"It is official Communist Party hotel," announced Ling, the travel agent in Jiayuguan, as she bestowed upon me the color brochure with the sort of reverence one would reserve for the Shroud of Turin or the sandal of Apostle John.
The brochure for the Melon Hotel (thus its name translates from Chinese) in the town of Hami, my next stop on the Silk Road, made about as much sense as anything did in China: a red, winged goblet bearing two yellow stars, reminiscent of the national flag, sat perched atop a snapshot of a mold-green and urine-yellow concrete bunker with a lobby so overlit -- so over-exposed by the photographer, actually -- that it appeared to be undergoing a Chernobyl-like meltdown. Next came a picture of a young woman curled up on a bed wearing a short skirt and thick, flesh-colored leggings, captioned "House keeping department make you easy and comfortable." Further scenes depicted Communist Party bureaucrats hosting wood-faced waibin, or foreign guests; one showed a Japanese businessman sawing the leg off what appeared to be a charred Fu Manchu Warrior splayed on a bed of spinach (this turned out to be a jumbo-sized roast lamb, horns and all). And, as Ling had informed me, the introduction stated that the brand-new hotel was "subordinate to Party Committee and Municipal Government."
The massacre at Tiananmen Square came to mind, as did the Gang of Four; it was hard to see how Communist Party management assured quality accommodation. But a lot had changed in China, and besides, wayward waibins were reputedly unwelcome in Hami's other, less prestigious hotels.
"OK," I said, "book me a room."
A day later I was riding the train to Hami through the charcoal dunes of the outer Taklamakan Desert. At midnight I disembarked alone onto the platform of Hami station. A gust of wind roiled a cloud of red dust around me.
I coughed and covered my eyes. When I opened them I saw tiny black leather pumps. Then black leggings on shapely calves. Then an electric blue blazer on a petite feminine figure and a hand holding car keys. Then, finally, a face, bright and round as the moon, with almond eyes. The picture of Chinese comeliness would have been perfect if it weren't for the golf-ball-sized wad of bubble gum the Hami belle was chomping on and working from cheek to cheek.
"I taxi you. No?" she said, tonguing her gum wad into the cavity of her left cheek and smiling.
She grabbed my bag and we were off.
Twenty minutes later I stood in the lobby of the Melon Hotel in front of a receptionist who, compact mirror in hand, was diligently tracing her eyebrows with a thick pencil. I asked for a quiet room and, keeping her gaze focused on her brows, she pushed a tissue-thin registration form at me. As I filled it out it tore in two.
She snapped her mascara kit closed. "Price 150 Yuan ($18)." She squinted at the pieces of the shorn form.
"Laowai! Laowai!" (old foreigner) I heard from the far reaches of the lobby. A young man in a gray polyester suit strode out of the adjacent bar and clacked his heels officiously over the black linoleum. He sidled up to me, smiling broadly and revealing shards of nicotine-stained teeth. He coughed in my face: ashes flecked onto my passport from the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth.
"You are a foreigner," he said in Chinese. His cigarette danced with the words and ashes flew.
Taking him for a shyster of some sort, I ignored him. "Can you please get me a Coke?" I asked the receptionist, having finished with the check-in formalities.
"How's her English?" the young man asked me, edging too close.
She went bug-eyed and blurted out an encore: "Price 150 Yuan."
"Her English is fine. I'd like a Coke."
"Cokes in the wu ting," he said flatly. "How's her grammar?"
"Price 150 Yuan," she said again.
"Wonderful. The wu ting?" I'd been studying Chinese but I didn't know the words.
"Wu ting! Wu ting!"
A hubbub arose outside. Two girls skidded their bicycles to a halt in front of the hotel and minced giggling across the lobby. "Wu ting!" they twittered and disappeared down a staircase.
"Please, follow me. I am the leader," the man said. "The leader of the hotel. Actually we have two leaders and I am one." He picked up my bag and led me to the elevator.
We rode up to the fifth floor. The Leader flicked a switch and the hall lights came on. A woman in red sitting behind a desk eased her feet into her slippers and stood up, straightening her skirt and tossing back her hair. She fell in behind us as we walked single file down the hall. The floor was gloriously empty -- I was sick of noisy, crowded Chinese hotels.
The woman tugged at my sleeve and stood on her tiptoes, grazing my ear with her soft lips.
"Shoe shine?" she whispered, batting her lashes. She whipped a rag and polish out of her apron.
Later, after settling into my room, I decided to repair to the wu ting -- the bar, I assumed -- for a cola. The stairway from the lobby echoed with "Ra-Ra-Rasputin, Lover of the Russian Queen!" and the Leader loitered near its head.
"Going for a Coke," I said.
I stopped. "Excuse me?"
"Going to the wu ting for a Coke! Hee-hee-hee."
The doors flew open and three red-vested, garlic-breathed waiters dragged me into a pitch-black dance hall. I fell forward -- there were steps -- and knocked my knees into a table, fumbling for the flashlight I had in my pocket. I turned it on, and my light danced over bottles of champagne, pyramids of peanuts, chintzy blouses and pancake-powdered faces, and then waned -- the batteries died. Shadows on the floor around me turned out to be couples slowly waltzing and pirouetting to the rapid-fire Swedish disco music.
"Qing wen, yi ge Cola!" I shouted into the garlic stench bathing my left cheek.
The waiters ignored my request but offered me a xiaojie, a girl, for 500 Yuan ($60 dollars) and started leading me toward a side room. I pulled away in search of the bar, stumbling into waltzers, stepping on sandaled toes, inhaling toilette water and sweat. I bounced from pirouetter to pirouetter with the waiters trailing after me, shouting about xiaojies. Finding no bar, I made for the crack of light that was the door, tripped my way back up the stairs and into the lobby. I retired Cokeless and fell into a fitful sleep.
At 3 in the morning the phone bleated. I groped for it in the dark.
The Bee Gees. A plaintive female squeal: "Wei! Wei!"
"Xiaojie yao bu yao?" (You want a girl?)
I slammed down the receiver. Within minutes jackhammering began on the street below, then buzz-sawing, then the unloading of bricks from the back of a truck. I lurched afoot and raced to the window: my room, it turned out, overlooked a night workshop.
Just before dawn the buzz saws stopped. The Melon Hotel acquired, for the first time since midnight, an air of serenity, and I dozed off.
But then outside my room there were giggles and coos, followed by the gurgling of sinuses being drained and hack-spits and the ker-plunks of sputum striking spittoons. Then ensued the whistles and honks of gases exiting private orifices. Keys rattled in doors all around me. The hall was filling with drunken men and their xiaojies, and over and over a singsong tintinnabulation reached my room: wu ting, wu ting.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
The next day, remembering my sleepless night, I worked up enough spleen to demand a quieter room. I pounded the receptionist's bell. Inside the office behind the counter I saw a half-dozen female hotel functionaries applying eye shadow and lipstick in compact mirrors. I pounded again.
A young woman peered from behind the doorjamb, adjusting her blue jacket and smiling meekly. She had a chiseled nose and a flowerbud mouth.
Her teeth were porcelain white but with prominent incisors that lent her the alluring aspect of an Oriental vampiress. Ying was the name pinned to her jacket.
"No way am I going to be bowled over by some charmer," I thought. "I have paid my money and I will demand service for it!" I steeled myself by conjuring up the past horrors of Communist rule around the world. In fact, I began my oration with a preamble on the Melon's status as the town's premier Communist accommodation (shouldn't they try to counter the image the West has?) and said that jackhammers and hookers and spittoons were a sad, sad reflection on the New China.
Ying sighed. "There is much sadness in life, is there not?"
"What?" I stuttered. I suddenly noticed she smelled of cinnamon.
Ying caught her breath. "Grandpa fight with Chiang Kai-Shek and flee to Taiwan in 1949. Grandma so sad and we hear nothing of him, but Grandma wait year after year, alone in the village, watching the road for him. We cannot go to find him because of the political situation. Then in 1980 he write her a letter saying he married again. Grandma cries out and die of sadness holding his letter. Grandpa come back to China and cry on her grave for days and days and we cannot help and he say his life all sadness and pain."
"Yes, well, look, I paid for this room and last night --"
"The heart is like the sea, one day churning the next day calm. The way to be happy is to accept sadness and anger as the sea accept the storm."
"Yes, but you see, I am outraged. I --"
"Life pass like clouds over the moon. How old are you?"
"Ahh, and no family! My heart is warm for my husband and my child. That is enough for me. To have my family warm. But you cannot have a warm heart without a family."
"Is 37 so old?"
"It is almost 40. We have a saying: At 40 a woman is dried grass but a man is a flower. You still have time for your life, happiness will come but you must be like the sea."
I thanked her and went up to my room. The next time when the jackhammering started I slept through it.
Later in the week, after dining on kebab at the Night Market, I returned to the Melon and found it glittering like a Las Vegas casino, its red and green bulbs twinkling, its chrome-and-faux-silver lobby ablaze as if it were, as the brochure led one to believe, the site of an atomic explosion. The Leader, loitering by the front door, nodded hello: "Check out the wu ting, why don't you!" He flicked his ashes into the grass and jiggled his eyebrows.
I followed the trajectory of his jiggle: the wu ting, it turned out, was accessible from the lobby as well as the side of the Melon, where an illuminated sign showed a ballerina pirouetting over the characters "wu ting." Brilliantined teens in platform heels were rolling up two to a bike from all corners of Hami. What the heck, I thought, and followed them down the stairs.
"Gao bizi" ("high-nosed one") rippled through the crowd -- I was the only non-Chinese. A scrum of red-vested waiters set upon me, but the place was better lit than before. At the bar I asked for a Coke and was handed a liter-bottle of Qindao Beer. The bartender, a spry woman with an impish grin and perky bust, pointed to an enclosure on the side.
"Will you not go to the house?"
"The what? No, I'm fine," I said, and sipped my beer. The "house," I saw, was a walled-off table next to the dance floor.
A middle-aged Chinese woman in a blue uniform introduced herself as the bar manager. We began to chat. As I was explaining what brought me to Hami I noticed her nostrils rippling. Her lips began twitching, her sinuses burbled, her cheeks bulged. She nodded distractedly at my last remark, then, her eyes on mine, hawked up a bolus of phlegm. In no great haste, perhaps even out of respect, she held it in her mouth until I had finished my sentence. Then she leaned over and let it ker-plunk into the spittoon near my feet. She smiled at me. I forgot what we were talking about.
"Please, darling, come to house!"
A tiny woman clutched my arm. "To house! To house!" The manager's nose started rippling again. I grabbed Wan Shu Ling, as the tiny one introduced herself, and spirited her away from the nose and toward the house. Immediately three waiters swept in from the corners offering matches, cigarettes, peanuts, condoms, beers. I pushed past them into the house. A waiter, repocketing his Trojans, plugged a cord into the wall and a mini-Christmas tree on the table began blinking. He flung shut the curtains. Another waiter flung them open and, as if presenting us with the finest escargot, handed me a tray of peanuts and genuflected his way out.
With the utmost discrimination, Wan chose the plumpest nuts, and, looking me soulfully in the eyes, cracked them open with her molars, spitting out the husks over her shoulder, and hand-fed them to me.
"I am piaoliang, no?" she said, tilting her head. "Beautiful, no?"
Again the curtains flew open: The waiter, undulating toward us, held out a bottle of Qingdao Beer for my approval as if it were the finest Chablis. I nodded. He produced his bottle-opener.
She was pretty, in a way, with her paste-on eyelashes and paste-on breasts, her rosy mouth and lustrous black hair, but the scene grew tiresome. I handed her some money for her time and crunched through the compost of peanut shells and out of the house.
Things in the wu ting were heating up, but I found myself scrutinizing Chinese characters the bartender was writing out for me on napkins: tree-like scribbles meant forests, curvy slashes signified women, and a splayed stick figure, unsurprisingly, stood for a person. I had been studying Chinese, but in the Latin alphabet; her introduction to characters was fascinating and easy to grasp. When I finally tired of the evening -- I was, after all, compelled to stand next to the wildly popular barside spittoon -- I thanked her, and as a gesture of chivalry kissed her hand. It turned out that this was not the way to a Hami woman's heart: The waiters erupted into shrieking laughter, the manager expectorated a humongous plug of nasal matter, the assembled teens tittered and the bartender herself shot behind the counter out of embarrassment.
Later that night, just as I was falling to sleep, the phone rang. I heard snippets of the Bee Gees and a plaintive voice against the din of the wu ting:
"Please, come back to house! To house!"
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
The next morning I brought my suitcase to the front desk and paid my bill. The door to the office was open: The women were applying their pencils and powder, plucking their eyebrows and preening their lashes. One of them was bringing a buzzing depilator to bear on a fat black hair growing out of a chin mole. But there was no scent of cinnamon, no Ying.
Why, really, should I see her again? I thought, content to let the gem of hope and life-clarity she had given me remain untarnished by awkward goodbyes. I said farewell to the Leader, who was standing at the bar, picked up my bag and walked out of the Melon and into the razor-sharp sunshine.
An hour later a train was carrying me onward into the desert, toward the rust-red west and another Silk Road town.