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Camping indoors, Soviet style

When staying in former Soviet hotels, be sure to pack some tools. And tip on the first day.

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I don't deliberately stay in rundown Soviet-era provincial hotels so I can write about them later. Sometimes, there's just no alternative.

That was the situation I faced in Djalalabad in southern Kyrgyzstan a few years ago. The only establishment in town with a faded gastinitsa (hotel) sign was the municipally owned Hotel Molmol. I was going to be in town for three days, so there was no other choice.

It was probably a decent place in Soviet times, when party bosses came to town to roll out the latest five-year plan, cook up inflated statistics on the cotton harvest, relax in the hot springs at the local spa, and dine in the hotel ballroom. There also used to be tourists - factory workers and their families. But few officials (and no tourists) had been there for almost a decade, and the place was in sorry shape.

I paid the foreigner's price of $10 for a "luxury room" that consisted of a dormitory-style bed, a chest with broken drawers, and a few cockroaches. There was no running water. The staff - cheekily described as "breathtakingly rude" in the Lonely Planet Guide to Central Asia - told me the electricity would go off at 10:00 p.m. By 8:30, I was sitting in the dark, feeling hungry. The hotel restaurant was closed - for renovations, or so they said.

Buffet No. 37 - the sign was a throwback to communist times, when all eating establishments were state-owned and numbered - in the lobby offered a breakfast of cold piroshki (a filled pastry) and tea. It was one of the better breakfasts I had on this trip.

Most Soviet-era hotels reflect the ostentatious public architecture of the Stalinist and Khrushchev eras with their high-rise apartment blocks, massive squares, and government buildings with colonnades and cavernous lobbies. The impressive facades often conceal dark and drab interiors, with poor heating and ventilation, dangerous wiring, and leaky pipes.

The Soviets built their hotels large, and even small cities boast establishments with several hundred rooms. Of course, the number of rooms bore no relation to the expected number of guests. In an economy based on artificial production quotas, not on actual demand for products and services, there was no place for market research.

So there they stand today - large, and largely empty. Hotel occupancy rates may still be a state secret in some former Soviet republics, but my guess is that most government hotels in provincial centers don't fill more than 20 percent of rooms most of the time. And without guests, they don't have the money to modernize.

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