I hadn’t managed my time very well. Walking around in mainland China is all about the careful management of specific assets. Money is generally not the major hassle since most things are relatively cheap and if monetary replenishment is needed, there is usually a cash machine around the next corner. Trying to navigate the streets effectively is a virtual impossibility and one has to allow for a certain Zen-like aspect to one’s directional decision-making, plus an almost suicidal coolness when crossing the street without getting squashed by the traffic. I wasn’t worried too much about trying to see all the sights, because there is never enough time to see everything there is to see in China anyway. It’s one of this country’s best qualities — there is never a shortage of incredible things to see. For a start, there is the country’s size to consider. If you took the whole landmass of Europe, took away a few of the small useless bits and crumpled it up a bit, then you would have China.
There are thousands of cultural sights, 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.
Upon arriving in the country, I had quickly made it a habit of simply pocketing my hotel’s address card before setting out in an arbitrary direction for a few hours and then getting a taxi home if necessary. I could concentrate on simply being in China, enjoying its mind-boggling sights and seeing how much trouble I could get myself into.
No, the most important aspect of managing a leisurely stroll anywhere in China is not the direction, nor the money, nor a specifically-planned sightseeing itinerary, but the distance to the nearest clean toilet.
The most vile, disgusting, revolting and simply horrendous sanitary experience in China can be found just near Chengdu’s Northern Railway Station. It’s the public loo there, and because of mismanagement, two cups of tea — one great, the other one not so much — and a recently initiated health kick which encouraged the consumption of several litres of water per day, I really needed a piss.
Public toilets in China are filthy. They are disgusting. You never need to ask for directions to the nearest one, or even try to decipher the Chinese characters indicating the number of metres to the nearest convenience. All it takes is the merest of urges to go and your olfactory guidance system will do the rest for you, picking up the familiar ungodly stench marking a hundred metre radius around any 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 email him this story. It isn’t quite clear how something on this Earth could be made to be as smelly as a hutong toilet, but the Chinese have obviously worked out how it’s done.
A hutong, in case you are wondering, 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, but unfortunately, the Chinese spirit of collective cooperation and close-knit neighbourliness doesn’t seem to have included the need to draw up a cleaning roster for the pot.
There aren’t too many of these traditional hutong communities left in the modern China, most of them having being bulldozed to make way for apartment blocks, highways and shopping malls.
And so the hutong loo is largely a thing of the past, a toilet ghost which still seems to haunt the whole 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 within the last few months, but failed to understand why the toilet standards there seem to have stemmed from the Ming Dynasty.
If the normally vile smell of the Chinese toilet block is not enough to put you off, then the half dozen men squatting in the open stalls all smoking heavily in an attempt to coax a reaction our of their sphincters definitely is. There are an awful lot of smokers in China, and most of them are men, and most of them need a cigarette in the morning in order to get the rest of their body to boot up. A trip to a Chinese toilet is therefore not only a threat to your mental health, but extremely bad for your lungs as well. An additional health hazard in an already over-polluted country.
In most parts of the world, smoking is considered to be extremely dangerous to a person’s health. In China, it’s a opportunity to breath 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 whole country. If you want clean air, most cities in China are not for you. Which is exactly why I planned to get a little R&R for my respiratory system on Hong Kong Island. My lungs needed some much-needed time off.
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. This 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.
And so I began to call these places “smokehouses,” because calling them toilets just didn’t cut it anymore.
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, while blocking the nostrils with one hand and never, ever look down. If you do, you will instantly develop smokehouse vertigo and losing your balance in such an environment would be extremely unfortunate. I survived the experience, but vowed then and there never to have that particular experience again.
Since then, my preparation for the exploration of a new Chinese conurbation is to take a map and highlight all five-star hotels, museums and American fast food chains in the hopes of connecting the dots and never being too far from any of these places when the need arises. A perfect method of navigation in a Chinese city.
So, imagine my surprise when this tactic proved to be completely superfluous when I reached 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. I was in a country where I had to pass through immigration to get from one city to another. There are probably countless commercial and logistical advantages to having specific regions of a country separated from each other by bureaucracy, currency and types of broiled duck, but I hadn’t spotted them. At first there wasn’t any discernible difference, except suddenly 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.
Everything is different in Hong Kong, and this was the reason I had come. I had been on the road in the mainland for just under my allotted visa duration of 28 days and I needed a change of pace. After almost a month roughing it in China, I now had access to real cheese, bread, wine, olives, chips, ham, brownies, preserved pieces of meat whose origin wasn’t immediately obvious, and more or less free press. More so than in the mainland, where I had been behind The Great Firewall Of China which had even blocked this very page due to it’s extremely subversive content. Less than in other parts of the world though, as Big Brother was obviously still keeping a close eye on the newspapers, televisions stations and webpages made in HK.
Another aspect of life becomes immediately obvious when making the journey from the Chinese mainland to one of the coolest cities in the world. There is suddenly no need to brace yourself when trying to board a train or bus. Also, there is no need to scrutinise every square inch of ground in front of you for globs of phlegm and piles of baby shit and one can actually look around at the buildings from time to time. Gone were the incessant car horns, the megaphoned shop vendors and the non-stop aural assault of car alarm melodies.
I had obviously become hardened by the many weeks in China and I was, of course, overreacting.
Hong Kong is in fact a noisy, bustling city like any other, but for some reason, I felt at home here. The week meant busy, grim-faced commuters squashed on public transport, Friday was marked by copious consumption of beer and Sunday meant reading a newspaper and eating a lot of cake. It was just like home, only a tick more crowded and the weather was nicer. I spent my days eating bread for breakfast, lining up in orderly queues to get on the subway and whiled my afternoon away in the dairy sections of supermarkets. I could have a chat with the guy who sold me my beer, flirt with the waitress who poured my wine, and make small talk with security guys as they carried me back to my hotel room door. The sun shone brightly and I could hear the birds chirping in the trees.
This definitely wasn’t China.
On my third day, I had a conversation with a nice couple from Durban over cheesy nibbles and breakfast wine. The South Africans had established a successful hotel business and worked for six months a year, taking the rest of the year to travel the world. We compared travel statistics and it soon became apparent I was in the company of some very experienced travellers indeed. We traded stories and compared our favourite places. The couple had been doing this for a few decades and I felt I could pick up a few pointers.
“We usually travel in Asia, and we’ve been to over a hundred countries in total,” said Mr. Durban. This compared with my paltry 60. I asked them about their experiences in China, and they gave me some very useful tips, but their favourite holiday destination was also the one which was next on my list.
“We love Thailand, it’s so much fun,” she said.
“Everything’s so easy and friendly, isn’t it?” I said, speaking from my last experience and keen to prove to these seasoned travellers that I knew something about something. “Any idiot can have fun in Thailand.”
“Yes, we’ve been there 27 times.”
A few days later, I began to crave wok-fried beef strips and maybe a hotpot which would blow my head off. I began to wonder if I could still use chopsticks or navigate a Chinese restaurant menu without English subtitles. Life had become a lot simpler in the last few days and this was exactly the problem.
Travel in China is all 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 Chinese restaurant menu.
Sitting in the lobby of my Hong Kong hotel surrounded by other Europeans, freshly uncensored newspapers and ground coffee, I now realised what had drawn me to China in the first place. It wasn’t the ancient monuments which 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, I had met along the way or the tiny glimpse into an ancient and sophisticated culture which forms the Chinese psyche.
No, the reason I love to travel through China is because I had learnt how to communicate with others 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 also gotten used to not being remotely in control of anything, 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, took the next northbound train and got my passport ready for the imminent security bullshit to get back into China. Ahead of me there was yelling and people barging into each other in the immigration queue. A man cleared his throat and launched a gigantic green loogie into a nearby bin.
I was ready for more China, and the next portion of completely crazy stuff was ready to be served up only a few moments away.