Chinese public toilets can be unpleasant, head for one of Beijing’s many McDonalds or an upmarket hotel if it’s convenient.
Beijing hotel toilets are usually Western style (sit-down toilets) but can be a little shabby – not unhygienic, just aged. Most Chinese toilets have puny plumbing which can’t cope with toilet paper. There’ll be a basket by the side of the toilet, throw paper in there. This might not seem very nice, but the alternative is a flooded bathroom and a torrent of vituperative Chinese from the chambermaid. Outside these fragrant havens public toilets generally stink.
In most of China and Beijing squat toilets are the norm. As long as you have reasonably flexible joints then squatting is fine once you get used to it. That’s the way humans were designed to do this kind of business, although in China Western toilets are looked upon as a little more civilised.
Public toilets often consist of little more than a hole in the ground. Privacy is almost unheard of, partitions usually consist of nothing more than a two foot wall if that, cubicle doors are an unheard of luxury. A fee (around 0.5Y) is sometimes levied for using public toilets, if so there’ll be a little old lady outside taking your change and dispensing squares of toilet paper. In toilets where there’s no fee, no toilet paper will be provided, so always carry toilet paper with you.
Beijing’s public toilets, like everything else in the great city, are getting a major facelift in time for the 2008 Olympic Games. New Beijing toilets are exceedingly swish – automatically flushing white enamel urinals, cubicles with doors! Although some of the Chinese government’s Olympic developments are robbing Beijing of its flavour, the smell of an old style Beijing toilet will not be greatly missed.
Old style Beijing hutong toilets have no sewer system, everything just empties into an enormous hole directly underneath where you squat. The hole slowly fills up through the week until the ironically named ‘hygiene truck’ arrives to suck it all out with an enormous tube. Visiting one of these establishments during a sweltering Beijing summer as a week’s worth of Chinese shit ferments a few feet below you is an experience to be forgotten if possible.
The stench brings tears to the eyes and makes the head swim, you can actually feel the heat rising up from beneath you. The air blackens with thousands of flies and you walk out feeling as if you’ve just showered in that which you just got rid of. The smell, which you first caught a whiff of at the end of the street, will follow you for about three days.
The beauty of Chinese toilets, if there is any, is in the variety. No two are the same. The toilets of a certain Chinese airport have an excellent auto-flush system, the only drawback is that they don’t flush until about ten seconds after you leave. That’s just enough time for the next person to get in, realise it hasn’t flushed, feel vaguely repulsed and ill at what they see, and a little annoyed at the barbarian who just left and didn’t flush – then the toilet finally flushes.
Some Chinese countryside toilets have an excellent recycling facility – they are directly above a pen of hungry pigs. Please don’t let this put you off eating pork in China – these pigs are generally not for sale. Other country toilets can be pleasant indeed, out in the open air with marvellous views. The toilets of a certain Dali restaurant are nothing more than a hole in the ground, but the view over lakes and mountains is one of the best in China.
Toilets can also be a rather sociable place. The no talking rule of the Western men’s room doesn’t really apply in China, especially since you can hardly avoid seeing precisely what everyone else is doing. There’s really only one solution – when in Rome do as Romans do – so grin, bear it, and don’t in any circumstances breathe in.
Wonder at the Great Wall, be awed by the magnificent Forbidden City, drink in the scenery from a boat on the Summer Palace’s Kunming Lake.