When I told my boyfriend I had a short assignment in Beijing he told me, "Bring some toilet rolls."
"Don't be joking. I will be staying in a proper hotel. It's a business trip."
"Well, bring a toilet roll anyway. And some packets of tissue and also wet tissue."
Huh? But, he knows I'm so fussy about toilets and all that's connected to that 'business', and he's been to Beijing before. Everytime I cajoled him into travelling to China and see the Great Wall and the Forbidden Palace he always says,"Later."
When I asked when is later, he said, "After the Olympics."
"Because they will build proper toilets for the Olympics."
"Is it that bad?"
"Believe me, stock on tissues."
Well, a lot of people have told me about this horror stories about public toilet condition in mainland China. You don't want me to repeat those here, so even though I was unconvinced - I would be staying in a proper hotel and will be visiting proper offices - I stocked on packets of tissue anyway.
It turned out that I was right, I shouldn't have worried at all. The Shangri-La Hotel in the north west corner of Beijing is a good hotel. The rooms are just like any other modern star-class hotels in the world, carpeted room with huge plush bed in which you can be smothered by the thick and smooth fluffy bedsheets and duvet. The bathroom is very nice, with proper toilet, of course. The amenities are more than in the other hotels I've stayed at in the world. Normally you get shower cap, shampoo, shower gell, comb maybe. Here on top of those you get hair conditioner, body lotion, toothbrush and toothpaste, nail file, detergent and shoe shiner. Plus the internet is free and it's plug and play. Wicked! Anyway, that night I slept very well.
In the morning we went to the client's office. The building looked old. Uh oh. I got worried. But then we went inside and my worries disappearead. A huge flat screen welcomed us in the foyer. The inside of the building looks as modern as any office building in Singapore. At the break after our first session I went to the loo. Opened the door - a big sigh, it looked, smelled cleaned. There were three toilet booths inside. I opened the first. Oh godness. It's not a seat-style toilet, it's a squatting type! Now, I'm not a snob or anything like that. I grew up with squatting toilet back home in Jakarta, though when I was about 10 or so my mum changed all the toilets in our house to the seating-style. So, no I'm not a snob. But my leg is not completely healed yet. I've discarded my crutch but I still can't bend my right knee properly. there's no way I can use a squatting style toilet! Worried I opened the second booth. Same. With sinking heart I opened the farthest one, a bit hidden in the corner. My heart leaped - it's a seating-style toilet! Strangely, while the other two seem to be well used, this one was a bit dusty, like nobody has ever used it. There were cleaning bottles and equipments on the floor in the corner. Oh well, at least it's clean, I thought. But oh no, no toilet paper! Panic, I went outside to hunt for my packets of tissue, but outside near the sink I saw a hug roll of toilet paper. Oh so we have to take some from outside and bring it inside the booth. A huge relief! After this I had no worries at all about toilets during my few days of stay in Beijing, although I made sure to always go to the loo in the hotel or the office before going out anywhere. I still don't want to risk having to go to the public toilet.
That night we went out to the most famous Peking Duck restaurant in Beijing. We sat in the old wing, which looked really like the buildings in the kungfu films dad and I watched when I was small (yeah, dad is a huge fan of kungfu films). The waiters also wore traditional clothes like in kungfu films I expected them to start fighting and flying from floor to floor while we ate. No, they didn't do that and the food was really excellent. Little starters made of ducks, duck this and duck that, and of course the main dish - Peking duck. Yummy.
The second night my colleague and I went to one of the touristy shopping district at the heart of Beijing. It's a fest for the eye. One of the streets was lined with stalls offering dish of every colours and heavenly smell. Honestly though the taste wasn't that great. For Indonesians these food were a bit bland. I preferred Chinese food back home in Jakarta. According to my friend a Malaysian Chinese this is because the Chinese food in Indonesia generally comes from the south. The food from southern China is generally tastier than food from the north. Still it was a good experience to see all those variety of colours and well, materials. I'm Indonesian so I'm used to what westerners would call 'exotic food'. Gibblets are no strange food to me. But here there are more than that - sea stars, sea urchins, duck tongue. So even to me, these are all exotic.
What else do I remember from my very short Beijing visit? The sound, the sight, the smell. The traffic jam, the dusty roads, the high rise buildings, the malls, the crowded public transport reminded me of Jakarta, Manila or Bangkok (not Singapore!), only bigger. A lot bigger. It's unfortunate that I didn't have any time at all to visit the Forbidden City or the other cultural corners of the city which I bet would change my impression of the city. Well next time. When a friend asked me if I'd go again there I asked him if he's nuts. Of course I'd go again. I still have to see at least the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Great Wall and the tomb of Shih Huang Ti!
Beijing, 20 Oct 2006