpacker; we can't escape ourselves!" And meet a young American beatnik double fisting bottles of Snow and Tsingtao ("Dude, they're both, like, water!") trying to round up a group to go to the Pot Palace. It dawns on me that while all these kids are literally blazing through the world looking for a good time, I've somehow remained the consummate professional. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I'm ten years older than the average backpacker. At midnight Sven comes in jovially exclaiming that he found the local pink-light district up by the train station. I've wondered where he's been disappearing too lately.
Day 6: Tex-Mex again for lunch (fifth day in a row!), followed by the Japanese classic Battle Royale.' A German guy who hasn't left the DVD room in ten days says that the lazy hostel life is sucking him in. I realize myself that as I still have 12 more provinces to go, I need to either get back on the road or establish permanent residence at the Stir-Fry. It's a hard choice, but I ultimately opt for the former. Pickle is having his own dilemma. He had been trying to sell his motorcycle, but the local buyers he lined up cut their offer in half at the last minute. "I'll be damned if I give in to those thieving b*st*rds. I'd rather drive my bike into the Chengdu River!" he shouts as he revs off down the street. I don't know if he's serious, but we never see the motorbike again. At 11pm I watch a baijiu drinking game between one of the Chinese front-desk girls and two Brits who have been living at the Stir-Fry for half a year while working as English teachers.
Day 7: Blearily wake up at 6am for the first time in a week and go downstairs to check out. No receptionist to be found, I look around and find the three multinational baijiu drinkers from the night before on the hallway floor. I shake them awake, one Brit crawling off to puke while I turn in my key. Stepping out of the Stir-Fry Hostel for the last time I look back to see the still-drunk front-desk girl and the other English lad checking doorknobs for an empty room, then stumble in arm in arm. Manchester Goooooaaaaal!
Thank you for supporting photojournalist Thomas Carter's CHINA: Portrait of a People, the most comprehensive book of photography on modern China ever published by a single author. Available now from Blacksmith Books.
Also available: home-made original China Postcards
Blogs in Chinese: 可爱小淘气旅行者的博客 中国 旅游 背包 博客