I’m a big believer in hostels. I stayed in them across Europe. I worked at the biggest one in Los Angeles when I first moved to Santa Monica, and I returned to volunteer years later—creating and leading a free weekly tour of downtown LA.
But after a long hiatus, I’ve found that volunteering at a hostel is much more enjoyable than actually sleeping at one. I won’t go into details about the drawbacks of the hostel lifestyle. I will say the first hostel I stayed in when I arrived in Shanghai was particularly depressing. Located on the 6th floor of an apartment building, the common area was outside. I’m sure it’s a great place to hang out in May, not so much in the bone-chilling February rain.
Still, I met several hostellers from Europe and America in Shanghai.
There was Mike, who looked Persian, dressed Italian, and spoke with an unidentifiable accent. I asked him where he was from. “Los Angeles.”
I talked with a British ex-pat who was teaching in Hubei Province. He liked teaching there—“the whole community knows who you are”—but said his salary out in the boonies was such that he blew the equivalent of a week’s pay on a single bar tab here in Shanghai. Not to mention his laptop was stolen from said bar when he put his backpack down. He was leaving for a different, hopefully better hostel, and better luck.
I met some Germans on my third and last night who had just arrived for a four-month program to study Chinese. We commiserated over the difficulties of getting onto Facebook. I mentioned my tea room fiasco, and they explained the Chinese concept of Guanxi. It means ‘network’, although it sounds almost like extended family. If you’re not part of a person’s Guanxi, you are way outside of it. These are the same Germans who warned, if a stranger’s being nice, be wary. (Blanche DuBois would not do well in China.)
I enjoyed socializing with the hostellers, but after three days I moved to a hotel. The move was pre-planned; I had reserved the hotel from the States, figuring after a few days I would want a change of scenery.
South of the Bund, the Rayfont was far from Nanjing Pedestrian Street. No one hassled me for watch/bags or scammed me for tea. Nan Cang Street is not built for tourists, but you can walk right out of the hotel and find some good street food for cheap in the middle of a rainy night.
After a few days of bliss, I checked into a second hostel, better than the first, while I planned the next phase of my trip.
There I met another Brit who had just been visiting his girlfriend in India. He had a week to kill before she met him in New Zealand, so he thought it would be a good idea to fly to Thailand and take an 81-hour bus ride from Bangkok to Shanghai. When I met him, he had just finished the last stretch of the trip—a torturous 36-hour jaunt from Kunming—which had shaken his faith in humanity.
“Kunming, really,” I said, “Everyone tells me I should go there. How was it?”
“It’s a sh*thole,” he said, and advised me to visit anywhere else in the world first.
In desperate need of intoxication, he asked me, now the veteran, where he could grab a beer. I was no help. I had drinks with some ex-pats a couple of nights before, but had no idea where.
I would have searched with him, but I was leaving for Xiamen the next day and had to drop off my extra suitcase at a friend’s apartment. When I returned later that night, I asked if he found that beer. He shook his head and, with a look of exasperation, he summed up my Shanghai experience as well: “It’s an uphill battle.”