Hostel Environments: Eight Bedtime Stories

By Karin E. Tanabe
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 6, 2006

The water in the shower went from cold to colder. I had forgotten my flip-flops, so I was sure to contract a rare foot fungus in seconds. And was it just a case of double vision or were there two pairs of feet in the bathroom stall next door?

It was my first (and only) night at Stockholm's Gustaf Af Klint, a "boat hostel" rocking on the waves of the Swedish capital's picturesque harbor. After weeks of hostel life during my overland trip from Hong Kong to Paris in summer 2004, I had fallen asleep to symphonies of international snoring, been awakened by the unmistakable sounds of passion and waited in long lines to take cold showers. Despite it all, I was having a fantastic time.

My first hostel stay in Europe was at the bright and airy Hostel Erottajanpuisto in Helsinki. Still smelling like mutton and yak's milk from a stint in Mongolia, I handed my money and Hostelling International card to a clean, welcoming Finn and prepared myself for the luxuries that 20 euros ($25.50) could provide. Rested and exuberant to be in the land of Nokia phones and cow's milk, I staggered toward the communal kitchen, where I saw yards of yellow police tape.

"Haven't you heard?" asked a fellow traveler behind me.

Heard what? That it was illegal to eat breakfast in Finland?

"A woman died here last night," said the girl, pointing to a policeman down the hall. "She was on her way to the hospital. She was 80 years old." It was a stark reminder that youth hostels are not just for the young. Though most patrons are between the ages of 18 and 30, I have never stayed in a hostel where there was not at least one person over 40, looking to stay forever young while saving a buck or two.

The International Youth Hostel Federation, or Hostelling International (HI), runs about 4,000 hostels -- defined as a "good quality budget accommodation that offers a comfortable night's sleep in friendly surroundings at an affordable price" -- in more than 80 countries, accounting for more than 35 million overnight stays a year. Rates generally run about $10 to $35 per person a night. Private hostels outnumber HI-affiliated ones and fall into the same price range. Some hostels boast single and double rooms, but snoozing next to strangers in dormitories is still the principal type of accommodation available.

HI emphasizes cultural appreciation, environmental awareness and creating communities of individuals, regardless of background, income or the last time they took a shower. But I stayed in hostels for a simple reason: I had very little money.

Along the way, I discovered that there are many different types of hostels, each with a distinct personality. There are 24-hour party hostels, family hostels, student hostels, age-restricted hostels, dormitory-style hostels and hostels with private rooms, hostels where you sleep soundly at night and hostels where you need earmuffs. But like many things in life, it still comes down to the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good

· Beijing Far East International Youth Hostel, Beijing

No one staying at the Beijing Far East International Youth Hostel leaves as planned. And why should they? Situated in a maze of narrow streets where locals play mah-jongg on the sidewalks and gossip in public bathrooms, the Far East is within spitting distance (an appropriate term in Beijing) from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Across the street from a clean, reasonably priced hotel affiliated with it, the hostel was once the home of a warlord. It now houses budget-minded travelers for $6 a night.

The Far East has everything you'd want in a hostel: an abundance of group space, indoors and out; a knowledgeable staff; a vibrant, sociable atmosphere; and only four people to a room. The staff can help arrange trips to the Great Wall as well as tickets to the Beijing Opera or martial arts events.

The hostel boasts a restaurant and food shop, far enough from the rooms that noise is not a problem. A family-run store across the street sells 25-cent beer all night long, its front stoop always jammed with backpackers from around the globe. If you prefer actual chairs, there's a lantern-lit courtyard where guests spend the days and nights exchanging information and cheap drinks. The dorm rooms are charmless but comfortable, with large wooden bunk beds and lockers big enough to store the most bulbous of backpacks.

In a world of communal rooms and pay-as-you-go showers, this hostel is worth seeking out.

90 Tieshu Xiejie, Xuanwu District, 0 11-86-10-51958811 ,

· UB Guesthouse, Ulan Bator, Mongolia

Bobby and Mr. Kim, the Korean proprietors of the Mongolian capital's UB Guesthouse, make a trip to the Gobi Desert seem like a jaunt around your home town.

Their impeccably clean hostel has everything the wandering backpacker needs: hot showers, industrial-strength washing machines and, most important, all-you-can-eat chocolate spread. My eight-person dorm room had large windows and was outfitted with metal bunk beds covered in sheets that made me nostalgic for Saturday-morning cartoons (mine were SpongeBob).

Ulan Bator is a sprawling city with a drab Soviet feel. After a couple of desultory days exploring, you'll want to head for the hills, steppe or lake region -- wherever the road, or lack thereof, may take you. Bobby and Mr. Kim will help you plan side trips and can provide you with all the things you were unable to bring along, such as portable stoves and kerosene. They will also escort you to your driver and Russian-made military jeep like proud parents.

I spent days on the outskirts of the Gobi Desert, drinking fermented mare's milk, climbing sand dunes, crawling under ice caves, examining dinosaur bones, riding horses through the hills and watching wild ones run by. For several nights I slept in a herder's ger, or tent. I awoke to a young goat nibbling on my toes. I learned how to say "How is your livestock?" in Mongolian. I drank vodka for medicinal purposes. I said "breathtaking" about 100 times. I experienced Mongolia just the way one should. And all thanks to my $5-a-night hostel.

Baga Toiruu Street, 011-976-11-31-1037,

· Hotel & Hostel Montarina, Lugano, Switzerland

Upon entering my meticulously clean bedroom at the Montarina, I chose not the top bunk but the top, top bunk -- that's right, Layer 3. "Thank God I was born in the year of the monkey," I muttered as I climbed up. The air got thinner, I swear. But when I climbed back down and stepped outside, my proximity to the ceiling ceased to matter.

Hostels attached to hotels, a concept growing in popularity, are perfect for those who think they might crack after a few days of communal living. The Montarina is a beautiful 19th-century villa that combines quarters for budgeteers and big spenders splendidly. Located in a well-manicured park on a hill overlooking the city and Lake Lugano, the $20-a-night Montarina makes you wonder why anyone would ever pay to stay in a hotel. Of course, if you prefer to splurge, you can just move next door.

I spent my first morning in Lugano indulging in a bit of self-directed yoga among the aromatic pines and doing laps in the swimming pool shared by hotel and hostel patrons. I purchased a few morsels to munch on while tanning on the terrace, admired the amazing view and chatted with fellow travelers about the beauty of the lake region.

"George Clooney has a house on Lake Como," a fellow guest commented as I sipped my coffee. We laughed about our good luck in staying here before I took another dip in the pool. The thin air above Bunk 3 seemed a small price to pay.

1 Via Montarina, 011-41-91-966-7272,

· Nathan's Villa Hostel , Krakow, Poland

Nathan's is a bit like summer camp, if your summer camp had a movie theater, photography exhibits, cheap beer and cost $15 a night. With locations in Krakow, Warsaw and Sighisoara, Romania, Nathan's is run by a Bostonian who decided to open a hostel after realizing that his halcyon days had been spent in hostel common rooms. This experience has served him well, as his hostels don't merely have a common room but a bar, a terrace, a dining area and, in Krakow, even a small movie theater. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Nathan's is the free laundry service. Drop your putrid pajamas in a hamper in the hall and they come back socially acceptable. And since there is no checkout time at Nathan's, you can stay in them all morning.

Faced with hail storms in June, I spent much of my time in Krakow indoors. On my first night I was given a free welcome shot, so potent that I found myself agreeing to square dance with fellow guests to music provided by an English accordion troupe, also staying at the hostel. Every morning I would check the activity board and plan my day around the hostel's offerings: a barbecue dinner, a live local band, a game of pool, a quiz night to win eight beers. And no, I did not drink them all.

At Nathan's, you're bound to meet a lot of memorable people who fully appreciate your enthusiastic participation on quiz night, and your free beer even more.

1 ul Sw. Agnieszki, 011-48-12-422-3545,

The Bad

· Gustaf Af Klint, Stockholm

Before I arrived in Stockholm, friends advised me to stay at "the boat hostel," one of the most popular in Sweden. They meant the Rygerfjord Hotel & Hostel, which was fully booked when I got to town.

No problem, the woman at the tourist bureau assured me, there was another boat hostel on the other side of the harbor where I could sway the night away for only $20. The idea of a boat hostel seemed so quaint and Swedish: I envisioned spending mornings on the deck with blond hunks who would feed me pickled herring. This was not the case.

It turns out that in bad weather, which Sweden often has, the water in the harbor gets choppy and the boats move up and down with each wake. I settled in the rickety bunk bed nailed to the floor of my six-person room, then woke up well before I should have and ran to the dock in my pajamas, a feeble attempt to make the world stop moving for a few precious moments. When I woke up for the second time, as green as the Swedish countryside, I was greeted by the strains of Abba's "Dancing Queen" pumping from the adjacent bar. The bar and overpriced restaurant served as the hostel's only common spaces.

At the Gustaf Af Klint, I learned a few simple rules about hostel life: If you want to sleep, don't stay in a hostel with a bar in arm's reach of your sleeping quarters. Don't stay on a boat unless there is a handsome Viking to take your mind off your motion sickness. And if you're going to travel in high season, make reservations.

153 Stadsgardskajen, 011-46-86-40-4077,

· Sleep-in-Green, Copenhagen

The Sleep-in-Green is an "organic hostel," the staffers at Copenhagen's tourist bureau told me. And it is doing a few things right. The curtains dividing the bunks are a pleasant wisteria color. There's a variety of organically grown food for sale. The common space is comfortable.

But there is no kitchen. The hostel is cleaned with only organic products but, I noticed, these products do not seem to work. There is no luggage storage. And there are too few showers for too many people.

Despite all this, I wanted to like the Sleep-in-Green. At only $17 a night, it's practically free by Scandinavian standards. Plus it's organic, so it had to be good for me.

The doorbell that rang all night was not good for me. Twenty people in one room seemed excessive. The fear of having all my possessions stolen was a definite minus. And then there was Sleep-in-Green's "lockout" policy: Between noon and 4 p.m., the staff kicks you to the curb even if you are hung over, jet-lagged or still seasick from your Swedish boat hostel experience.

I tried my best to appreciate the organic goodness of solar panels, energy-saving light bulbs and rainwater-filled toilets, but it was hard to, standing on the sidewalk.

18 Ravnsborggade, 011-45-35-37-7777,

The Ugly

· BVJ Louvre, Paris

I have come across some hostels that had all the charm of a prison, but their locations made me find their cells rather quaint. Paris's BVJ Louvre has the allure of the Bastille, without the revolutionary fervor.

Of course, its location in the first arrondissement, next to the Louvre, Palais Royal and Rue St. Honore, helps. But the BVJ Louvre is stark, and not in the Philippe Starck way you are hoping for. The walls are bare; the common room is, well, common; you have to constantly push a button while showering to keep the water coming out in short spurts; the metal bunk beds sag in the middle; the bedding seems to be made of porcupine quills; and there are no lockers of any kind.

Even if you spend your days on the nearby Champs-Elysees and come inside only to sleep, you might agree that at $32 a night including breakfast, it's still not a steal.

20 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 011-33-1-53-00-9090,

· Hostel Ruthensteiner, Vienna

In Vienna, one of the most expensive cities in Europe, my only criterion was cheap. In the rain, with my life's belongings on my back, I crawled like a turtle to the well-located and well-priced Hostel Ruthensteiner.

Upon my less-than-glamorous arrival, a nice man with a cosmopolitan accent took my $17, handed me sheets and pointed to the drab hallway that led to my bed. "We call it the Outback," he said with a smile. "It's fun, you'll like it."

I reached for the key and received nothing but a good-old cross-cultural high-five. It turns out I didn't need a key. If they had given me a key, the 15 or more people sharing the room would have needed keys, too.

Less than 10 percent of the Australian population lives in the Outback. Not the case here -- half the backpacking population of Vienna seemed to have taken up residence.

A repressively barren room with metal bunk beds is bad. When you add a horde of snoring people to this equation, and a door that squeaks louder than a Viennese choirboy, it's not just bad, it's ugly. I was out of there after one night, off to seek a good night's sleep aboard a train.

24 Robert Hamerlinggasse, 011-43-18-93-4202,

Karin E. Tanabe is a freelance writer.

Wanted: Your Favorite Hostels

* It's a big world out there, with thousands of hostels eagerly greeting travelers. We wondered: Which ones would you recommend? E-mail a paragraph about your favorite hostel to; include the location, a description of the property, area attractions, what you paid, when you stayed and anything about it that made it a standout. We'll print a compilation of your favorites in a future issue.

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