A fiendish chamber of horrors disguised as a mild-mannered laundromat. My nemeses are the first and third machines in the foreground.
BEIJING -- Having a bit of free time this morning, I decided to attempt one of the truly risky, unpredictable, baffling undertakings known to international travelers -- the sort of thing that makes strong men weep and leaves the toughest individuals drained, dazed and disheartened.
I went to the laundromat.
Anyone who's ever done their own clothes in Europe knows that the big, space-eating, predictably efficient washers and dryers we know and take for granted just aren't a worldwide commodity. The washers are OK, but the dryers? You can put clothes in a dryer for two hours, run them on the maximum setting, and have them come out wetter than when they went in.
And so I ventured nervously into the basement of our building, knowing that by doing a load of clothes today, it would be at least theoretically possible to get through the rest of the Olympics with clothing on hand, although I'd probably be flying to Australia wearing my last clean shirt.
Two hours later, I came out a broken, beaten man with a bag full of semi-damp clothing.
In theory, the machines here are quite clever -- a washer and dryer all in one unit. They'd be cleverer they didn't have about 17 bewildering buttons and dials, semi-incomprehensible instructions (even with a newly translated set of English instructions taped to the top), and a bad attitude.
The running time for a wash-and-dry cycle was supposed to be 90 minutes, so I started two machines (they have very small capacities), went to breakfast, and then to the workroom for my daily session of deleting e-mails from boxing promoters.
About an hour into the process, I decided to go down to see if the clothes were actually drying, and how hot the machines were. Since I have a bunch of synthetic, fast-drying clothes, I didn't really want them on the highest dryer setting. They might melt.
As I left the workroom, I asked an Australian journalist to watch my bag (my computer was locked in place) -- then asked her if she'd used the laundry yet. She said she had.
"It was," she said, then paused for several seconds, as if trying to decide just how much she should tell me/brace me for, "interesting."
Down in the basement, it was clear the clothes had finished washing, but I wanted to see how the drying was progressing. Bad move.
Once I opened the door, the machines would not restart, despite a great deal of prodding and pushing of buttons. An Italian journalist joined in trying to help, and had no more success.
So I had to enlist the help of one of the workers in the reception area. She couldn't get the machines to re-start either, and enlisted more help. Two more workers came, all of them pushing buttons and turning knobs, until they finally stopped gave up and started an animated conversation in rapid Chinese.
While they were talking, the machines restarted of their own volition. A half-hour later, I came back, and they were still running. One was almost out of time. I stopped it and took my clothes out. They were a little damp.
The other was still running, and showed the same amount of time as when I'd left. I went to pull the clothes out of it, and it wouldn't let me open the door. A Chinese worker came, shut the machine off, and tried to open the door. It still wouldn't open. He spoke no English, but managed to convey that we should just wait a moment.
We did. The door wouldn't open.
He started it up again, then stopped it. The door opened. The clothes were mostly dry. I was happy to settle for that.
So yes, the trip to the laundromat was indeed interesting.
But if I need to do any more laundry while I'm here, I'm sending it out.