First, I have to apologize. I try to maintain a neutral attitude when I travel, striving to accept that differences are not necessarily bad. And I feel guilty about passing judgment, because any criticism of China needs perspective. Don't forget that the West had to endure a filthy industrial revolution to achieve the modern comforts of today. I know that modernization doesn't come overnight. But one of the biggest things that strikes me is that China is one big filthy mess, and the hygiene issue is not taken seriously.
A dog rummaging through garbage in Lijiang.
When I first traveled to Shanghai, I was pretty surprised at how much of a mess it was. Then I went out into the sticks and found out how things really were in the country. Much of China is like a war zone, with rubble and litter everywhere. It would be one thing if construction was current. Instead, I see standing trash piles in potentially scenic spots where no one is doing anything to improve the situation.
The view from a temple in Nanjing; notice the laundry hanging to dry in the makeshift dump.
I believe, and found evidence, that the carefree attitude towards hygiene results in accidents. While cruising the Erhai Lake in Dali, a fire erupted in the town (we got a better look as we approached the shore, which was when I shot the inset photograph). The smoke poured from the burning building for about an hour.
From Erhai Lake.
It may be unfair to draw this correlation between Chinese attitudes towards hygiene and this fire, especially with no evidence. However, when we got on shore, few of the locals seemed worried about the fire that had broken out in town. Like the rubbish next to the Nanjing Temple, the attitude towards these hazards is a shrug.
A lot of Chinese food is delicious, but you do have to wonder about the safety of your food when meet is left unrefrigerated in open markets.
Meat hanging in an open market.
By far the worst environmental mess we saw was in Leshan in Shichuan Province. Home of the largest Buddha in the world, carved into the river bank rock, we could hardly see the statue through the thick smog.
Can you see the Buddha?
The smog was one thing -- the river itself was far worse. We took a boat on the river to an island, where we walked along a rocky barrier to get the best view of the statue, but the smell of raw sewage was overpowering. We walked by the river for almost an hour, at the end of which I felt like vomiting. Yet not only were the locals unconcerned, some were taking a swim!
Takin a dip in Leshan.
Finally, the most daunting experience for any tourist in China is the toilet. Except in major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, western toilets are scarce. Often there is no plumbing. Whats even more galling is you have to pay for most public toilets, and toilet paper is often not provided. And you'd better not be shy, as doors or curtains are often not available.
Public toilet, Dali
I should also note that I'm more tolerant than most when it comes to squatting. As a univeristy student in Japan, I lived in a dorm for 18 months with only squatting toilets and a septic system.
Robert Kaplan, writing about Uzbekistan in his book Ends of the Earth, could have easily been visiting China when he wrote a chapter titled "Clean Toilets and the Legacy of Empires."
[Most ex-communist countries remain] a country of peasants... and peasants have a different idea of hygiene than city dwellers: they go here and there, in nature while working in the field or in a wooden cabin in their yard... The values of a civil society are values created by citizens... and one or two generations of peasants living in the cities of a totalitarian regime had no chance of becoming citizens, politically or culturally... The condition of a country's public toilet--or the lack of them even--says something about its progress towards civil society.