The moment of truth has arrived; with bowels ready to burst you realise that to hold on any would lead to serious internal injuries. You realise that the decision to catch an ordinary train in order to meet ordinary people in China has certain consequences. One of them is the fact that you need to use the same toilet as about 300 others – all in the one carriage, given the Chinese habit of selling no-seat tickets.
Door open, squeeze in, turn around: stop. It’s a squat toilet, on a rocking train that you are sure is travelling much, much faster than it should. What to do?
1. Ignore the sheen of liquid on the floor. Or imagine that it is water or floor-wash and not piss from the hundreds who have gone before you.
2. Step forward and place your feet in the footrests on either side of the rounded, stained-steel trough. It may have stainless steel once upon a time, but not now.
3. Drop your pants to a strategic level on your legs to avoid soaking them in the pungent floor wash.
4. Grab firmly the handrail directly before you. It is there for a purpose. Even though it may look as though previous users have balanced on one foot blind-folded while the train was racing around a curve, you should by no means try to emulate them. Handrail gripped; eyes wide open.
5. Squat and let go. You will be surprised at how comfortable it really is, despite the initial feeling of having all your vulnerable parts dangling low. Let me just say that the position encourages you to do what you have to do. In fact, it usually produces a greater feeling of lightness and relief.
6. Reach for your own roll of toilet paper! Unfortunately, most such toilets may have had some toilet paper at the start of the trip, but it will be long gone by now.
7. Remember to place the used toilet paper in the basket provided – otherwise you will block the toilet and 300 accusing eyes will fix on you for stuffing up the one avenue for collective relief. That basket is of course the reason why Chinese public toilets smell the way they do. If you have forgotten your roll, just remember that old biblical saying: do not let you right hand know what your left hand is doing.
8. As you pull up your pants, dig out your vital bottle of dry hand-wash. There will be no soap and perhaps no water for your own ablutions.
9. Do as the Chinese do: sniff up a good hunk of snot and hack in the toilet to chase down whatever you have left behind.