Elvis had it all backwards in "Heartbreak Hotel": You can always find a new love, but when one of the great hotels in your life vanishes, that is serious business, true heartbreak material. There are few enough real hotels left on the global circuit: We are not far from that future era in which, in Eric Newby's words, "the only thing to stay in will be a concrete bunker reached by an armored train."
The recent demise of two of the great hotels out of my past drove the point home with brute force: The future traveler will get to choose between a sort of Bates Motel International, with rats and roaches instead of Anthony Perkins, and a soulless, expensive, Orwellian glass tower, with so little style and character that you could stay there for a week and not know if you were in Marrakech or Minneapolis, Hong Kong or Hamtramck.
First of all, they tore down Mrs. Davies Guest House in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. (They? The same They who put cheese products into tubes, design the world's airline terminals and write "home-style cooking" on microwave menus.) I saw it coming. I had stayed at Mrs. Davies as recently as last June, on my way back from a reporting safari inside the Afghan war zone. At that time, Mr. Bux, the doleful, owlish proprietor, warned me that the place's days were numbered. "A man from the Northwest Frontier Province has bought the property, and plans to tear it down and build a shopping mall. The land is very valuable, you see."
At my request, he gave me a valedictory capsule history of the hotel: its founding, back in the '30s or early '40s, by the eponymous Mrs. Davies, wife to a down-at-the-heels English officer, who ran off and abandoned her; the hotel's gaudy period, as a sort of bawdyhouse/bar/club for the Colonel Blimps of the Rawalpindi axis of the Empire; the Partition, when India and Pakistan split along bloody bloodlines and the Sikh manager of Mrs. Davies was forced to flee east to India, selling the hotel along the way to the Moslem Bux family, who were in turn fleeing west from their home in Delhi into Pakistan . . . And the hotel's gradual evolution into a sort of shrine on the international mountaineering circuit, with a few journalists and just-plain rucksack vagabonds thrown into the bargain.
Most every major climbing expedition headed for the high peaks of the Pakistani Himalayas started out from Mrs. Davies. During the climbing seasons, it was not unusual to see expedition tents pitched across the dusty walled garden out front, stacks of arcane gear (ropes, ironmongery, dehydrated foods, shortwave radios -- the incredibly and delightfully ornate what-have-you of modern mountaineering) everywhere and climbers doing pull-ups on the tree-limbs, to keep their muscles in shape.
On that last visit, Reinhold Messner, world's greatest climber bar none -- Everest solo, Everest without bottled oxygen, etc., etc. -- was there, with a single companion, preparing for some insanely difficult route on Gasherbrum. There was a Japanese expedition, the oldest of whom looked about 16: They did group calisthenics before breakfast, flexible as a troupe of India-rubber men. There were British, with thick Yorkshire accents, huge arms (and bellies to match) and T-shirts bearing advertisements for Watney's Ale and other favorite brews from home. And a Polish expedition, also big, heavy, most of them bearded like saints. When they heard I had come from Russian-occupied Afghanistan, one or two of them asked me for Mujahideen (Afghan guerrilla) literature, of which I had a parcel. They chuckled appreciatively at the photos of burned-out Soviet tanks and downed helicopter gunships, and roared at a crude but effective cartoon poster of Brezhnev as a goat-horned devil.
Climbers weren't the only people to stay at Mrs. Davies, though: Looking through the guest register, I found a good sampling of foreign correspondents, too, including the great Richard Critchfield, author of the classic book "Villages," who wrote a long and touching tribute to the hotel in the guest book.
Why did everyone go there? The plumbing was preindustrial, the premises dowdy and fading . . . But there were the high, high ceilings that kept you cool in summer; and the staff, who would do anything from argue with a cab driver for you to find you an unfindable brand of film to trade your Afghani money for greenbacks . . . and the food. It wasn't haute cuisine, but it was homey, as certain small English hotels are homey. Dinners of pot roast (probably canned), broiled potatoes, peas and carrots, bread and butter, with pudding for dessert; breakfasts of cornflakes, toast and marmalade, fried eggs, instant coffee . . . The impact, after days or weeks of curry, rice and kebab, was enough to bring tears to one's eyes. Staying at Mrs. Davies was a little bit like being at home -- a home with a mediocre cook in the kitchen, but home nonetheless.
Well, it is all gone now. On my last trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan, last December, someone in Peshawar told me the bad news: The Man From the N.W.F.P., the Shopping Mall Man, brought a wrecking crew and knocked the tired old beloved buildings to the ground. When I passed through Rawalpindi on my way home, I didn't have the heart to go by the place; it would have been much too much.
And then there was the Repulse Bay Hotel, Hong Kong -- on the far side of Victoria Island from the city, looking out over a half-moon of cove, with cliffs to one side, beaches to the other. The Repulse Bay met the same fate as Mrs. Davies: demolished, to make room for something more commercial, in this case a high-rise apartment complex. That charming, rambling old British Colonial building, with its flowering gardens and patches of lawn, just didn't squeeze enough income out of the real estate it rested on. Well, Requiescat in Pacem.
I first stayed at the Repulse Bay as a child, with my mother and brother, while my father -- who did something for the U.S. government I'm still not sure I understand -- was off on one of his long, mysterious "business" trips. We were ensconced in a suite at the Repulse Bay, watched over by a Portuguese-Chinese chauffeur/bodyguard. Those weeks were some of the happiest of my life.
We played in the gardens, where there were actually hedgehogs (some homesick Brit must have imported them); we swam most of every day on the fine beaches around the cove, occasionally making it as far as the rocky landing below the castle at the top of the cliffs on the cove's righthand side. People said it was the Tiger Balm King's Castle, owned by Aw Boon Shaw, inventor of that Vaseline-like salve that is omnipresent throughout the Chinese Far East. I later found it was really the property of one Andrew Yueh, who had gone to Malaysia as an indentured miner, saved his money, bought an abandoned and supposedly played-out tin mine, dug a few feet and found one of the biggest tin deposits on earth. He returned to Hong Kong, built himself this perfect replica of a Gothic castle and filled the courtyard with Rolls-Royces, the bedrooms (rumor had it) with beautiful young wives. Whoever owned it, it was a magical place.
Children are poor judges of food, so I will not critique the Repulse Bay's cuisine in those early days, except to say that I became addicted to a striped pudding they served: red, white and brown, flavored with chocolate, vanilla and strawberry.
When I came back to the hotel -- in 1979, after a 27-year absence -- I found the food wonderful. I ate breakfast on the verandah, overlooking the silver waters of the South China Sea, with two friends, a Chinese businessman and an American journalistic colleague. The juices were all fresh, and cold; croissants rivaled any you could find anywhere on earth. Sausage, kippers, marmalade . . . even the coffee, sometimes recalcitrant in British or Chinese hands, was ineffable.
We watched the fishing boats dip their nets far out on the rolling swells; the Chinese businessman had a phone brought to the table, rang up someone in the Persian Gulf and tried to unload a melange of military weapons, soft-core porno films and Korean pig iron. My journalist friend and I talked about Life, Love, History, War -- the lot. The gardens sent up a fusillade of flower-smells.
It was an enchanted morning; but, alas, there will be no more like it. One of those predatory Hong Kong real-estate corporations gave the Repulse the chop. ("A pervert is a man who prefers sex to money," goes a favorite Hong Kong saying. Hong Kong is perhaps the most hard-heartedly commercial city in the world; if there were a monument like the Statue of Liberty, the Arc de Triomphe or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier there, it would have been long since torn down to make room for a new, vulgarian shopping mall. In a sense, the city devours its past, and present, and produces only cash.)
A couple of your favorite old hotels go down into dust, and you become paranoid about the rest. I go over my eclectic list of regular haunts in my mind, and wonder which ones will be around the next time I travel there: The wonderfully seedy Florida, in Bangkok, with its swimming pool, steaks and offers of $250 bootleg plane tickets to Europe. The Imperial, in New Delhi, with an even better pool than the Florida's, and those great curries. Green's in Peshawar, built around that cool green arboretum, with fine lamb, pilloas full of raisins and nuts, and tutti-frutti ice cream. Closer to home, the Chelsea in New York, the Colburn in Denver . . . Precious places, the lot of them. When one comes back to them, and finds them still standing, still intact, the world is made right again, for a little while at least.