How To Use a Squat Toilet

Rise and shine. We left the industrialized comforts of Urumqi and set out for Turpan 吐魯番, 120 miles away. Hansen joked about the vastness of Xinjiang; after all, it’s supposedly the size of France, Germany, Spain, and the UK combined. Apparently when Xinjiang people say “馬上” [ma shang], or immediately there, they actually mean, at the very least, a two hour car ride. “一下” [yi xia], or in a little bit, is a 4-5 hour trip. “一會兒” [yi huir] means in a while, which in turn means…well, a long time. Fortunately, Turpan was only a 3 hour trip away: I’m always in need of a bathroom break.

If you’re unfamiliar with the typical bathroom culture in Asia, it could be pretty scarring. The only similarity between a Western toilet and an Asian one is that they have stalls. The “newer” traditional Asian toilets are essentially porcelain-plated holes in the ground on an elevated platform. We call them squatting toilets. You squat, do your thing, and pull a grimy, thin little string to flush the junk away. Squatting requires some serious quad/thigh strength to keep yourself from falling into a pool of nastiness; it also requires skill. Let’s just say many can’t aim. So the floors get slippery and sticky really quickly. There’s really no way to avoid stepping in urine.

So when I say our first bathroom break was relatively nice for a bathroom in rural China, I don’t mean that it wasn’t dirty, smelly, sticky everywhere, and that the stall doors had working locks. I mean that it had running water. And it also had a cute, little convenience store that sold a lot of dried fruits, nuts, and snacks particular to Xinjiang. 

A part of me wishes I had taken a picture of the next restroom area we stopped at. It was one for the books. Desert, tumbleweeds, dirt, and rock for hundreds of miles in every direction, with only one highway running through. A tiny concrete shack off the road. No doors. Anyone walking past could simply look straight in. Ah yes, the ladies’ restroom. Four holes in the ground to do business in.

These were 15-ft. deep holes. The silver lining was that we got there in the morning, so no stink yet. To add to the romance of this post: most toilets in China provide neither toilet paper nor soap! Hand sanitizers and travel-pack tissues are must-haves.

One of the women on our tour said that the toilets in Tibet were even more memorable: things live in the holes. Hansen snickered and told us about the time he was guiding a tour group through Hami 哈密, the birthplace of the cantaloupe, and how their bathroom break was in a field. You just find a cozy place on the open ground, and go. Hansen said the people in his Hami tour essentially had to play hop scotch to avoid the mounds of feces scattered everywhere. My mom laughed at the image and told me that “in the olden days” when you went to places like Huang Shan and see 3 umbrellas opened in a field, you know a woman is using the restroom.


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