And on the other hand...

Click here for The Yin Side where the other half of me holds forth!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Accommodations and Plumbing

After three days, I have conquered jet lag with the help of my marvelous memory foam mattress. The things we take for granted at home: soft beds, toilets that don't smell of sewers, showers that drain through exterior plumbing. If you travel in China out of the mainstream, so to speak,  you learn to expect strange plumbing and beds. The beds in my experience, based on the kang, never made sense to me. Why have these marvelous cuddly fluffy cozy warm quilts on top of a bed that is rock hard, like a box spring with no mattress? Then I had a Taoist revelation: the quilt is Heaven, soft and yielding, and the bed is Earth, firm and unyielding. Man is trapped between.

But that doesn't explain the toilets. At this point in my life, I can't squat on the ground to do much of anything, let alone relieve myself. Most public toilets are strange affairs and require precisely this gymnastic approach to excretion (do a Google image search on "Chinese Toilets"; I couldn't bring myself to photograph them). So you either train your bladder and gut to wait (not easy when you're drinking a lot of tea and eating a lot of cabbage), or learn to squat. Actually it's easier on the trains, because at least there is a handle to balance youself while the carriage rocks and rolls.  And there has been an improvement there. When I rode a hard seat train in Beijing 20 years ago, I noted that the toilet opened directly to the underside of the could watch the tracks going by as you did your business. Trains this time at least didn't give you a view of the ground going by, at least in our hard sleeper cars. As I recall, our soft sleeper last year had actual sit-on toilets. 

The train brought us to the toilets in our rooms at Camp Wudang. They had proper seats and flushed, but the whole bathroom reeked. I'm told there were no U pipes in the plumbing, so through four floors, the sewer gases just wafted up through the drains. (And we WERE eating a lot of cabbage.) The only solution was to flush frequently and keep the door to the bathroom closed at all times. One of our tour members took to burning incense in the bathroom, not for any spiritual purpose, but to combat the odor and burn off the methane.  

Then there are the showers. Both this year and last, I was puzzled at first by the funny drain stoppers in the shower stall. Why I even bothered to use them I don't know because the stall just emptied out onto a main drain into the middle of the floor.

And toilet paper. I won the favor of my housekeeper who left me increasingly generous fresh portions of tissue every day--not a whole new roll, but a portion which didn't always have perforations. You can buy tissue, if you can communicate sufficiently with the vendor. One of our group purchased some, but it came in huge tabloid sheets that you had to tear apart carefully (or maybe they were kitchen towels). I managed to buy a roll, avoiding the vendor I used last year. That time to suggest what I needed, lacking a phrase book, I did a pantomime, a talent that develops quickly when you can't speak the language. Aha, the vendor beamed, and brought me a pair of underpants. No, try again. This time she looked triumphant and compassionate and brought me sanitary napkins. Finally, third time, I got the TP. My act provided the rest of the village vendors much entertainment...they pointed and laughed whenever I came around and offered me toilet paper no matter what I was trying to buy. Amazing thing: she remembered me this year: I am the Mrs. Whipple of China.  I may have established a new martial art in Wudang. Wiping wu shu.

Going to the Middle Kingdom? Take lots of Wet Ones and maybe a roll of two of Charmin.
You'll be thrilled to get back to a real hotel in Beijing or Hong Kong...flush toilets! perforated toilet paper! (But watch out, you'll still have a rock-hard mattress.)  And curious warnings in the bathroom, like "Sperry fioor"...if you can't say the "L", just leave it out or use a capital "I".

And for true civilization?  Hats off -- or pants off--to the designers in Narita Airport where you can actually get a bidet bath.  I was so overwhelmed by the instructions I left a book bookmarked with my boarding pass in the stall. Fortunately I remembered it and dashed back to the bidet to retrieve it.

1 comment:

holly said...

um...when i go there, i'm going to have to hold it on the train. and possibly the entire trip. i'm funny (and not in a funny way) about toiletry issues.