What you’re about to read was one of the most terrifying nights of my life. While traveling through Yunnan in China, I stayed at a youth hostel in Jinghong, Xishuangbanna, a city that has historical influence from not only China, but also from Thailand and Laos. Even though it’s still a Chinese city, it feels very southeast asian.
I arrived in Jinghong at the crack of dawn on a sleeper bus from Kunming. I had written some information about a youth hostel here and asked a woman at the bus station where it was. She pointed the way just down the street and I headed towards it. After about a five-minute walk from the station, I found it and checked in. The young woman at the desk didn’t speak much english, and she seemed very annoyed that I was bothering her for a room at such an early hour. I paid 40 yuan ($6) for a dorm bed and made my way over to it.
When I opened the door and walked in there were four beds lined up against the wall. I noticed an older western man sleeping in the second to last bed, so I tried to be as quiet as I could while unpacking and taking a shower. When I got out of the shower, he had just woken up and was sitting at the edge of his bed. As a backpacker, you know the situation. The usual, Hello…Where you from?…Where you traveling?…blah blah blah. I usually break the ice first, but I was so tired that I didn’t really want to deal with the usual banter. He didn’t say anything. He just sat and stared at the wall. So I crawled into bed without a word and went to sleep for a couple of hours.
I woke up around 9 and got ready to go out to get some much-needed breakfast and look up some information about crossing into Laos. When I came out of the room, the man was sitting on a bench outside, drinking coffee and listening to a small short-wave radio which was broadcasting some news in english. I thought coffee was a good idea so I went into the office and got some and came back out to sit on a chair next to him. I broke the ice with the usual conversation.
“I’m from England,” he said without even looking at me, just staring out into the parking lot.
I’m guessing he was about 60 years old and he was tall and slender with silver-white hair. When I told him where I was from, he looked very surprised.
“Strange,” he replied. “I don’t meet too many of you. Seems like Americans don’t like to travel much.”
I agreed with him and told him that we’re few and far between. While trying to talk with him, I say trying because he didn’t say much, mostly just minimal answers with no feedback, I found out that he had traveled around Asia for nearly 15 years. He said he’d been in Jinghong for about a month.
“A month eh?” I said. “So you must be doing a lot around here. I’m only here for a day or two, can you suggest anything?”
“No,” he said and turned up the radio.
I guessed that I was bothering him, so I got out my journal and started writing to show I was also busy and to curb the awkwardness. But I couldn’t concentrate to write. I felt strange. When I was talking to him, he could never quite look me in the eye very long, just short glances, like a child telling a lie. Maybe because he knew what his eyes looked like. Cold. A light hazel-gray that were as chilling as they were piercing. I’m getting goosebumps just writing about it. After each string of sentences, his lips would give a nervous half-smile.
I couldn’t help but think what he had done here for the past month, let alone the past 15 years. A 60-year-old man alone and socially awkward. As a traveller, you meet the occasional drifter, someone you can’t quite put a finger on, as if they are hiding or running away from something. He had that presence more than anyone I’d met before.
I finished up my coffee and stood up. I had some clothes I needed washed, so I got them and gave them to the woman at the desk. Again, she looked annoyed and just threw my clothes in a bag. I told her I might be checking out tomorrow, so could she please have them finished by then. She just nodded her head and disappeared through a door behind the desk.
I went back in the room to get ready to roam around the town. When I came out he asked, “Where are you going?”
“Just going to see what I can find around here,” I replied. He gave a half-smile again and said, “See you later.”
With that, I headed out and wandered a market taking photos. I then headed to the Mekong Cafe to get some breakfast and get on the internet to plan my crossing into Laos. After finishing breakfast, I wandered aimlessly around the town and headed across a bridge to try to find a large buddhist temple I’d read about on the internet. After walking for about an hour, I gave up looking for it and headed back into town. The rest of the afternoon I just walked around, tiring my legs and absorbing the sights. It started to rain so I headed back to the hostel to put my bag away and get some dinner.
I stopped by the front desk to ask about my laundry and the woman kept saying she didn’t understand what I was talking about. In my broken Chinese, I kept asking where my laundry was. She just kept saying, “Tien putong. Tien putong.” (I don’t know.) Finally, she angrily pointed up towards the ceiling and disappeared through the door again. I walked upstairs and found a ladder going to the rooftop. Sure enough, there were all my clothes, hanging on a line soaking wet in the rain. Now I knew why she was saying that and acting strange. She was trying to save face because she forgot about my laundry. I took them down and went back to my room to try to wring them out in the bathroom sink.
Thankfully, the man wasn’t there so I could avoid more eerie awkwardness. After getting my clothes as dry as I could, I hung them up around the room on a few chairs and turned the fan on them. After that I headed out to get some dinner. It was still raining so I took a book with me to read and sat on a covered patio while eating some spicy chicken and drinking a cold Harbin beer. The wait staff didn’t seem to mind, so I sat there for about three hours reading and ordering more beers. Finally, around ten o’ clock, I headed back to the hostel.
I opened the door quietly, thinking the man might be in bed, and came in. The light was still on and he was sitting up in bed, his shirt off with the covers over him. He turned and looked at me as I walked in.
“Where have you been?” he asked in a parental-like tone.
“Just walking around seeing what the city has to offer,” I replied as I set my bag down.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” he said with a wide smile.
“Oh, uh, you didn’t have to wait.”
He sat there with his eyes on me the whole time. I wanted to take a shower again because I had decided to catch the early morning bus to Laos. But I didn’t know what to do with the light on, his cold eyes eyeing every movement. I didn’t say anything else while I gathered all my half-dry clothes and put them into a plastic bag. As I packed everything, he just sat there in bed, staring without a word, just a strange smile on his face. I didn’t know what to do.
I went into the bathroom and locked the door. As I took a shower, paranoid thoughts raced through my mind. I started to think about the situation. I hadn’t seen any other travellers at the hostel. Only the annoyed woman, the old man and myself. Why had he been here for a whole month and couldn’t tell me one thing to do? 15 years traveling Asia? What was up with the woman’s attitude? Then it hit me. The cold eyes, the socially awkward mannerisms, the short answers. I remembered I’d asked his name that morning and he steered the conversation away from it. Who was he?
Serial killer. The thought kept creeping into my head. I couldn’t help it. The cold eyes you see in the mug shots when watching shows about killers. He had them.
No, c’mon Lance. Get real.
But what if he was? What if I just forget about these paranoid thoughts, but if I’m wrong, I won’t wake up tomorrow. I kept thinking about it as I stood in front of the bathroom mirror. Why is there no one else staying here? Maybe he’s got some kind of deal going on with the strange desk woman, where he possibly rapes and kills young travellers coming through here and she’s in on it, keeping a low-key.
I must have stood there for about half an hour trying to get a clear head. I thought maybe I should change rooms, but how was I going to explain that to the already disgruntled woman. I kept telling myself that the guy’s just a weirdo, nothing else. But no matter how much I told myself it’s all just situational paranoia, I kept fearing the unknown.
Finally, I opened the door and came back into the room. He was still sitting up in the bed with the light on.
“Why were you in there so long?” he asked. “Is something wrong?”
“No. Nothing’s wrong,” I left it at that.
I could feel his eyes on me as I made sure everything was ready to go and set my alarm on my phone.
“Can I turn off the light?” I asked.
“Sure.” He showed his yellow teeth smiling again.
I shut out the light and crawled into bed. I could see the silhouette of his outline through the street light coming in through the far window. He just kept sitting there, upright in bed.
I got up and went back into the bathroom. My shaving kit was still in there and I grabbed my razor, an old-fashioned one that barbers use. I took one last look in the mirror and thought, This is it man. If he wants to try something, I’m fuckin’ ready.
I walked back out with it clasped in my fist and got back into bed. His silhouette was still there, sitting up.
I lay there watching him with my eyes almost shut, my heart jumping against my chest. My palm was sweaty against the razor. Bring it old man.
I didn’t sleep. I watched him the whole time. For two hours he sat up in bed and I could see his head moving about, as if trying to see if I had fallen asleep yet. I kept thinking, it’s either you or him…it’s either you or him.
I was jolted awake by my alarm at 5:45. I immediately looked over at him. He was sound asleep. Jesus. I smiled in relief. What a weirdo.
I put the blade away and gathered all my stuff. As I was walking out he turned over and let out a long yawn.
“You heading out?”
“Have a safe trip,” he said.
“Thanks. Same to you.” I opened the door and walked out.