By my calculations I have spent about 365 nights in hostels over the past ten years. I feel like there is a certain rhythm to most of the hostels that I’ve stayed in. These little things make life easier for everyone, and they also make it easier to meet new friends when you’re on the road. Say hello to people in your dorm room and around the breakfast table. If there are four beds and four coat hangers, each person should use on coat hanger. If you have an early morning departure, pack your bags in the evening. Those little things are pretty standard at all the hostels I’ve been to, from La Paz, Bolivia to Tallinn, Estonia.
I am writing this from Russia, where I have visited three cities and stayed in two hostels so far. Both of the hostels that I’ve stayed in were noted by my Lonely Planet guidebook, which was published just a few months ago. The Lonely Planet actually says, “Increasingly common across Russia… Western-style hostels are a boon for budget (and other travellers) as they not only offer comfortable accommodation, but also friendly and clued-up English-speaking staff.” Sounds good, right?
Well, the truth about Russian hostels is nothing like the picture painted by Lonely Planet and the online hostel booking sites (Hostelworld, Hostels.com and Booking.com, I’m talking about you!). The truth about Russian hostels is that they serve as long-term accommodation for Russians who are living and working in a city away from home, and they operate on a completely different rhythm than hostels anywhere else. In both hostels that I have stayed in I have been the only foreign traveler in my (completely-full) dorm room, and last night I was the only foreigner in the entire hostel.
What does this mean for backpackers? Well, it means that, at times, you can feel like you’re walking on eggshells because you’re in someone’s “home”. In my last hostel there was a Russian man who would loudly have Skype conversations in the common room, and then would turn on the news when he was done. When some backpackers wanted to Skype home themselves, he yelled at them for interrupting his TV-watching. In my current hostel the “locals” pack the common room in the evening and spread out all over the furniture, laying across couches that should seat three so that there is nowhere for other people to sit. That kind of behaviour is okay at home, I suppose… but are we really at home?
Possibly more concerning to me than the potentially-hostile atmosphere is the idea that it seems some Russian hostels are basically serving as homeless shelters. At my first hostel I was assigned to a top bunk, and the bed underneath mine was assigned to an old woman. She yelled at me a few times: once, I put my water bottle down on the table beside the phone she was charging, and she got mad. Another time, I tried to hang my towel off the edge of my bed (because she was using ALL the coat hooks) and she didn’t like that it hung down in front of her space. When I saw the fur coats she had hung on the coat hooks I thought that was odd for the middle of summer, and asked at the desk. My suspicions were correct: she had been living in that dorm bed for two years. Over time this elderly woman had developed other habits that were not conducive to hostel living, such as bathing irregularly, loudly burping and passing gas in the night and then commenting loudly about it, screaming in the night, straining to use the toilet… while leaving the door open, etc. Again, this might not be terrible in someone’s own home, but was this really her “home”?
Obviously I recognize the need for affordable accommodation for Russians within their own country. However, I don’t necessarily think it’s best for hostels to try to pass themselves off as “European-style backpacker hostels” while basically ignoring everything that makes hosteling unique and enjoyable. I know that some hostels in Russia have started instituting strict short-term stay policies, which is a definite step in the right direction. This will hopefully help the market separate into “hostels” and “dormitories”, as it should. If hostels choose not to implement this policy, they should make it clear to travellers that their target market is mainly long-term Russian residents, so that travellers can make an informed choice.
I wish someone had told me the truth about Russian hostels before I set off on his backpacking trip, and I can’t believe so many guidebooks gloss over the extent of the cultural difference between hostels in Russia and hostels in most other regions. Hopefully knowing the truth will help you make the right choice on your next trip across Russia!