Author: Jakob XP Brunnbauer
Date: Decemberish, 2010
Location: Yongdin District in the Fujian province, rural China.
My friend J Diggity and I had been travelling through China for almost 2 weeks and for reasons spontaneous decided to stay a night in a Hakka Tulou. A Tulou is a large, round or rectangular fortified building made from stone and rammed earth. They can be up to 5 stories high and house nearly 800 people. They were mostly constructed during the 12th and 20th century. These ancient and beautiful structures, not unlike most things in China, are stunning and awe inspiring yet most often accompanied by modern day filth and pestilence. Like a magical rose emerging from a pile of festering modern shit. There was a hotel nearby but for the sake of a unique opportunity which has now become an interesting memory we chose to live like the locals, for one night anyway. Many people still live in these ancient constructions and go about their daily business as usual, some rooms can be rented out and we thought it would be swell to spend a night in a massive mud hut. The rooms were small and obviously not very flash. With creaky wooden floors, crumbling mud-brick walls, a small window that overlooks the farmland, two rickety beds and a dingy orange light bulb suspended from the ceiling that flickered from time to time, the room was to say the least, rustic.
As the title suggests, this tale, like most of mine from China, focuses on the toilet situation. Every floor in the Tulou has several large clay pots filled with sewerage. We were told, at least we assumed that this is where the people go to piss and shit. I guess they fill them up with water in order to dilute the smell or something along those lines, either that or they don’t empty them until they are full to the brim. Now that I think about it, how on earth do they empty them? They would be too heavy to carry down the stairs, perhaps too heavy to even lift and tip over the edge, besides I didn’t notice the ground below covered in excrement. I can only assume they scoop out all the waste into a more portable container and transport it to a dumping ground or sewer/river somewhere later. I honestly have no idea and just like so many other fascinating elements in life I guess I never will.
Midnight or thereabouts approaches. J Diggity and I are having a quiet whiskey; he reads the Lonely Planet guide while I attempt to repair a propeller on a remote control helicopter I had bought earlier. I reckon on this trip J Diggity and I, mostly I, went through roughly eight toy helicopters. They were cheap and we kept smashing them into things or piloting them into open sewerage drains. This time I had decided to repair the broken blades instead of buying a new one. The glue I was using was insufferably toxic and the fumes were making me both dizzy and nauseous. So as to protect myself from the fumes I had a spare shirt wrapped around my face. It’s worth noting that I wear mostly dark clothes and as China was nearing winter I had a long sleeve shirt and long pants on, therefore all in black.
The drinks had settled and my pathetic bladder started crying for relief. It was pee pee time for Jakob. I headed out the door and onto the platform, three floors up and I could barely see anything as there were no lights on outside, they probably didn’t exist at all and thus the only light was the one emanating dimly from our room. The clay piss pot was several meters from our door and upon approaching the smell, despite wearing a “mask” of sorts, hit me like a punch in the face. It was very dark but my eyes had adjusted enough for me to just see the rim of the abomination. I undid my fly, pulled out mini-me and began to relieve myself. Because I had been fearing the pot of excremental despair I had denied my bladder satisfaction for quite some time and thus this pee was not only knee quiveringly powerful but lasted for quite some time. I was not nearly half way drained when footsteps could be heard, creaking along the platform, approaching my very location. I squinted and made out the faint silhouette of an elderly woman hobbling along. Not even close to finishing my effusion I quickly calculated that she would be upon me before I even had a chance to shake let along nest and zip up.
At only a few feet away from my monstrous discharge the old woman seemed not to notice the thundering crash of my stream into the pot of liquid horror. For a brief a moment a thought crossed my mind. Perhaps it’s a ruse, surely she could hear the deafening sound of my violent waterfall, surely she could also see me and thus is here to tell me off, or perhaps she was approaching for more sinister reasons. With only a foot or so to go before she reaches me I pinch to cease the sound, I turn to the elderly lady who is a close enough to touch and with a goofy grin I say “Ni Hao,” “hello” in Mandarin. She is startled, screams, begins to flail her arms and runs in the opposite direction much faster than someone of her age should be able to, yelling in Chinese the entire way back to her room. What the hell just happened? The noise wakes several other families and lights from rooms start coming on, people are waking up and the lady is still yelling. Other voices start to arise and it dawns on me why she was so freaked out. I am dressed in full black, with a tee-shirt wrapped around my head hiding all but my shifty eyes. I was a ghost, a shadow in the darkness, a six foot ninja in an ancient Chinese fortress hiding in plain sight in the middle of the night. Pretty cool when you think about it that way… except I had my penis out and this poor, old, half asleep, villager was probably sneaking out for a midnight piddle, got within kissing distance of a stinky foreigner who proceeded to scare the living shit out of her. I blasted the last of my pee out, zipped up so fast I nearly circumcised myself and bolted back to my room. I slammed the door, pulled off my head covering, switched off the light tried to silence my inner thundering heart.
J Diggity asked about why so many people seemed to be waking up and I explained the situation. We laughed it off and tried to sleep. The old lady carried on for hours. We slept rough that night. Not sure if it was the fumes from the glue, the old Chinese woman’s bloodcurdling screams (still fresh in my mind today), the smell of the Tulou, the constant sound of people hocking up thick wads of phlegm throughout the night or a combination of it all. Regardless when the sun rose, us following, no penalty followed the previous night’s indiscretion. Also, the glue had dried and my helicopter was good to go again (Spoilers: I crashed it into an open sewer later that day). We later found out that most people living in the Tulou poop and pee into a container in their room then empty it into the clay pot outside afterwards. Perhaps the old lady was simply emptying a punnet of piss or perhaps she was merely stretching her weary legs. I will never know. All I do know is that my night in a Hakka Tulou, though not overly enlightening, was at the very least memorable.
I have told this story many times and due my constant retelling I will never forget the place from which my shitty story hails. It’s interesting, at least to me, that how something as silly as a funny toilet story can help us remember so much more than the incident itself. In my travels I see so many amazing things, meet so many spectacular people, a lot of which will be forever forgotten. However, when something silly, funny, surreal or unusual occurs it helps me remember everything leading up to, involved in, surrounding or following the event. Till the day I die I will always remember my time spent in a Hakka Tulou thanks to the strange old lady to whom I nearly gave a heart attack. Thanks old lady!
-Jakob XP Brunnbauer