The Monastery Toilet

Tibet has China’s most draconian speed limits. Drivers have to register at regular checkpoints, where you’re told how long you have to take to get to the next checkpoint. It’s never a user-friendly number—57 kilometres in 72 minutes, that kind of thing—the average speed is often unbelievably slow, and the fines incredibly steep. So, to avoid falling asleep behind the wheel from driving at 45kmph for hours on end, or paying thousands of yuan in fines, most people elect to drive at a decent speed and make regular stops to soak up any extra time between checkpoints.

The G318, 2014 © Jo James

The G318, 2014 © Jo James

It is in one such stop that the tale of the monastery toilet begins. China’s longest road, the G318, snakes 5,500 kilometres (or 3,300 miles) across the country from Shanghai to the Nepali border. In the arid badlands far west of Lhasa, the G318’s 5000-kilometre milepost has become a minor tourist attraction, and a rest stop (think tents, tea, dust and dogs) has set up at the roadside for travellers killing time before the next checkpoint.

5000km marker

Yak family photo, 2010 © Jo James

Our small convoy pulled into the layby one afternoon a few weeks ago. In an attempt to find an escape from the dust and the dogs, I climbed up to the small monastery that sits on the rocky hillside above the road. Panting hard in the thin air, I knocked on the thick wooden door, bound with bands of brass. No answer came, and I phoned my colleague Mareen to tell her that there was no point dragging our guests up.

As I turned to leave, I saw the monastery toilet facing me. Where they exist, toilets in the Tibetan countryside are generally appalling. This one, however, was neat and clean, with a beaten earth floor and no flies. I decided to avail myself of this unexpected luxury.

I went in, unzipped and squatted down. As I did so, I felt my phone slide from the back pocket of my jeans, and heard the soft pat of its landing. Swearing sotto voce, I stared into the hole between my feet and saw my aged Nokia had landed face up on an imposing pile of other people’s poo. With an impressive sense of comic timing, the screen lit up, illuminating the darkness of the pit, and the phone chirruped a message alert.

Dear reader, what would you do in this situation? Try to fish it out? Leave it in the loo? I briefly considered both options. We were heading to Mount Everest, and it would be days before we were anywhere near a phone shop. As tour leader, I needed to have a phone with me. The contents of the pit seemed mercifully dry. My phone was poised at the top of the heap. I decided to fish it out.

Tibetan toilet

Toilet at 5200m © Jo James

However, the pit was too deep for me to reach in and simply hook it out. I scrabbled around the rocky ledge surrounding the toilet and found an opening into the back of the toilet pit that had been blocked off by a loose wall of stones. Through the gaps I could see my phone within a messy arms’ reach. And so, high up on the hillside and within clear sight of everyone below, I hurriedly started pulling out the rocks.

Three Tibetans, slowly proceeding up the hill to the monastery, stopped and laughed at me. “My phone! I dropped it in the toilet!” I panted and pointed. “Ah! Her phone’s in the toilet,” they repeated to each other, chuckling as they continued without pausing their handheld prayer wheels. A monk appeared from the monastery and watched for a second with his hands folded behind his back. “Her phone’s in the toilet”, the Tibetans nodded before the four of them stepped into the dark of the monastery.

I was within a few seconds of sticking my arm into the toilet pit when the monk reappeared, brandishing an iron stick, a pair of shovels and a khata—one of the silky white scarves that Tibetans present to guests and hang from the necks of religious statues. Feeling guilty for demolishing the monks’ toilet wall, I slunk back to the toilet hut to watch him ceremoniously tie a spade to a long stick with the khata, and equally ceremoniously—if accidentally—push my phone deeper into the pile of excrement with it. Glancing nervously down the hillside, I saw that my guests were all now waiting in their cars, ready to go.

The monk and I returned to the hole in the wall. With some more rock removal and the judicious use of the spade-on-a-stick, the monk finally manoeuvred my by now thoroughly crap-covered phone onto the flat of the spade and out of the toilet. Waving away my half-hearted attempt to take the phone and hurry back to the cars, he carried the phone to an outdoor tap where he carefully washed and wiped it dry with a clean khata. The three Tibetans passed by again on their way downhill, still chuckling, and gave me a handful of rumpled tissues. The phone began to ring.

I took my phone back and thanked the monk as effusively as I could, before answering the call (“Where are you?! What are you doing?”) through a tissue and running back to the cars. I explained to my somewhat incredulous and slightly disgusted guests, and sat in the car for the next fifty kilometres cleaning my phone with wet wipes and hand sanitiser.

* * * * *

As it happened, we returned to the 5,000km milepost two days later on our way back to Lhasa. Our guide, Dorjee, and I hiked up to the monastery again. The monk who had helped me was away in a nearby village, so instead we spoke to an ancient monk seated cross-legged in a darkened room, silhouetted against lurid floral curtains backlit by the morning sun.

I presented the monk with two watermelons and a small donation. A young monk carefully transcribed my name in Tibetan in a notebook. “They will say prayers for you and your family,” Dorjee explained, “to say thank you.” The phone is still in working order.

Yak at Nam-tso

Yak, Nam-tso © Jo James

Written on the slow ferry between Cheung Chau and Hong Kong

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