Yellow Rivers

There is a God of Bodily Waste, and He hates me. I discovered this during a devilishly fun time backpacking across the Tibetan Plateau, and so I ran up a list of bathroom do’s and don’ts that I wish I had had beforehand. Hopefully, this post will help aspiring bushwhackers navigate the delicate line between the paradisiacal awesomeness of Himalayan adventure, and traumatic experiences with the colors yellow and brown. Ignore these warnings, as I did, and one day you may find yourself accidently washing you’re your face with—

But I get ahead of myself.

We’ll start with the mundane: one time after moving mountains to find an el baño, I triumphantly peed into a urinal that had the peculiar ability of leaking its contents back onto my feet. After this startling discovery that China has yet another Yellow River, I was about to flip out and expose the nearby Tibetans to some advanced vocabulary they probably hadn’t yet studied in English class. But then I was lucky that this town even had a bathroom to begin with. We had spent the recent weeks traversing Tibet on motorcycles and creaky vans, and we had stayed in more than a few rock-swept villages that still did number-one the all natural way.

Lesson number one: when you become a casualty of sewage pipes that are more fit to be sprinklers, laugh. You were not peed on. You were baptized. In your urine.

The view above Xiewu. Note the dark droppings to the left.

A quick disclosure: I started this gap year as a New York suburbanite who was used to taking showers, eating edible food, and sleeping in beds. Tibet took the spotless comfort of Westchester and drop-kicked it out of the galaxy. During our three weeks exploring this Wild West of China, we spent nights in tents without heating or electricity, wolfed down crusty food that was probably fresh when Genghis Khan was off doing his thing, and generally got dirtier than Tupac’s lyrics.

“I haven’t felt this free since third grade recess.” Rick told me.

Oh, and an added bonus was that we became experts in using squat toilets. Remember not to sink too low when you squat. Trust me.

Know beforehand where the village’s public bathroom is. You have no idea when the boiled yak heart you just ate will commence operations. If there is no bathroom, get creative—but note that the spray-and-pray approach is directly frowned upon.

Even if there is a public toilet, exercise caution. I once entered the village’s public bathroom and spent several minutes wading through darkness and two-inch thick mud looking for the stalls. It took me a while to discover that in fact there were no stalls. After which I soon realized that the mud I was sloshing around in wasn’t actually mud.

At that moment the English vocabulary of the monks next door surged irreversibly.

Lesson two: mud is not clumpy.

But as I hope you will learn from the following experience, use your head when employing these life lessons.

During a road trip across the hinterlands, I asked our driver and friend to pull over so I could relieve myself. I got out on a corrugated road that snaked along a cliff. Perfect. I strode toward the edge where frosty Himalayan teeth yawned beneath me. Then I undid my belt and prepared to make yellow snow.

Actually, I felt like I was doing the thirsty alpine plants below a favor. Nothing like feeling the cool air on your face as you help Mother Nature with her chores.


I scanned the faraway peaks. Hey, a hawk! Nothing like seeing hawks and hearing the cheerful pit-pat as you—

Wait a minute.

The plants I was watering were 70 feet below. From up here, I should not be able to hear them buckle under the downpour. And it didn’t even sound like water on leaves. It sounded like water on…

Uh oh.


I looked down, slowly, and my nightmare was confirmed. Don’t get me wrong, I was like Ole’ Faithful, but the wind was blowing the lemonade flurry right back to from whence it came. All over my jeans. Like, all over.


Quick, Greg—do something! Brain throbs as I slam in to auto-pilot. Strafe right? No help there. Quick, move move move! Toggle left? Nope, wind’s too strong. Turn around and face the car? Hell, nawww! Wait, light bulb moment! Maybe angle 45 degrees right and allow the wind to sweep it in an arc—


Aaahhhhhh! The gales charge upward and intercept the droplets and carry them up, up, up into my face—PHSBSAAM!—the mountains just nailed a curve ball and I was at the dunk booth. KasplAAT!—Mother Nature slings hard, baby. SiiZZZZ! Quick, close your eyes so it doesn’t sting! Gushing repentance as I flail in an upside down Niagara, facing the mountain’s knowing smile, wrapped in a sea of vinegary tartness—but by now I was an expert in these matters so I knew what to do.

I opened my mouth to laugh.

Lesson three: some rules are definitely, definitely meant to be broken.


About gregkristof

Professional troublemaker
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2 Responses to Yellow Rivers

  1. Fellow Young Traveller says:

    What a piece of writing! That was a simultaneously highly entertaining and sharply painful piece to read. You guided me gently through so many emotions…and as a person who has been in a respectable number of “traumatic experiences with the colors yellow and brown” while traveling at the whim of that higher power you spoke of, I held my hands over my mouth in horror as I read and empathized.

    Mud, huh?

  2. George says:

    Dear Rick and Greg,

    After reading about your spectacular adventures on New York Times, I was immensely inspired by your experience. My name is George Dong. I hope you don’t mind my contacting you unsolicited.

    I will embark on a journey to China this September during my gap year before graduate school. I will likely to study Chinese at Tsinghua University (IUP) too. I will also volunteer and teach English in rural schools.

    I would greatly appreciate any time and advice you may be able to offer me, but regardless, thank you so much for just taking the time for reading this message. I would be thrilled if you can e-mail me some advice or chat on Skype. Please e-mail me ( whenever you have a chance. I hope to hear from you soon.


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