Why Toilets in Kyrgyzstan are so Bad

Word in Bishkek is that houses built by Germans are the best. “The Germans know how to live!” is what some Kyrgyz believe. Most Germans left after the fall of the Soviet Union and the houses they left behind fetch high prices on the real estate market. “My cousin wanted to buy a German house, but the price was too high. He bought two apartments instead,” a friend once told me.

For a long time I didn’t understand what was supposed to be so special about these German houses. What did “comfortable” mean? A house is a house.

The Switch Behind the Toilet
Until I visited another friend in hospital. She had managed to get a room for herself and let me use her private bathroom. I entered and couldn’t find the light switch. I looked for it until my friend showed me where it was. On the leftmost wall, behind the toilet. We started discussing why anybody would put it there. I argued there must be some reason for it, something with the wiring. My friend had a more cultural explanation. “You want to hear a joke about Kyrgyz repairs? This is it,” she said.

I realized something similar was going on in my own apartment. The light switch for the living room wasn’t in the room itself but in the corridor, a weird place to put it. The one in the kitchen was awkwardly hidden behind the refrigerator, no visitor could ever find it.

That Hole in the Ground
Actually I had noticed many times, in restaurants, cafes and bars in Kyrgyzstan, that light switches were in places hard to find. I also started to think about sanitation.

Toilet facilities in Kyrgyzstan are horrible. Not just on the road, where they often just consist of a hole in a concrete floor hidden from view by some sheet metal or chipboard panels, if you’re lucky it hasn’t been there for very long. If you’re unlucky you get more detailed insights into Kyrgyz travelers’ diet than you ever wanted. But also in public institutions like some hospitals I’ve visited or the university where I work.

The Restroom on the Fourth Floor
The men’s restroom on floor 4, which I frequently visit, consists of three separate cabins with actual toilets. That’s a luxury because on the first floor it’s just the usual squat toilets separated by walls hardly reaching my waist. The middle one of the three cabins is always closed, there is no light in the other two so you can never close the door if you don’t want to be in the dark. Don’t even ask about  toilet seats or paper. The inside of these cabins looks like it hasn’t been renovated since the university was built. Maybe they were never really finished in the first place. The walls look so dirty and crumbling that they’re beyond the point where it’s just the paint coming off. The water tap is half broken, but it works.

“Stop Crying, White Boy!”
Ok, this university doesn’t have money,” I tell myself every time I go there. “And they money they have they invest in something more important than toilets. Stop crying you spoiled Westerner.

I agree with myself here, but I think there’s another aspect to it. Even places that do have money, restaurants where a meal costs a tenth of a university teacher’s official monthly income, sometimes don’t have adequate sanitation. There’s too few toilets or they’re broken in some way.

The public restroom of Karakol regional hospital.
The public restroom of Karakol regional hospital.

Men Decide Where the Money Goes
It seems like in Kyrgyzstan sanitary facilities are just considered less relevant than other parts of a building. They’re not representational, nobody spends more time there than necessary. As long as it’s possible to conduct your business, nobody is likely to complain because they’re related to topics nobody likes to discuss. Men have fewer problems with bad sanitation because, after all, they can just piss standing up and don’t really have to touch anything. And in Kyrgyzstan men are more likely than women to decide where the money goes.

Maybe the difference with Germany is that there a building is constructed to fulfill it’s purpose as efficiently as possible. Part of that is that people have to be able to go to the toilet. Yes, the representational parts are more important than the sanitation, but without them they won’t be as efficient. If a building is planned to be used by a specific number of people, an according number of toilets is planned as well.

The Switch Where you Need it
Perhaps this attention to practicality is what makes the houses built by ethnic Germans in Kyrgyz different. If you put in a light switch, it shouldn’t just be anywhere in the room, it should be where you’re going to need it. And if the cable isn’t in that place you make the effort to put it there. If there is any truth to this, it would explain why “German house” are more expensive than others.

Yet an important aspect is, of course, money. In Germany there is incomparably more money to spend on sanitation and so of course the facilities are better. Maybe the Swiss or Norwegians are disgusted by German toilets, I don’t know.

“Like at ours 60 years ago”
Last year I worked as a tour guide in Bulgaria and discussed a similar topic with a guest. He told me how, growing up in Buxtehude near Hamburg in the 1960s, the toilet of his parents’ had been outside as well. “Instead of toilet paper there was a Bild Zeitung lying around. My ass was always black from the ink,” he said. To save money, his father had weekly removed the contents of that facility using a wheelbarrow. In a first act of juvenile rebellion, he had refused to help him.

This place,” he said about Bulgaria, “is just how it used to be at ours, 60 years ago.