Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Journalist's Sleepless Nights

YUZHNO-SAKHALINSK, Far East — Journalists who often travel but don’t have employers to pick up the bill — that is, freelancers — get to know an interesting side of a country.

In parts of China, you must bring your own bed sheets, and the bathrooms are too filthy to enter barefooted. In South Korea, you can watch a U.S. Army corporal with acne and a head the shape of a squash deliver the news on TV.

And in Russia — ah, Russia: Stalin himself doubtless sketched out, with a pencil stub on the back of an execution docket, the design of a standard hotel room that could rapidly be converted into a penal unit (brick in the windows), psychiatric ward (just add bars) or army barracks (break out the glass and subject the inhabitants to hazing).

But as the Thanksgiving holiday falls this week in America, let this be not a complaint but a hymn of gratitude for a life rich in adventures and astounding hotels. Foremost among them, the hotels of Sakhalin.

My favorite is the Severyanka, or Woman of the North, suggesting a 23-year-old with amber eyes, a veiny nose and gold teeth. Located conveniently on a central goat path in Nogliki ("just skirt the pink apartment block, hop over the hot water pipe and you’re there," Fodor’s urges), Severyanka is a converted kindergarten. Every room has 10 beds that would comfortably sleep your average adult pygmy. The cost is 50 rubles.

"We may have to put another guest in your room," the concierge said, but astoundingly, the hotel didn’t fill up.

There are only two toilets in the building, one hogged by the helicopter pilots serving the offshore oil rig who spent their days watching Stalinist musicals on TV, the other so tiny you could bathe a hamster or stew a chicken in it, if so inclined.

In Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, those who enjoy floodlights and the sound of crashing trains are urged to bed down in the Hotel Eurasia. The hotel was built attached to the train station, in accordance with central planners’ marketing studies that show that those who travel probably weren’t planning to sleep anyway.

The management has inserted into each room a plastic sink-bath-and-potty unit. It was perhaps designed for prefab oil camps on Alaska’s North Slope, and is easily cleaned with a fire hose. This probably explains the room’s price, $30 a night: Foreigners are willing to pay extra not to have to pull a chain when they flush the toilet.

Travels abroad bring their own surprises. In Mongolia, the Selenga Hotel was designed to Soviet standards (narrow twin beds, cigarettes ground out in the carpet) except that there was no phone, so that I had to run down four flights to the front desk whenever my translator or a source called. Yet the hotel is equipped with TV channels in English, French, Russian, German, Spanish, Chinese and Mongolian.

"Wow. BBC. CNN. You couldn’t get this in Vladivostok," I said, but when I stepped into the shower, the water immediately went off. I used the teakettle to wash the shampoo from my hair.

China, as I have mentioned, offers some classic dives. In Suifenhe, the hotel was not only filthy, it had no shower stall — just a spigot protruding from the wall of the bathroom, presumably for the convenience of guests hoping to kill two birds with one stone by simultaneously sitting on the toilet and bathing.

In Yanji, on the other hand, the hotel was spotlessly clean and the rooms comfortably appointed with twin sets of double beds. There was only one problem. Upon arrival, a fellow tourist from Vladivostok pointed out a stack of cards at the front desk that were decorated with flowers and Chinese characters. "Take a bunch of these," she said. "If you get lost, give it to the cab driver, and he will get you back here."

For four days, I finished my interviews by handing the cards and saying, "If you need to reach me, I’ll be here until Tuesday." The sources — refugees from North Korea, university professors — would scrutinize the card, nod soberly and pocket it.

Finally, my translator glimpsed one of the cards and burst out laughing. "That’s not your hotel," he said. "This is an ad for a whorehouse."

Throughout Yanji, it is no doubt commonplace to marvel at the freethinking attitudes of American journalists. It’s enough to make you wish Severyanka would open a branch in Yanji.