China's ablution revolution: Squat’s happening in the cubicles

Toilets in mainland China have a certain notoriety. You don’t need to dig very far online to uncover horror stories for the hygiene-obsessed detailing filthy public pits lacking doors or even partitions.

Certainly, public perception has been sufficiently bad that, in 2015, President Xi Jinping announced a “toilet revolution” to improve facilities at tourist sites and in rural areas. Since then, about 70,000 public toilets have been built or repaired across the country.

In my experience, it’s not so much the cleanliness, or lack thereof, that might cause consternation. I did encounter a few memorably whiffy public toilets during a recent two weeks cruising along the Chinese coast, but it’s fair to say that no country has the monopoly on grubby loos. The greater challenge was getting to grips with the locally ubiquitous squat toilets — common in parts of Asia and elsewhere (I’ve spotted them in Paris) but an unfamiliar prospect for many Australians. 

Certainly the off-ship bathroom facilities quickly became a talking point among our fellow passengers on the cruise. For a few traveller-not-a-tourist types, using the squat toilets was almost a badge of pride, while many others — particularly the less nimble among us — queued for the lone pedestal toilet usually found in Chinese public bathrooms.

Whichever you choose, it’s relatively rare that you’ll find toilet paper in the cubicle, so BYO tissues. Don’t be surprised if you see signs encouraging you to dispose of the used paper in the bin rather than flushing it (apparently to avoid blocking the pipes). 

Consider asking a travel companion to hang on to your gear, as there probably won’t be a hook for your handbag, backpack or camera, and it’s unlikely you’ll want to put them on the floor. And bring a small bottle of hand sanitiser, as soap at the wash basins isn’t a given. 

Meanwhile, China is pushing ahead with its ablution revolution, and authorities are reportedly planning to build and upgrade a further 64,000 toilets by 2020. 

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