Walking around in main land China is all about the careful management of specific assets. Money is generally not a hassle since most things are relatively cheap and there is usually an ATM around the corner. However, trying to navigate the streets effectively is a virtual impossibility. You have to allow for a certain zen-like aspect to directional decision-making, and be almost suicidal when crossing the street.
There are thousands of cultural sites, whole areas of superb scenery and multitudes of people doing the strangest things in the strangest places. Pick a random direction and walk for 10 minutes, and I guarantee you will see something you’ve never seen before or thought humanly possible.
I quickly made it a habit of pocketing my hotel’s address card before setting out in an arbitrary direction for a few hours. Then I could concentrate on simply being in China, enjoying its mind-boggling sites and seeing how much trouble I could get myself into before whipping out the address card and getting a taxi home.
Yet the most important aspect of exploring China is not the direction, nor the money, nor a planned itinerary, but the distance to the nearest clean toilet.
Public toilets in China are filthy. They are really f***ing disgusting. You never need to ask for directions to the nearest one or even try to decipher the Chinese characters. All it takes is a slight urge to go and your body will do the rest for you, picking up the familiar ungodly stench marking a hundred metre radius around every Chinese lavatory. Chinese toilets stink to high heaven. If Saint Peter himself made an advance query about what my eventual notion of hell might be when I finally turned up at his heavenly gates, I would say “hutong toilet”.
Hutong is the Chinese word for alleyway and it refers to the Chinese habit of arranging cosy communal courtyards and houses into small, interwoven communities, connected by small alleyways. Hutong residences do not have their own toilets. Instead, they have a communal facility. Unfortunately the Chinese spirit of collective cooperation and close-knit neighbourliness doesn’t seem to have included drawing up a cleaning roster for the pot.
There aren’t too many of these traditional hutong communities left in modern China. Most of them were bulldozed to make way for apartment blocks, highways and shopping malls.
The hutong loo is largely a thing of the past – a toilet ghost that still haunts the country. Any new sanitary facilities erected in China are instantly transformed into their vile, smelly ancestors by the presence of the ghosts. I had been to buildings freshly built, but failed to understand why the toilet standards there stemmed from the Ming Dynasty.
If the vile smell of the Chinese toilet block is not enough to put you off, then the half-dozen men squatting in the open stalls, smoking heavily in an attempt to coax a reaction out of their sphincters definitely will be. There are copious amounts of smokers in China, and most of them are men that need a cigarette in the morning to kick-start their body. A trip to a Chinese toilet is therefore not only a threat to your mental health, but extremely bad for your lungs. However, in China, smoking is almost an opportunity to breathe uncontaminated, filtered air. True, there are dozens of noxious poisons and addictive chemicals in there as well, but at least you’re not breathing the thick, acrid smog, which usually hangs over the country.
I hadn’t been surprised to find that each toilet block in China was manned or womanned by at least one attendant for each facility. China is a labour-intensive country after all. What did surprise me was their complete inability to actually clean the things. Instead, they lit large pots of pungent incense, which did nothing to elevate the pong of urine and nicotine. Just like the toiletees, they too smoked heavily and hung around in the doorways playing Mah-jong with the other toilet attendants. Every time I had to use one of these ghastly facilities, I came away mentally scarred and stinking of smoke as if I’d slept in a German nightclub for a month.
I began to call these places “Smokehouses,” because calling them toilets just didn’t cut it anymore.
The most vile, disgusting, revolting and simply horrendous experience in China can be found just near Chengdu’s Northern Railway Station. It’s a public loo and because of mismanagement, two cups of tea — one great, the other one not — and a recently initiated health kick that encouraged the consumption of several litres of water per day, I really needed a piss.
On that fateful day in Chengdu, I had held my breath for as long as possible, stepped into the smokehouse as quickly as I could and resisted the urge to breathe while I completed my mission. My eyes stung with tobacco and incense fumes, which was advantageous as it made the sight before me all the more difficult to focus on, and I definitely didn’t want to see anything. To survive a trip to the Chinese smokehouse, you have to stop breathing for a couple of minutes, block your nostrils with one hand and never, ever look down. If you do, you will instantly develop smokehouse vertigo. Losing your balance in such an environment would be extremely unfortunate. I survived, but vowed then and there never to undergo the experience again.
I now prepare for Chinese sightseeing by taking a map and highlighting all five-star hotels, museums and American fast food chains so I never stray too far from a respectful toilet.
So, imagine my surprise when this tactic proved to be completely superfluous in Hong Kong. This was definitely a Chinese city – it said so on the immigration forms I had to fill out as I entered from the mainland. At first there wasn’t any discernible difference between China mainland and Hong Kong. Then I went to the bathroom. The toilets were spotlessly clean. They were fragrant in a good way, and some of them even had toilet paper.
Hong Kong belongs to China, but it isn’t really part of it. The toilets alone are a testament. In Hong Kong there is no need to scrutinise every square inch of ground in front of you for globs of phlegm or piles of baby shit, and you can actually look around at the buildings from time to time. Hong Kong definitely wasn’t the China I had come to know.
But after a few days in Hong Kong I began to crave a hot-pot that would blow my head off and began to wonder if I could still use chopsticks and navigate a Chinese restaurant menu without English subtitles. Life had become a lot simpler in Hong Kong and this was exactly the problem.
Travel in China is about triumphing in the face of vast adversity. It is the challenge of making your way from one city to another without dying, of learning how to bargain hard for a place to stay, and of managing not to order unspeakably horrid things from a restaurant menu.
Sitting in the lobby of my Hong Kong hotel surrounded by other Europeans, freshly uncensored newspapers and ground coffee, I realised what had drawn me to China in the first place. It wasn’t the ancient monuments that dot the landscape by the thousands, nor the staggering variety of delectable dishes from the different provinces. It wasn’t the fascinating people, both local and foreign, nor the glimpse into an ancient and sophisticated culture.
No, the reason I loved to travel through China was because I learnt how to communicate without using verbal language. I had gotten to know my own boundaries and the experience had changed the way I looked at the world. I had become used to not being in control, had learnt how to improvise my way through life and had used my intuition to stay out of trouble. My week in Hong Kong had reminded me of my normal domesticity and dependence on control over my environment and it was time to change back again.
I checked out of my hotel and took the next northbound train to get back into China. Once in the immigration queue, there was yelling and people barging into each other. A man cleared his throat and launched a gigantic green loogie into a nearby bin.
I was ready for more China.