“Don’t go in.”
“Oh my God, this is so gross.”
“Okay, hold your nose. Hold your nose, ok?”
We pull into the city of Tholing, in the far west of Tibet. Even in the late afternoon the heat is suffocating. It is July 2012, and there is no wind. The sky—a token bright blue— swirls with surreal cloud formations. The downtown bustles with men and women walking to buy groceries. Despite the heat the townsfolk we pass wear jeans and long-sleeve shirts. Brightly colored sunbonnets and baseball caps crown their heads. The dry air smells like dust mingled with ripe fruit; it feels heavy. The chatter of locals filters in through the Jeep’s windows, along with the sound of honking horns and traditional Tibetan music. Together with, Don Nelson, an American man in his mid-sixties, and Lara Yeo, a Canadian woman in her mid-twenties, I have spent the past few weeks researching the changing nature of pilgrimage practices across the Tibetan Plateau. After the remoteness of our overland journey the busyness of Tholing comes as somewhat of a shock; I note that the traditional Tibet of the open Tibetan plateau has been replaced by an aura of modernity— neon signs advertise restaurants and markets; the street is lined with cars. One prominent sign above a gas station reads, ‘Smile,’ in orange and white letters.
We drive up and down the street for some time searching (unsuccessfully) for restaurants with Vegetarian entrees (both Lara and I are Vegetarian). Finally, we park in front of a traditional Tibetan restaurant, and our Tibetan guide, Dorje, manages to convince the owner to prepare a platter of steamed rice with sautéed green vegetables. In the interlude before our meal arrives Lara and I decide to take a visit to the ladies’ room. We ask for the toilet, and the restaurant owner points us decisively out the door and in the direction of Tholing’s public restroom— a nearby cement building planted in the middle of a grassy park.
After days spent calling the backsides of boulders ‘the WC,’ we look at the exterior of the cement building with relief. Surely, a building surrounded by greenery and manicured gardens will be clean and welcoming. Especially if the building has been compartmentalized into single-sex chambers, designated by figure-stick icons.
We walk closer. The sound of buzzing flies greets us. A man exits the entrance to the ‘Men’s Room.’ Otherwise the restroom complex is deserted. As we draw toward the entrance of the ladies’ room we catch a whiff, and then more of a whiff. We are both desperate to relieve ourselves after the long car journey, but our stomachs begin to turn. We walk into the ladies’ section of the bathroom and retch, in tandem. The floor is strewn with feces and wads of paper. A mound of something large and luscious takes up a large portion of the floor. The smell is so nauseating I can barely spend ten seconds inside the room before ducking outside for a breath of Tholing’s dusty, fruit-filled fresh air.
“Oh, this is disgusting.”
“Lara, I can’t do it.”
“What should we do?”
“Sh#t, what should we do?”
“Smile for the camera,” Lara jokes. She holds up the Nikon around her neck.
“Lara, don’t. Seriously, don’t.
We are both desperate. We look outside. There is nowhere to crouch discreetly. The street continues to bustle with townsfolk. There are few trees; the closest trees are scraggly and abject.
Lara looks at me. I look at Lara. We make our way back into the restroom. We hold our noses, tiptoe into a corner of the restroom and squeal with disgust.
We somehow manage to crouch in the corner, to position ourselves as carefully as possible to minimize the damage. We live through “the terror,” and I reflect back on my numerous prayers for a covered bathroom, throughout our overland journey across the Tibetan plateau. My experience in Tholing’s public bathroom is more than enough to convince me that regardless of the town’s contemporary exterior there is much work to be done on its interiors. Dig me an open hole any day!
We leave Tholing’s center shortly after dinner (which we find strangely unappealing) to head to a guesthouse on the outskirts of town. As we drive out of Tholing the ‘Smile’ sign flickers in the dying light.
A X Thomson