“Lhasa’s Important Toilets” By Woeser

2016 05 02 Lhasas Important Toilets 1

High Peaks Pure Earth has translated a blogpost by Woeser written between January and August 2015 for the Mandarin service of Radio Free Asia and published on her blog on August 10, 2015.

The tone of this longread is quite light and expands on a topic first encountered in 2013 in the article “‘Kohl’s Toilet’ on the Way to Lhasa”.

 

“Lhasa’s Important Toilets”
By Woeser

 

I heard this story about three or four, perhaps five years ago. This also means that I have been interested in this particular toilet for the same amount of time; I have an excellent memory for things that interest me and I recorded this story in exactly the same words as I had heard it. A few months ago, as I was driving along the old road towards Gonggar Airport, I managed to conduct some exceptionally valuable fieldwork: despite the plain-clothes police that are always following me, I managed to take photos of both the male and female toilets and even had a happy and unconstrained chat with the two guards watching over the toilet.

But what I learned left me in deep bewilderment. I was puzzled. I had come with the intention to find Helmut Kohl’s toilet. How come there are two other toilets of important people? Do toilets also have doppelgängers? One suddenly turns into three?

As I was leaving the toilet, I took money out from my wallet, a Chinese counterfeit of an Australian brand. Yes, one had to pay to use this toilet; and because those guards had given me some valuable information, I wanted to give each of them 2 Yuan as a reward. But those two farmers who perfectly fit the “Shangri-la” image waved their hands, indicating that 1 Yuan was enough. I was touched, put down the money and disappeared, even forgetting to take a photo with them.

But I am getting carried away again; before I ramble on about this and that, let me re-visit the story that I have been referring to.

“Kohl’s Toilet” on the Way to Lhasa

In July 1987, the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, on his second or third official visit to China suddenly expressed the wish to visit Tibet; that was by no means an ordinary diplomatic undertaking, so far, he still remains the only Western head of state who has paid Tibet an official visit. Prior to that, Deng Xiaoping and Helmut Kohl talked about height. When Deng Xiaoping faced the 1.93 metres tall Helmut Kohl, he said, “If the sky collapses, I won’t be afraid because there is a tall man protecting me”, it seemed that their relationship was quite good.

So Kohl insisted on going to Lhasa and the Chinese side, “concealing its strength and biding its time”, agreed to his request; they even attached great importance to it, including thinking about what may happen if Chancellor Kohl had to go to the toilet on the three-hour-long journey from Lhasa airport to the city centre. Of course, they could not let him do his business next to the road, under the sun, exposed to the prying eyes of the people. So, they decided to work extra hours and quickly built a new, luxury toilet.

Considering that the German Chancellor was very big – some say that he weighed more than 110 kilos – the Chinese even transported a king size flushable toilet with a solid seat from China’s inland into Tibet, I am not even sure if it was actually imported from Kohl’s hometown. Perhaps even the workers who built the toilet were especially and urgently called in from some construction team of the military forces. In any case, after working at top speed the specially constructed toilet for Helmut Kohl was completed in time and when Kohl’s heavy feet stepped down the gateway of the plane, embarking on the journey to Lhasa, the Chinese cadres who had welcomed him, cherished deep hopes that he would have to go to the toilet on the way.

However, once on the road, Kohl kept looking out of the window, unable to take his eyes off the scenery, seemingly without the intention to relieve himself. The river valleys of Lhasa in the summer are more beautiful than one can imagine, below the blue sky with white clouds, the long Yarlung Tsangpo River quietly runs eastwards. The cadres calculated the remaining distance and started to gently ask: Chancellor Kohl, do you need to go to the toilet? “No”, was the expressionless answer. After some kilometres, they asked once more: Chancellor Kohl, do you need to go to the toilet? “No”. Kohl became a little bit annoyed. When the luxurious toilet started to appear at the horizon, the cadres impatiently asked for the third time, this time Kohl finally lost his temper, “No!” he shouted in a loud voice.

After this, everyone kept quiet, no one dared to suggest a visit to the toilet again so as to avoid causing a serious diplomatic crisis. Days later, when Kohl left Lhasa, he once again flashed passed the toilet without even raising an eyelid. Oh no, Chancellor Kohl, you really don’t give us any face, not once did you use this toilet that embodied Sino-German friendship and that now belongs to the past, only known to the world as “Kohl’s Toilet”.

But it wasn’t really a waste after all since cadres from all levels took the opportunity to appreciate the toilet that was especially built for the German chancellor. Did they take turns to sit on that king-sized toilet seat? In fact, since the majority of officials are highly obese, perhaps this toilet was a perfect fit for their buttocks. Later, the route from the airport to Lhasa city was diverted and “Kohl’s Toilet” was no longer being used, not to mention the fact that it was worn down by years of non-repair, even the king-size toilet seat had gone missing so it had turned into a squatting toilet. It was given to the farmers in the “New Socialist Countryside” and it was later also opened to passing tourist groups for 1 Yuan per usage.

I got to know this story from a German journalist who was accompanying the German delegation back then and who is now stationed in Beijing. He said that he later asked Helmut Kohl’s wife why Kohl had insisted on visiting Lhasa. It is said that this visit was risking subtle changes in the Sino-German relationship, so everyone was extremely nervous about it. Kohl’s wife revealed a little secret, namely that Tibet had always been Helmut Kohl’s dream. He had read Heinrich Harrer’s book about Lhasa when he was young and was totally fascinated by it, which is why he had to visit Tibet in his lifetime no matter what, even at the expense of affecting the Sino-German relationship.

Heinrich Harrer is the Austrian sportsman who went to Lhasa over 60 years ago and taught English to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Some older Tibetans still remember how Harrer loved to dance and play mahjong, they remember his fluent Tibetan, an amusing person liked by everyone. Of course outside Tibet, he is first and foremost liked for his book “Seven Years in Tibet”. But there are also some who don’t like him; for instance, a Chinese Tibetologist named Shen wrote in an article that Harrer was a filthy man with a mean character who was despised by local elites at the time. Professor Shen with his thick eyebrows and big eyes is obviously one of the elite; I wonder whether he would also despise Helmut Kohl. I apologise, I am straying from the topic again.

Additional Information on Helmut Kohl’s Visit

Things are always the same in this world: you have to speak things out and then you get generous help from some busybodies; wait, I am wrong, you get help from kind-hearted people and more and more details come to the surface, making Kohl’s massive appearance more vivid and realistic.

For example, a friend who knows German immediately found photos of Kohl’s arrival at Gonggar Airport on a German website; colorful flags were flapping under the white clouds and the Chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region (I have no idea whether he was Chinese or Tibetan), in accordance with traditional Tibetan customs of welcoming distinguished guests, hung a white khata around Kohl’s neck. He first placed the khata on Kohl’s neck who had visible trouble lowering his head, and then he wrapped it around once; it made Kohl’s sparse hair look even more grizzled, his big head appeared even more shiny–

“No, Kohl did not have a fever when he visited Tibet in July 1987,” the article stated mockingly.

But the journalist did not seem to know what a khata is. He wrote that it was a beautiful silk scarf. A scarf!?!? That writer really is a country bumpkin! He continued to write that three beautiful Tibetan girls dressed in ethnic clothing came up and poured highland barley liquor from a nicely ornamented copper jug into an equally beautiful silver bowl; but because Kohl was too busy shaking hands, he did not even look at them. These beautiful girls did not even get to sing their ethnic songs in celebration of continued friendship.

Helmut Kohl seems to be inherently arrogant, which is why he did not once use that big custom-made toilet; he did not even care to look at it; he left hastily and this may after all even be understandable…

The Tibetan farmers guarding the toilet under the bright sunshine

In early winter, the river valleys of Tibet are cold in the mornings and evenings, but as soon as the sun comes out, it gets warmer and warmer and the trees lining the streets shine even more golden in the sunlight; even the five-starred red flags on the roofs of the Tibetan-style dwellings–a product of the new socialist countryside–appear even brighter. Various happiness projects that display the Central Committee’s love for the Tibetan people are being implemented, one after the other; recently, the railway line from Lhasa to Shigatse was successfully opened. Even though one does not find any information in Tibetan language on the train, which scares elderly Tibetans who do not know Chinese, such minor flaws will eventually always be solved. We believe in the Party’s meticulous care for the “emancipated serfs”. For example, that Chinese man who was driving his car through the remote areas of Ngari Prefecture and hit an Equus Kiang, an animal that is on the national-level list of endangered species, cut out its genitals while it was still alive to then fry it or eat it raw as an aphrodisiac, was already punished by the respective government departments in accordance with the law. So they say. But many different sources prove that this man has been posting photos on WeChat showing off how he cuts out the penis of the still living Equus Kiang; also, he is now involved in mining in the Shigatse area, being contracted by a railway company from Zhejiang. He is by no means some kind of minnow, as the government later announced.

They are now extending or building something on the road from Lhasa to Gonggar Airport, I am not sure what exactly it is, but as a result one is diverted through an old road that has not been used for many years. That, on the other hand, is quite exciting. Kohl’s toilet which I have so far only heard about but never seen, is located along this road; isn’t that a rare chance to do some fieldwork?!

So when I finally caught sight of that so-called public toilet on the side of the road somewhere west of Chushul County, I was overjoyed. Suddenly I had this very familiar feeling; it seemed that I had been on this road many times before and stopped here for a short toilet break. It was as if this place had nothing to do with the former German Chancellor. Instead, it seemed that it was related to the Nepalese King, to be precise, Birendra of Nepal, that King who fell victim to the royal massacre in 2001. And, as expected, the two Tibetan farmers guarding the toilet confirmed this version. The elder one of the two was shy and quiet; his one hand was holding ball of wool, his other hand a spindle; the wool became thinner and thinner as it wrapped around the spindle. It is a traditional Tibetan way of spinning wool and usually a task completed by men. The younger one of the two, on the other hand, was open and cheerful; a smoke-stained yellow tooth protruded from his mouth, but his mustache was meticulously shaped into the Chinese character 八, and he looked well-groomed. He was wearing leather clothes and a western-style hat, he seemed to be living a happy life.

“So was this toilet built for Helmut Kohl or for the Nepalese King?” I inquired.

“For the Nepalese King,” the farmer with the yellow tooth replied.

The beautiful photo of King Birendra of Nepal and his wife hanging in the shops on Barkhor that were run by Nepalese merchants appeared in front of my eyes. The royal family’s grievances are as deep as the sea; I still do not understand why the King and his family on the other side of the Himalayas were randomly shot dead. Perhaps some international detectives and the sensational paparazzi have long understood what lies behind it; I still do not get it. In November 1973 King Birendra visited Beijing and was directly threatened by Mao Zedong that if he did not stop the exiled Tibetan guerillas that were active in the Mustang district and opposed the Chinese, he would send in Chinese military. The Mustang district extends into Tibetan territory and parts have been closely intertwined with Tibetan culture; in fact, it used to be a tiny Tibetan kingdom until it was annexed by Nepal, which turned it into a tragic place. Back then it still enjoyed sufficient autonomy to accept fellow Tibetans who had started fleeing from China in March 1959; they were originally supported by the CIA, but with the shrinking support, the area had no way to defend itself. And sadly, after America and China started formal diplomatic relations in 1972, this support was withdrawn completely. King Birendra surrendered, leading to armed guerillas causing much trouble to the Chinese and many Tibetans died violent deaths. We must never forget these events.

In any case, whether it was Helmut Kohl’s or King Birendra’s toilet could only be determined by taking a closer look myself. The architectural style of the toilet building appeared like a miniature castle, but the solar heater and water tanks on its rooftop gave it a modern look. I excitedly hurried towards the female toilet, but the internal decorations were disappointing. I was not expecting fancy flush toilets, but what I saw was a mere row of ordinary white porcelain squatting pans that did not seem special in any way. Toilet paper holders made from galvanised iron sheets were attached next to the squatting spots but came without paper. White tiles only covered one third of the walls, the remaining wall parts had come off; it looked dirty and filthy. There was not water to flush the toilets, making me think that the water tanks behind the toilets and the wash basins on the other side were mere decorations. Only the several heptagonally-shaped windows on the one side of the room appeared to be somewhat special. If only they had been kept clean, they might have actually looked quite pleasant.

But since King Birendra was a man, I asked whether I could also take a look at the men’s toilet. The farmer with the yellow tooth was a truly generous person; no problem at all he had said, I should do whatever I desired.

But the men’s toilet was equally disappointing; the only difference was that it included a few more squatting pans. I used my iPhone to take a couple of photos and left.

The farmer with the yellow tooth had definitely never met a person who was that interested in toilets. He laughed and told me that there was another toilet down the road, Jiang Zemin’s toilet. I was puzzled, not least because his Mandarin was far from being standard. When he said “Jiang’s toilet” (Jiang Ce), it sounded like “Gyantse” the small Tibetan town famous for its climate and manifold resources that was 200 kilometers away from here.

Wow! I was here to visit Kohl’s toilet, but that suddenly turned into King Birendra’s toilet and now there is even Jiang Zemin’s toilet! Kohl’s toilet, where on earth are you?

King Birendra’s and Jiang Zemin’s toilets

I found information online that King Birendra had been to Lhasa at least twice. The first time in June 1975 and the second time in May 1996. With regards to the first visit, China’s Xinhua News Agency reported that several officials of the “revolutionary committee of the TAR” “hoisted the Chinese and Nepalese flags at Lhasa airport to warmly welcome King Birendra to visit Lhasa.” “…cheering crowds and countless flags and banners lined the boulevard from the hotel to Potala Palace into a corridor of friendship. Many people from different ethnic groups dressed in festive clothing gathered at both sides of the road and when the king left his hotel, many youngsters were playing their bamboo flutes, hitting their waist drums, performing folk dances and singing songs of friendship. People were waving colourful ribbons, continuously shouting slogans, celebrating King Birendra’s successful visit to Sichuan and Tibet and wishing that Chinese-Nepalese friendship would be eternal…”

But this report is incomplete, it did not mention the special gift that truly embodies the friendship between the two countries: the toilet. By not mentioning it, the report let down all the kind-hearted people from Beijing to Lhasa. Even more disappointing is the fact that up until today, it remains unknown whether King Birendra ever honoured the toilet with his presence, and whether he praised it to strengthen the friendship between the two countries. As a monarch of a weak third-world country he was different from the German Chancellor, when meeting the political leaders of the modern Chinese empire, he could not behave arrogantly; or else, how could he have been intimidated by Mao Zedong? So did he visit Lhasa to report on how he controlled and stopped the Tibetan guerillas in Mustang? Or was he just passing through to get a taste of the extraordinary power of his neighbouring country?

Another report by Xinhua stated that on his visit to Lhasa the King “went to watch a military performance by city soldiers… he visited men and women soldiers of different ethnic groups, Tibetans, Han, Hui, and Bouyei, who staged military performances involving cannons shooting at moving targets in the air, foot soldiers attacking targets in the air, foot soldiers firing a salvo and individual soldiers or groups of them warding off gunfire… the accurate shooting skills and outstanding performance of the soldiers were well-received by the distinguished guest. After the show, the King joined the row of performers and shouted ‘Long Live Chinese-Nepalese Friendship!’” Oh mighty God, did the Nepalese king wet his pants in fear?!

His second visit was lacklustre and can safely be ignored. I would just like to know whether the tradition of building toilets for important people along the road to Lhasa started with the visit of King Birendra? Was this tradition passed on when they built this special and meaningful toilet for Helmut Kohl? In July 1990, the general-secretary of the CCP, Jiang Zemin went to “patrol the provinces in the south-western border region and came to Tibet.” A Chinese newspaper from abroad wrote, “the 64-year-old Jiang Zemin was wearing a Tibetan hat with embroidery and a scarf on his trip inspecting the area, he seemed to really enjoy his first visit to Tibet.” Even though “the group following him carried with them oxygen masks to be prepared for unexpected circumstances, Jiang seemed a lot stronger than his subordinates”. Only once before he attended a Buddhist assembly by the celebrated “great patriot”, the 10th Panchen Lama at Tashi Lhunpo monastery, Jiang Zemin “suddenly had trouble breathing and his face was covered in sweat… he staggered out of the hall, sat down on a stone and put on his oxygen mask.”

There is no single report mentioning that Jiang Zemin was also given the special privilege of having his own toilet built; but Tibetans have silently remembered Jiang Zemin’s toilet.

Oh, thanks to these toilets, all the important people will never be forgotten.

Why build toilets for important people?

King Birendra’s toilet appeared almost surreal in the backlight, I had already forgotten about Kohl’s toilet. Actually it doesn’t matter whose toilet it is. Toilets, regardless of whether they belong to important people or to nobodies, are still just toilets, they exude the foul smell of human excrement and are not worth our attention.

I asked the farmer with the yellow tooth about his opinion. He kept repeating the word “zou si, zou si” and we burst out in laughter. This Chinese word is commonly used by Tibetans to refer to cheap and counterfeit products from China. He suddenly looked a bit awkward, perhaps he was embarrassed that his Mandarin Chinese was so bad and so he added a sentence in Tibetan: “Mibing rey, Mibing rey”. It means “lies”.

Then he went on to explain: we have no water here, we need to drive a tractor to the river to get water; he pointed towards the water tank on the roof of the toilet: That’s fake (mibing rey)! Later as I looked at my photos in detail I noticed how it said “Huangming solar water heater (Hong Kong)” in white letters on a red background. Well, the name (huang means emperor) really fits the identity of King Birendra.

At this moment I started to contemplate: why is it necessary to build toilets for important people visiting Tibet? Apart from showing the consideration and circumspection of the organiser to even think of the possibility that the distinguished guest may suddenly have to go to the toilet, what other motivations could be behind it? I remembered a report from a few years ago that instigated a great deal of outrage: when North-Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Il came to visit China, his excrement and urine were shipped back to North Korea so as to prevent any health hazards. This ridiculous fact was labelled as “dictator’s paranoia” by the outside world.

But I think that it is not just about paranoia. The report stated that when Kim Jong-Il had visited China in January 2006, the Chinese had taken samples of his urine from the toilets that he used so as to get a picture of his health condition.

I also remembered another interesting fact, namely that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev revealed a series of secrets in his memoirs after his abdication, for example, how he was monitored by the KGB; they apparently even installed a bug in his toilet. Khrushchev protested angrily: “You people spent taxpayers’ money to listen to me fart?”

When I thought of these examples, I realised that nothing is really what it seems, there are no good intentions. And so building a toilet for Helmut Kohl, King Birendra or even for Jiang Zemin may well have had some other hidden goals. The excrement and urine (including farts) of important people may after all be different from those of nobodies; they can have a direct impact upon the life and death of an entire country, they are state secrets that must be filed away, encrypted and tied up on a high shelf.

And yet, Helmut Kohl was the Chancellor of a democratic country and thus cannot be counted as a dictator. So why did he refuse to relieve himself? Why did he not want to leave behind his precious urine or faeces? Did he do so for matters of national security?

This question is too complex, I am truly lacking the international perspective, my ordinary brain starts to ache. I must stop!

But I cannot help but laugh out loud when I think of the two farmers, the one with the yellow tooth and the other one with the spindle, who have to drive their tractor to the surging Yarlung Tsangpo River to fetch water again and again, singing Tibetan proletarian folk songs and pouring bucket over bucket of river water into the water tank on the roof of the toilet.

Allow me to use my imagination: When the important people followed the call of nature and entered this at the time relatively luxuriously-looking toilet, did the two farmers on the roof have to hide to not let the important people sense their presence? And after the important person groaned in relief, about to flush the toilet, would the farmers have to swiftly open the water tank and let the water flush down to give this toilet an aura of perfect and beautiful modernity?

First draft: January 2015
Final draft: August 2015

This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified)