Phil Taylor

All signs point to China

YOU can tell a lot about a country by the writing on the wall. Sometimes the writing is on loo walls.

I'd been in China's Sichuan province - next door to the Tibetan plateau, famous for its pandas and spicy food - for some days, harbouring a nagging sense that something was missing ... when it dawned on me. Graffiti! There wasn't any.

The countryside was tilled, rowed and ordered. Chengdu city, too, was set out handily. Want to buy a home safe? Go to Safe St. Want to go drinking? Go to Bar St.

But there's definitely no Graffiti St. Everywhere, buildings and fences stood undefaced. Maybe graffiti is a capital offence.

That's why the distinctive metre-high Chinese characters on a wall near the town of Leshan caught the eye. Soon, I saw another. And another. They were too big and neat to be graffiti.

Sure enough, they turn out to be "do-right" messages from the Government. Our guide, Bobby Peng, translated one: "We should try our best to make our country great."

I started to notice them everywhere and sometimes they'd be in English, too.

"Welcome to the Forest Oxygen Bar" - I came across that one during a morning walk on trails through lakeside forest on the low slopes of sacred Mt Emei. The forest was "a huge oxygen-making factory" (according to the sign); its air an antidote to polluted cities.

The landscape was serene, grey and green (this part of Sichuan has among the lowest sunshine hours in China because of alpine cloud) and impossibly lush. The only other human about, a middle-aged man in a lakeside pagoda, moved through a martial arts routine as gentle as the rain that made dimples upon the lake.

Higher up the trail, another sign extolled the virtues of mountain walks: my waist and legs would strengthen, my circulation and blood pressure would improve and it promised my "bad mood" would change.

Then it got silly. I should "get much closer to the jungle plants ... dancing with the pretty flowers ... It must let you have a carefree and joyous time and refresh yourself pleasantly."

Refreshed pleasantly, I realised there was a tourist bent to these messages. Hiking to the Buddhist Wannian temple high on the mountain, I saw signs urging local traders not to rip me off.

And so we paid the same price as the locals at a stall selling small roasted birds on a skewer. When I say "we" I mean Jono, who was the only one in my party intrepid enough to try them.

"Like chicken but oilier," reported Jono, chomping through the creature's head.

China truly has the welcome mat out to tourists. And, of course, if you want to impress the visitors it's not all about the front room. The small room must also be up to scratch. "It is civilised to get close to urinate," said a notice above a urinal on the temple trail.

The good folk at the Giant Panda Research Centre on the outskirts of Chengdu understood the promotional opportunity of a captive audience. Installed above each urinal in the men's were pictures of cute pandas. Just the thing to keep the purpose of your visit in mind while attending to the business at hand.

The most surprising bathroom I encountered was in the ritzy TMSK Bar in Shanghai, over on the east coast. Its piece de resistance was an enormous triffid-like handbasin. Green in the men's, pink in the women's (journalistic rigour demanded I take a peek) and probably designed - like the city's skyline - by somebody on mushrooms. As I approached, water began running spookily in the handbasin.

The loo in my room in Chengdu's Tibet Hotel was functionary by comparison but was adorned with a propaganda magazine housed in a special holder next to the loo. China's Tibet told of the good works the Chinese Government does in Tibet.

The spin wasn't much more subtle in the airline magazine on my domestic flight to Shanghai. The one feature article about the United States was about its homeless, among them a former journalist now living rough in Los Angeles who had once enjoyed "the idyllic paradise of penmanship". The tramp, according to the article, had once been sports editor of Arkansas' Benton County Daily, a position it described as being "on the crest of a wave".

I soon found myself on the crest of a different sort of wave - in a flash loo in the first class lounge at Shanghai Airport. Seated in a cubicle, my eye fell upon two unfamiliar buttons. The symbol by the first depicted a narrow spray, the one by the other indicated a generous fountain.

Curious, I pressed the first button. I was hit by a stream of water from beneath that I can report was warm and accurate. Fine, I thought, but enough already. I pressed the button again but the jet of water persisted.

I realised the spray might be activated by a sensor. A butt sensor, if you will. I leapt up.

Uninhibited by me, the jet of water had quite a trajectory. I got the lid down but not before the loo door and floor were sopping.

Given the speed at which China is westernising, I expect a sign is already in place: "Stay seated, you bloody idiot."

Phil Taylor frequented WCs (and other places) in China courtesy of Air New Zealand.

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