A Humbling Experience Recalled for your Reading Pleasure

Eleven years ago, I quit a job in Chicago in order to take a long, solo, mostly overland trip from Cairo to Shanghai. I planned to spend about four months traveling through the Middle East, Russia, Ukraine, the Caucasus, Central Asia and China, and upon returning to Chicago, I fancifully imagined that my tales of a house arrest in Xingjiang, $3 flophouses in Lebanon and horse meat pies in Kyrgyzstan would command the attention of the publishing world.

But my efforts to sell a book I wrote about the experience amounted to nothing more than a colossal waste of time and even many of my friends and relatives were deeply uninterested in hearing my stories.

My travel journals gather dust in a closet and the book I wrote sits unread somewhere on the hard drive of a computer I rarely use. But I think about this trip often and recall that of all of the remarkable things that happened to me on this journey, there was one story which never failed to hold the attention of an audience. It should come as no surprise that this anecdote involved an unpleasant bathroom experience. Americans are fascinated by bathrooms. Particularly vile foreign ones. I can laugh about this now, but it wasn’t funny at the time.


It was 3.30 A.M. and a tidal wave in my stomach woke me from a fitful sleep. I was resting on the top bunk of an open six-berth train compartment in China, bound for the imperial city of Xian and my stomach was telling me that it was time to wake up. I sat bolt upright in my bunk, which was about 8 or 9 feet off the ground with two bunks underneath it, both filled with snoozing Chinese passengers. Another ripple rolled through my gut and I knew that I needed to make a beeline for the nearest bathroom.

But first, I needed to find my roll of toilet paper. By this point in my trip, I knew better than to board a long train ride without my own stash, and I had purchased a new role in Liuyuan the night before. My suitcase rested on a rack adjacent to my berth but I had a combination lock on it and fumbled to try to open it as the rebellion in my stomach gathered steam.

When I’d finally located the roll, I jumped down off my bunk and began running down the corridor past row after row of slumbering travelers. Suddenly, it became apparent that the train was about to pull into a station.

We were about to arrive in Lanzhou, a major city which would be at least a twenty minute stop during which all the bathrooms would be locked. The site of a foreigner running at full speed down the darkened corridor, clutching a roll of toilet paper, must have startled the female Chinese conductor whom I nearly trampled in my haste to get into the bathroom. The officious young conductor, who had a typically short, severe haircut, seemed to be telling me in Chinese that the bathroom was locked.

Desperately hoping to avoid a wish I had a depends undergarment moment, I dashed back in the direction I’d come from, in the hopes that a bathroom in the opposite end of the train was still open. But alas, it was not, and I could find no conductor there to plead with. So I sprinted back to meet the unpleasant young woman in the hope that I could somehow, despite the language barrier, convince her to let me in the bathroom, despite the fact that we’d just parked in Lanzhou.

I found her standing in the same spot, right by the locked bathroom and pleaded with her.

“PLEASE, I’m begging you, let me in this bathroom!” I wailed, banging my fist on the door of it, for emphasis.

When she refused to yield I made a puking motion, thinking that perhaps she would sympathize with me if I demonstrated an illness. Unmoved, this horrible woman pointed at a sink that was in an open area of the train behind her.

With my bowels literally about to implode, I resorted to the tactics of a madman, no doubt waking up some slumbering passengers nearby with my rising voice.

“YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND!” I wailed, grabbing hold of the lapels on her blazer and shaking her petite frame violently. “I’M GOING TO SHIT MY GODAMMNED PANTS!”

This was no hyperbole and, mercifully, or perhaps fearfully, she relented, unlocking the bathroom door for me, literally seconds before an accident was about to happen.

My relief at being allowed in was immediately mitigated by the appalling condition of the tiny little bathroom. The room itself, was about half the size of a broom closet, and contained a hole with a 2 inch thick marble ledge around its back half. The floor was sole-deep in sludge, or was that actually sewage?

The photo I selected to accompany this blog is actually that of a toilet in a Bulgarian train I rode on in 2003; by comparison, it bears closer resemblance to what you’d find at the Four Seasons, than to this festering Chinese stinkhole. The second photo below, which I found on Google images, will give you an idea of what this toilet looked like, however this room looks quite clean, whereas the room I was in was filthy and the floor was covered in muck.

I was equipped with a full roll of Chinese TP, which had probably 12 sheets, and a set of disobedient bowels more restive than the most recalcitrant of breakaway republics. And so the games began. The Chinese are expert squatters, in fact they love crouching- you see them chatting in the street in the crouch position for long periods of time with no discomfort at all. Low-brow bathrooms in China frequently have no doors on the stalls and it is not uncommon to walk past a row of stalls filled with crouching men actually reading newspapers while in the squat position. I’m all about bringing reading material into the toilet, but while squatting? My calves aren’t nearly strong enough for that kind of a leisurely squatting experience.

The Chinese are so accustomed to squatting that even sit down toilets frequently feature a sign warning one not to stand on the toilet seat, though some ignore these warnings because the idea of taking a crap sitting down is completely alien to them.

After a couple of minutes of releasing some poisonous demons from my body, I felt like I was burning up with fever and my American calves begin to tremble. I didn’t have the strength to hold my squat but still had unfinished business to attend to. There was no option but to move into what I might call a lazy catcher’s stance, with my left leg still in the squat, and my right knee, and part of my leg, in the sludge.

And just as I thought that life couldn’t possibly get worse, someone started pounding on the door and yelling in Chinese.

“Go away,” I pleaded, weakly.

But the pounding continued.

Had the conductress gone to fetch one of her colleagues? Would I be kicked off of the train for shaking and threatening her?

I pondered these questions but was past the point of caring. As the pounding continued intermittently, my left leg started to spasm and I had to basically sit down on the filthy lip of the festering hole, more or less immersing myself in slime. Eventually the pounding ceased and my recalcitrant bowels were silenced, at least temporarily. But I was a mess and my roll of Chinese toilet paper wasn’t nearly large enough to tidy up properly. I still had another 10-11 hours to Xian, plenty of time to meditate on the topic of bathroom cleanliness and what it says about a country.

Thankfully, by the time I left the bathroom there was no one else around and I hopped back onto my bunk undetected. But I later read that Lanzhou is one of the most polluted cities in the world, with an air quality danger level of 732 (with 100 or more being dangerous). I had dumped toxic waste on an already contaminated city.