Toilet Survival Guide: China

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Bathrooms in China are interesting in the same way that soups in China are interesting; each one is totally different and you never know what you might find in there. I’d been travelling around Asia for a couple of months before I went to China, so I thought I was pretty well prepared for any toilet situation. Nuh-uh. Nothing in South East Asia prepared me for rural China. I can still hear the confused bemusement in the diary entries I wrote in China:

“Another toilet without a door… just a line of women staring at you!”

Let’s jump into the details…


Quick guide:

  • Squat toilets are the norm in most parts of China, especially in more rural areas
  • Bring your own toilet roll and soap/ antibacterial hand gel with you everywhere, as these items will rarely be provided
  • Sit down toilets were available at every hostel and guest house I stayed at, except while trekking
  • In small, off the beaten track villages, toilets are a communal affair (doors optional)
  • Trains link most major cities, and they have squat toilets on board
  • Buses are useful when the trains are booked out; they do not have toilets on board, but they do stop at toilets during the journey
  • Learn which characters indicate male/ female toilet before your trip

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Welcome to China

I spent a month backpacking around China, and pretty much nothing reminded me of England. China was totally unrecognisable to me, and I found the culture, the people and the history endlessly fascinating. Outside of major cities, you might not meet another English speaker for days on end. I had a phrase book with me, and I spent a lot of time pointing at written characters and gesturing wildly. A particularly useful symbol to memorise is “men” and “women” in the context of toilets. Not all toilet signs have English translations, or those strangely proportioned stick figure pictures on the doors to help you out. Learning a few Chinese characters can prevent a seriously embarrassing misunderstanding.

Here are the most common toilet signs you’ll see:

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Accommodation

I stayed at hostels and guest houses throughout China, and they all had western style sit down toilets. This even included one guesthouse in Shangri-La, Yunnan, run by a local couple who didn’t speak a word of English. I haggled for a room entirely by finger counting. They raised 4 fingers, asking for 40 yuan, or about £4.

“No way!” I communicated, by making a shocked face and shaking my head.

I raised 2 fingers to counter offer (without swearing at them!) and now it was their turn to play the haggling game. Shaking their heads and exchanging dismayed looks, I imagined what they were saying:

“20 yuan! For this delightful, high-quality room! No madame, that would be an insult, you must give us 30, that’s our very best price.”

Without actually saying a word they raised 3 fingers and we shook hands to seal the deal, all smiling again.

The toilets at this guesthouse were great, and they were clearly not used to accommodating English backpackers. As long as you BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper!) you shouldn’t have anything to worry about with guest house toilets. 


Trekking

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The only guesthouse I stayed at without a sit-down toilet was in the Himalayas, a simple trekking lodge in Tiger Leaping Gorge. This was a classic trekking squat-toilet situation, navigated thus:

  1. Check out our guide on how to use a squat toilet

  2. Find your head torch, soap, toilet paper and flip flops. It can be pitch black in the mountains after sunset, with no light pollution and very limited electric lights. Using a head-torch keeps both hands free for clothing rearrangement and toilet paper use. After a full day of hiking up the side of a mountain, the mere idea of putting hiking boots back on to walk to the toilet can be painful!

  3. Set off down the mountain, away from the small circle of buildings which make up the guesthouse.

  4. Find the outlaying hut which contains a toilet. It’ll probably smell a little, but not too much, because it’s cold in the mountains. This hut contains a small hole in the ground, which is where you’ll do your business.

  5. Close the door as much as you’re able to. In this case you could achieve about 70% privacy, leaving a large enough gap that if someone stood in just the right place they could see everything. Be grateful for the dark! Or ask a friend to stand guard if the guesthouse is busy. 

  6. Squat to use the toilet, throwing used toilet paper in the bin provided.

  7. Locate the cold water tap, or bucket of water outside the toilet for a hand wash (if the water is outside the toilet, it’s for hand washing, not bum washing)

  8. Look up at the sky before you head back towards the lights. Odds are the stars will blow your mind.

Tiger Leaping Gorge is also notable for the “world’s best view toilet”. Sure, a lot of places claim this title, but this is a pretty spectacular place to use a toilet:

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Getting around

When I told a friend I was going to China for a month, he looked slightly bemused.

“What are you going to do in China for a whole month?”

Well, as I told him, China is massive, and a month is nowhere near long enough to see it all. China also contains pesky mountains and deserts which make getting around quite a challenge. If you’re planning to travel around you’re likely to experience some long journeys, which is when you’ll have the least control over your access to toilets.

China does have an excellent train network, with several different comfort levels available, including luxury sleeper carriages with pillows and blankets. All trains have squat toilets and running water on board, so you don’t need to worry about lack of toilet access overnight. (If your bladder is the size of mine, lack of toilet access at night can be a major concern!) It’s best to bring your own toilet roll and soap though, as these are unlikely to be provided. Train toilets do tend to get pretty dirty a few hours into a journey, but that’s a worldwide phenomenon.

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Typical toilet on a Chinese train. Source: Wrightbus

Further train considerations…

Remember those luxury sleeper carriages I mentioned? In August, high tourist season for the rising Chinese middle class, I came nowhere near those fabled luxury sleeper carriages. The best I could do was “hard seat” class. Imagine sitting on a wooden park bench, squashed between one man smoking and waving ash around indiscriminately and another man who periodically spits on the floor. Now imagine sitting there for 12 hours overnight, because it was the only ticket not sold out weeks in advance. That was my repeated experience of train travel in China.

Of course, the toilet experience is the same whether you’re in a luxury private sleeper or a hard seat. I just thought you should know.

Long distance buses

The train network in China gets more sparse the further west you travel, so if you head out to more rural areas you’ll probably find yourself on a bus. In my experience, long distance buses and coaches don’t have toilets on board, but they do make regular toilet stops. Of course, unless you understand Chinese you’ll have no idea when the toilet breaks are coming or how long the journey is going to be, which can lead you to hedge your bets and get up to pee every few hours. Long distance buses have a reclining seat or a sleeping pod option. If you get the pod you can lie totally flat, but it’s such as small space that I didn’t fit in on my side, and I needed to wiggle in flat like a worm, then out, then in again every time we made a toilet break.

One more thing…

Outside the main cities, very few people speak English. When catching a bus or a train, you’ll need to walk around looking at the written Chinese character for the place you want to go, comparing it to the characters you see on the front of buses or trains, so you can jump on when you find a match. No, this system is not foolproof. At one point I got off a train at entirely the wrong station and didn’t realise for an hour. Totally oblivious, I got off my train and into a taxi, having recognised part of the Chinese character displayed on the platform. A taxi driver who spoke as much English as I do Chinese happily agreed to give me a ride, then drove round in circles for a really long time, before eventually dropping me off in the middle of town with a vague gesture at a building that might have been a hostel. It was after he’d driven off with my money that I realised I had no idea what city I was in. China is an adventure.

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Public toilet adventures

China has public toilets! Public toilets are not a given in many parts of the world, so this is a very welcome situation, especially for women. However, the quality of public toilets does vary hugely, and you can run into troublesome lack of door situations….

While in China I took a day trip to a small but fascinating village just outside of Lijiang, in the Yunnan province. Prayer flags fluttered between buildings and the local Buddhist monasteries were surrounded with prayer wheels, filling the village with good karma as they spun. After a day of exploring, I was on the look out for a toilet. I’d had street food for lunch, chunks of tofu fried up in unfamiliar spices, eaten out of greasy paper while wondering the streets. This was such a spicy and delicious lunch that it was difficult to identify the main ingredient as tofu, which should be the aim of all tofu-based cooking.

The downside of eating street food? No restaurant means no toilet access. So when I came across a small building with a separate entrance for men and women, I didn’t hesitate to check it out. It was busy inside, a crowd of women standing around waiting to use the facilities. I joined the crowd inside and was immediately met with an alarming sight. 4 long troughs had been carved into the floor, narrow grooves with a walkway through the middle. The troughs had a slight gradient to them, and each one was filled with a stream of urine running down towards the far wall, where it was funnelled out of sight. It looked like about 20 people could do their business at once, with no barriers of any kind between each person. A woman pushed past me to an available space on one of the troughs. Facing the back of the women in front of her, she positioned herself with one foot on either side of the trough, pulled up her skirt and started peeing into the stream. Another woman squatted down behind her, leaving a metre or so of space between them. No one was acting like anything out of the ordinary was happening; they were just getting on with it. 

“Just think of it like a urinal,” I told myself.

“A row of urinals like what men use all the time. But with more bums on display.”

Arranging my clothes for maximum privacy, I found a spot in the corner and squatted down to pee, keeping my eyes down in the hopes that if I couldn’t see anyone else, they couldn’t see me. Looking down, I saw small piles of turds along the trough, parting the urine that flowed around them. I quickly looked up again. A child was staring right at me. So was her mum. At least they weren’t pointing and laughing. I stood up and rearranged my clothing as quickly as possible, trying desperately not to show anyone my white bum.

As I got on the bus back towards Lijiang later that day, I thought about how embarrassment is culturally relative. If all those women use trough toilets every day without acting awkward or self-conscious, then that must mean it’s not actually embarrassing… right? And anyway, how embarrassed can you really be in front of people you’ll never see again? I just hope I’m not remembered as the only tourist crazy enough to use the trough.


Let’s end on a positive note:

China is currently in the process of upgrading its toilets and sit down toilets are becoming more common. In major cities like Beijing and Shanghai you might well not encounter any squat toilets at all, let alone a trough. And if you do encounter squat toilets or a trough… well, consider it a cultural experience.

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