Wednesday, February 24, 2010

That familiar fragrance (A Final Loo Story)

Beijing is fairly generously supplied with public toilets - especially in the older hutong districts such as the one I live in, because much of this venerable slum housing still has no running water, or at least no indoor toilet facilities. The public loos are often the only toilet (or bathroom) in the neighbourhood, and so are a key focus of communal life.

Thus, they get a lot of use. And, often, not very much cleaning.

And whatever they do clean them with is often even more unpleasantly pungent than the bodily effluvia it is trying to erase. Beijing toilets have a very particular whiff. (Well, I haven't made a close study of this; but I do rather think that different regions and major cities of China probably have distinctive toilet stenches of their own, affected by variations in local cuisine, local gut flora, local cleaning products.)

Most laowai gripe endlessly about this, citing it as a pet peeve right up there alongside the rampant public spitting and toddlers in their backless pantaloons taking a dump on the sidewalk.

But me..... well, somehow it never really bothered me that much. I soon got used to it. I started to appreciate the utility of it (when the call of nature is insistent, desperate, surprising.... it's never a problem to locate a toilet in a hurry in Beijing: you just follow your nose). I spent so much time in the hutongs - jogging, taking photographs, staggering home drunk - that this nostril-stretching pong became bound up for me with a lot of pleasant memories. It became something of a nostalgia-trigger for me.

I was, therefore, somewhat regretful when the great pre-Olympic modernisation programme I mentioned the other day started to gather pace. Suddenly many of the most familiar loos in my most frequented neighbourhoods, the familiar loos and their familiar smells, were disappearing. The new breed loos, though far from odourless, are usually ten times less stinky than the Beijing toilets of old.

I was particularly sorry to see this transformation finally overtake the especially smelly one down by Qianhai lake, which has a special place in my heart as The First Loo I Went To In Beijing, and which I have jogged past countless times since on my circuits of the lakes. But here's a remarkable thing: whereas those hygienic makeovers usually reduced the trademark Beijing Toilet Stench almost to zero, in this one loo it somehow hardly managed to make a dent in it: that distinctive sickly-sweet odour, a heady cocktail of toxic cleansing chemicals and diarrhoea, was almost as strong as ever.

I know it seems perverse of me, but…. it was comfortingly familiar to me by now, and I liked it. Passing it was always a quaint little highlight of my jogging route.

But then, a couple of years ago, they knocked it down altogether (perhaps because it had failed some Stinkiness Test the Beijing authorities had introduced as a quality control standard for the Great Olympic Clean-Up?). Call me crazy - but I missed it.

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