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In the rural areas of China, basic hygiene facilities are changing. Where a hole in the ground used to be the norm, there is now an eco revolution going on, thanks to the spreading influence of urban visitors. But it is an uphill battle. Xu Wei and Sun Ruisheng report from Jinzhong, Shanxi province.
A brief trip to Hougou village in Jinzhong city, Shanxi province, will give the visitor a picture of what typical rural life in North China's loess plateau used to be like. Ancient cave houses built into the loess hills and the 18 temples dedicated to Taoism and Buddhism are among the tourist attractions.
Even today, the village still preserves its own distillery for Chinese liquor and vinegar, while bean curd production supports cottage industries that are typical features of self-sufficient agrarian traditions.
Winding roads and mountainous landscapes have not only isolated the village, but also contributed to the preservation of the agricultural lifestyle.
Hougou was unknown to the outside world until Feng Jicai, a Chinese novelist dedicated to the preservation of ancient villages, introduced it in 2002. By 2005, it had become a tourist destination, and many rural households began offering lodgings to visitors.
But there was one aspect of the traditional life that visitors found hard to accept. These were the pit toilets, located outside or besides the pigsties and sheep pens.
"Using the toilets was difficult for tourists from cities, especially ladies," Hou Changyou, director of the village committee, recalls.
For many urban residents, the toilet experience could be truly memorable. It was nothing like what they took for granted at home, with seat, flush, light, tap water and toilet paper. What they did get were swarms of flies, and strong odors.
"It was the number one issue that needed to be solved," says Zhang Anmeng, secretary-general of the China Ancient Village Conservation and Development Committee.
"It was also a matter of respect to tourists, especially when you are charging entrance fees."
Zhang, who has visited more than 100 ancient villages across China, says Hougou village is not alone in facing the toilet problem as these historical sites open up to tourists. But it is unique in one sense - the fact that Hougou is on the arid loess plateau means flush toilets are not an option.
Many of the cave houses were built into the hills and the construction of a sewage system is not possible without major difficulties.
"A key question was how to dispose of the waste. It would pollute the rivers as there is no sewage treatment plant nearby," Hou says.
In the past, toilets in Hougou households were simple pits that used a large container in the ground to collect human excrement. Some were open-air outhouses that only allowed privacy if the user was squatting down.
Convincing villagers to abandon time-honored habits was also not easy and the village committee had to hold several meetings to convince the residents.
In 2009, the first solution to the toilet problem in the village was brought in by Beijing-based non-government organization Clean Water, which provided funding and technical aid at the request of the China Ancient Village Conservation and Development Committee and the tourism authority of Jinzhong city.
As an alternative to flush toilets, Clean Water proposed a composting toilet system, which separates liquid from solid waste with two buckets, using plant ash to absorb the liquid and reduce the odor of the excrement.
Compared with flush toilets, composting toilets are a green solution to sanitation and environmental problems in rural regions with no sewer systems.
Hou Changyou's home is among the 25 households that installed the new system, and he says he installed the toilet indoors. "It saved the trouble of going out on cold winter nights," he says.
But bringing the toilet indoors was not successful.
"Most villagers found the idea of having waste inside the living chambers where you eat and sleep gruesome," Hou says.
Zhang Hongmei, who runs a family hotel in the village, decided to lock up the toilet in the guest rooms "because they threw up everywhere inside the toilet after getting drunk", making the toilets difficult to maintain.
Gao Zhong, president of Clean Water, says the NGO had hoped the limited number of subsidized toilets could attract more villagers to invest their own money. But the outcome has been disappointing.
"Perhaps the project should not have been undertaken by an NGO from Beijing," he says. "One lesson is that we should have sought the opinion of the villagers before setting up the systems."
Gao says similar efforts in several villages in Sichuan province also suffered setbacks as villagers soon resorted to their old toilet systems.
Hougou received more funding from the Patriotic Health Campaign Committee of Shanxi province in 2010 as a second campaign on toilet transformation was launched in the following year.
Taking lessons from the previous efforts, the new composting toilet system was built in the family courtyards, or outside their gates.
"It is still far from the shiny and bright toilets in urban areas," Hou says. "But this is the best we can do."
For many tourists, the toilets are perfectly acceptable, given the rural surroundings.
"Maybe the toilets are not as good as the cities, but that is all part of what we came to experience, to embrace nature," says Li Haoshou, 38, a tourist from Taiyuan, Shanxi province.
Contact the writers through email@example.com.
Hougou in Jinzhong city, Shanxi province, is a well-preserved old village on the loess plateau. Sun Ruisheng / China Daily
(China Daily 05/15/2013 page18)