Finding a five-dollar per night hotel room in Kabul is relatively easy. Convincing yourself to actually stay there is the challenge.  The hotel I chose was based upon a recommendation from a Japanese traveler I had met in India.  He had labeled the centrally located downtown lodging with two phrases that suited my backpacking needs quite well – ‘cheap’ and ‘good enough.’

When the taxi driver stopped in front of an immense and hideous five-storey monstrosity, after a drive that included dozens of u-turns and the driver asking others for directions on several occasions, I insisted that he had made a mistake.  The concrete building stretched the length of an entire block and appeared to be a bombed out shell of a once functioning structure, certainly not the location of a hotel.  In fact, it seemed nearly impossible to believe that any human activity at all could be taking place behind those crumbling walls.

The driver, frustrated by my refusal to exit his vehicle, finally got out of the taxi himself and walked directly up to a narrow metal staircase that led into the building.  He pointed repeatedly at a small sign that hung on the wall that read “Hotel Zar Nagar.”

And so I climbed the steps up to the first floor where I found an office labeled ‘front desk’ and a small, yet busy, restaurant, the complete operation of which came to an instant standstill upon my arrival. I inquired about a room to the serious man in the office who was twirling around on a half-broken, wooden swivel chair amid a cloud of thick cigarette smoke.  As he silently looked me over, seeming quite suspicious of my arrival, he shouted out the door until a young, bare-footed Chinese boy came running in. He handed the boy a key to one of the rooms and with one swipe of the arm, sent us both out of his office.

Upon entering the third floor hotel room, I was struck by the stunning scene of the surrounding hills visible through the large, albeit dirty, floor to ceiling windows on the back wall.  But unfortunately, this first impression quickly evaporated as soon as I turned my attention elsewhere.

The three-legged bed consisted of two dusty and torn, inch-thick mattresses thrown on top of a slanted and unstable wooden frame.  Another mattress lay nearly ripped to shreds in one corner and a tattered beige curtain sat crumbled into a ball in the other.  The carpet was covered in food crumbs, scattered among bits of paper and wood, some soiled rags, a dirty plate and two dirty drinking glasses full of some indeterminable type of thick brownish liquid.  Trying extremely hard to convince myself that the dozens of large, slightly damp stains on the floor were not the result of bodily functions, I envisioned the previous guests accidentally spilling some grape juice or bolognaise sauce.  This might not have been difficult to actually believe had the entire room not stunk of feces and urine.

I switched on the light, a move which allowed me to meet the approximately two hundred and fifty other occupants of the room who suddenly awoke from their slumber and broke into a maddening frenzy, immediately proving themselves to be the most hyperactive and facial orifice-loving flies west of Shanghai.

The tour was not yet complete, and as I stepped back into the hallway, I felt relieved upon discovering that the communal toilet was located directly next to my room.  In countries with poorer standards of hygiene, you never know when irritable bowel syndrome might strike.  After spending six months in India, I knew all too well that having a toilet two floors below your room or at the opposite end of the hall can be the difference between extreme relief and an extreme ‘accident.’

Opening the door to this particular toilet, I nearly broke into tears upon locating the main source of the foul smell in my room.  Not only was the squat toilet full of un-flushed excrement, but the floor was covered in a thick layer of all sorts of human waste.  A big tin drum supposedly full of water sat in the back corner with a small measuring cup on its lid.  I shuddered with disgust at the thought of having to take a bucket shower in this shrine of unbelievably shocking un-cleanliness.

I glanced at the boy whose duties I assumed included cleaning the toilet, as if he would provide some valid justification as to why he had been slacking off on the job as of late. But he just shrugged and smiled, asking the inevitable question “You like?”

As I looked again at the room and noticed through the stained windowpanes that the sun was about to set for the night, I had no option but to reply with a confident, “Good. I like.”  The boy gave me the key, mimicking the act of putting it into the key hole. “Lock” he declared before disappearing down the stairs.  It did not take long for me to discover that the lock was useless, as the door opened while ‘locked’ or ‘unlocked’, with or without the key.

Moments later, after being summoned back to the lobby in order to register my passport details, the manager was having great trouble understanding my displeasure with the lack of security for my belongings.  After listening to my request for another room several times without comprehending my meaning, I thought I had finally made progress when he suddenly stated, “Ah, for room, ok.”  He again shouted to the Chinese boy who then left the office and returned a minute later.  In his arms he carried two heavily worn-out pink towels, which the manager proudly presented to me as the solution to my problem.

Later in the evening, while having extreme difficulty picking the flies out of my nose and trying to sleep at the same time, I wrapped myself in these towels and prayed that the eerie wind rattling the cracked panes of the window would wipe everything clean, especially the toilet, by morning.

(I still recommend this place to anyone backpacking through Afghanistan. Hotel Zar Nagar – it’s central and cheap and it turns out there are communal hot showers in the lane behind the hotel!)