Beijing is undergoing massive renovation in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games, and one area receiving considerable attention is the city's public toilets, which have a reputation for being below international standards. At the recent World Toilet Organization Summit in Beijing, the government vowed to have the privies in pristine shape by the time visitors begin pouring in for the games.
About 400 delegates gathered for the World Toilet Organization's annual summit, including town planners, environmental and hygiene experts and toilet designers. On a bright and sunny day, we set out for a guided tour of Beijing's updated WCs.
On the way to Tiananmen Square, our tour guide explained the history of Beijing, which he referred to fondly as "the city of changes."
And it is. The city is changing daily. Since its successful bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games, the city has seen massive construction, and not just new stadiums and hotels. Dozens of new, modern public toilets have been built, and dozens more renovated.
At the toilet summit's opening ceremony, Zhang Yue, a senior official with the Ministry of Construction, trumpeted Beijing's efforts.
"Beijing has up to 200 toilets that meet International standards now," said Zhang Yue. "They bring convenience to our citizens as well as visitors from all over the world. From now until 2008, Beijing will build and renovate up to 400 public toilets each year."
This is the sound that greets visitors to Beijing's showcase toilet. The 350-square-meter facility was built in 2003 on the east side of Tiananmen Square. Music flows from large TV screens on the walls. There are cubicles for the disabled, and baby-care facilities.
What was missing from the tour was a look at the facilities in Beijing's residential neighborhoods. These are still in desperate need of attention.
The city's traditional-style homes rarely have indoor plumbing, so the public toilets see a great deal of daily use. A lack of maintenance means hygiene standards are low. To tourists used to more cleanliness, they are a scene from someone's worst nightmare.
"The old toilets in Beijing are very disgusting," said a French tourist.
"They have little to no drainage, many flies are flying around, and you don't really want to walk in because they're not very pleasant," said a visiting American.
However, Beijing is sparing no expense to present a clean and modern face to the world in 2008. It has already spent $29 million on its public toilets, and promises to spend more, so that visitors answering the lure of the games will not have to think twice, before answering a call of nature.