"China Standard" Hotel Rooms

Between the two of us, we’ve travelled in China for a total of a few months by now, and have seen enough Chinese budget/midrange hotel rooms to know that they are, for the most part, almost identical–what we call “China Standard” and a useful way for us to describe the level of lodging quality elsewhere in the world (“well, it’s almost China Standard…”). Available in smaller towns and cities for somewhere around 120 RMB, or USD 18, or in bigger cities for somewhat more, these rooms offer a level of comfort and amenities that would be wildly luxurious in many other countries–but in perhaps the most drab, tattered and boring way possible.

That the rooms are so similar across the entire country is something of a mystery–I think that there must be some sort of standard kit, either very significant suppliers that supply each and every hotel or nationwide standards that require certain items for a hotel to be classified as two- or three-star (the level of hotels of which I am writing). Anyway, some elements of a China Standard hotel room.

Lobby. Chinese hotel lobbies always seem to have world clocks (of course not set properly), and a board showing room rates. Note that you almost never pay the posted rack rates in a Chinese hotel–substantial discounts of sometimes more than 50% are given even without asking.

Inside the room. This room has cleaner carpets than most–the floor is generally the worst part of a Chinese hotel room. Note the headboards bolted to the wall as well as the chairs, with a tea service. On the other side of the room is hot water, which is always available and refilled (for making tea). Except in the largest/most crowded cities, where space is at a premium, there’s always plenty of room for luggage.

The mattress is the second worst thing in a Chinese hotel room–often rock hard. On the other hand, the sheets and plush white duvets–almost always this exact pattern–are almost luxurious. Derek often asks for a second duvet to cushion the rock hard mattress. We’ve often heard stories of Chinese hotel rooms having dirty sheets, but encountered this for the very first and only time just this past week in Tibet (in a hotel owned and managed by Tibetans), and assume that many of the horror stories are from years past, when standards were lower.

That the floor is usually filthy doesn’t matter much because you are usually given some sort of footwear. Here, plastic, but usually paper disposable.

Bedside controls for lights, relatively uncommon in other parts of the world, are another feature of “China Standard.”

Bathrooms are well amenitized. Have you thought it annoying that you have to pack a toothbrush when going for a weekend trip (though almost every other basic toiletry is covered by hotels)? In China, and we predict soon all over the world as Chinese tourists start taking over, disposable toothbrushes and small tubes of toothpaste come standard.

We didn’t picture perhaps the most important parts of a China Standard room. China Standard rooms always have air conditioning and hot water aplenty, even in some of the most remote parts of the country (heating is more of a problem)–items that are often missing at hotels at similar prices in other parts of the world. Nearly all have a television with various flavors of CCTV, Chinese state television, one in English.

Chinglish in a Shigatse Supermarket

Reeling from a bad morning at Tashilhunpo Monastery (see post of 2010.06.02–who knew we were so sensitive?), we found ourselves with many free hours in Shigatse and not much to do. The Old Town was pretty much deserted because people were out of town for local holiday picnics, and we weren’t about to pay more admissions for more second-rate sights. And so we thought that we might as well enjoy a day in Anytown, China, which is what most of Shigatse looks like, and headed to a local mall. The mall itself was pretty crummy, the Lenovo shop even locking up their WiFi when they realized that we were using it, but it did have quite a nice supermarket.

“Mr. Bond coffee — American pattern — >> I’m young..I’m coffee”

When we saw the cans of Mr. Bond coffee (not bad, by the way), we thought that we might as well spend a half hour looking through the grocery store for awkward or nonsensical English. Here’s what we found:

“Almond — used to flavor extracts, liqueurs and orgeat syrup. T’ — els of apricot and peach pits have a similar flavor — same toxic effect (destroyed by heating) as b — hios. Pistachios are available blanched o — sliced, chopped, candied, smoked, i — nd in many flavors. Toasting Pis” It seems like they were trying to be helpful by cutting and pasting an encyclopedia entry or something?

“THEUNITEDSTATES – MSLP – THE NEW TASTE & EUROPEAN TASTE”

“CHONQING STRANGE-TASTE HORSEBEANS”

“May the breeze bring you The tenderness and warmth from me Far from each other we may be. Yet still you are here, At the bottom of my heart.” Rather poetic for a bag of pistachios.

“Choiceness raw material Produced meticulous”

This one isn’t really even about bad English–just that the product itself is so odd, that they shouldn’t have bothered to translate. Would any English speaker really buy this for their child?

This cleanser removes horniness.

No doubt others have remarked on this, but “jissbon” is a popular brand of condoms in China.

“MOTH KILLER – mothproof toothpaste”

“Old Chengdu. Sichuan special products. The hands tear the serial products of beef of “liuyanggou” is chosen the adult yak’s crua meat of the prairie of Ruoergai of Abab state carefully. (Only accounts for 3% of the whole yak’s body) complement with several dozen natural plant seasoning, pass several dozen modern craft refined. It is mouth feel unique, aromatic and strong, and pleasant impression is long.” I personally don’t want my yak jerky to leave a long impression in my mouth.

Photo Fees in Tibetan Monasteries, or On Tashilhunpo Monastery

I’ve always thought that there is something slightly unseemly about admission fees at religious sites. Of course being a tourist attraction does result in expenses, in terms of staffing and whatnot, but charging admission highlights the sometimes commercial and parasitic nature of organized religion, and seems to fly in the face of evangelism, which one would think would be an aim of any group that believes that it holds ultimate truths that others do not. That said, I understand that for some institutions admission fees help with capital projects, further charitable missions and fill other gaps in budget. The tourist is getting something of value, and it’s not totally unfair for the faith to benefit.

As we expected, Tibetan monasteries, like all tourist attractions in China (see post of 2008.07.25), charge fairly hefty admission fees (50 RMB, or USD 7.50, on average, I would say).

What we did not expect, certainly at this level of frequency and magnitude, are the camera fees. In order to take pictures inside most of the most visited Tibetan monasteries, you need to pay an additional *per-chapel* charge ranging anywhere from 10 RMB, or USD 1.50, to over 100 RMB, or USD 15–and monasteries can have a dozen chapels (outside pictures are included in the regular admission fee). We’ve encountered camera fees in other parts of the world, mostly in India and ex-Soviet republics, but the photo fees we are encountering in Tibetan monasteries are particularly pernicious, not only because they are on top of relatively high admission fees, but because they are administered in a way that is annoying and demeaning to the monks and the monasteries–on a per chapel basis.

I understand that charging per chapel might result in higher proceeds, but, in an era when photography is so much of a traveler’s experience, it turns each monastery visit into a sort of shopping expedition, where one pauses to evaluate each chapel to decide whether it is “worth” memorializing at whatever price is being asked. It turns each monk into a sort of ticket enforcer (a task some seem to relish), and since there is no clear receipt or anything given, even after one has already paid one is still bothered with questions regarding the photo fee.

Even then, at the first monasteries that we visited, I was willing to give the Tibetans the benefit of the doubt. I told myself that the per chapel fee made sense because they sort of took the place of per chapel donations that the faithful would leave (though of course at many multiples). Until I got to Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse.

Tashilhunpo Monastery is the seat of the Panchen Lama, second only to the Dalai Lama in spiritual authority (and a “recognizer” of new Dalai Lamas), and one of the principal tourist attractions of Tibet, with a prominent place on almost any Tibet itinerary. Admission is a steep 85 RMB (USD 13), befitting its prominence and size, and perhaps the extensive restoration work done. What really sets the monastery apart, however, are the photo fees, which range from 75RMB to 160RMB (USD 11 to 24)–per chapel.

The mercenary character of all this came into full light when we were told that the monks of Tashilhunpo–which is said to be more closely affiliated with the Chinese government than other monasteries–actually work office hours, like civil servants, taking public holidays and an hour off for lunch. Now, I’m not saying that monks have to pray 15 hours a day, but certainly there is something about a religious calling that should be distinguished from regular salaried employees. I knew that the Chinese government was “involved” in the affairs of the Tibetan monasteries, sometimes even requiring monks to profess allegiance to the Chinese government ahead of the Dalai Lama, but did not think that monks would simply be government employees. Through this lens, like so many things in China, Tashilhunpo appears like an operation optimized solely for profit.

Sign at the monastery promoting a sister site, widely reputed not to be worth the admission fee. Why is a monastery advertising tourist attractions?

Our disdain for the photo fees being charged at Tashilhunpo made me reconsider not only the merits of photo fees at all Tibetan monasteries, but also made me feel offended by their general funding tactics, so common to many organized religions. Most Tibetans are extremely poor, yet when they come to these gilded temples, some with fabulous amounts of government support, they throw heaps of (small) bills at each shrine. The money is displayed extremely prominently, sometimes the deities surrounded by bills, apparently equating holiness and material wealth. When a holy man dies, a memorial stupa is raised with obscene quantities of gold and precious metals (the weight of their gold now a favorite fact on tours). Seen this way, the monks are almost predators, feeding on the superstitiousness and awe of the people (who are not even invited to the esoteric knowledge of the monks) in order to maintain their livelihood. The priestly class as parasites–not an uncommon motif.

The stupa of the Tenth Panchen Lama, said to contain 614 kg gold, 868 precious stones and 246,794 jewels

Poor pilgrims, offering their meager savings