Sit down. Lock the door. Then let yourself go. We’re not talking about your biological needs necessarily, or not the obvious ones. When our forebears pushed toilets behind lockable doors, they not only created privacy, but also a refuge, a hiding place, a small space of freedom in which almost anything is possible. Sexual activity, drug taking, venting, and misbehavior: toilets are great places for naughtiness. After all, surveillance is considered unacceptable in both public or private bathroom settings, or in a combination of both: Even the producers of TV reality show Big Brother won’t screen toilet activity (though there are cameras in place). Designers of US public bathrooms dealt with the difficulty by creating stall doors with vertical seams, wide enough to see into if necessary. Toilets are not the only places with multiple personalities. Sewers, hidden and ignored, are excellent escape routes, hiding places – in 1917, Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky had the sewers under his headquarters checked for lurking enemies – or even homes.
Let me first wish you a warm welcome to Ulan Bator, the beating heart of Mongolia! Let me guess: you’ve come from the countryside and you’re looking for a place to stay. I bet you want something cozy, fully equipped and cheap. I think I’ve got exactly what you need.
Here in Banyangol, we’re in one of the busiest districts of the city. But don’t worry about the noise; you won’t hear a thing from two-meters underground. Yes, that’s right. Don’t be alarmed. One in two people in Ulan Bator aren’t even connected to the sewer system. So consider what a privilege it will be to live inside it!
You will be following a trend. The city’s sewers have been inhabited since 1992, when communism collapsed and widespread poverty arrived. So follow me down this manhole, please. I’m sorry about the smell of rotten eggs. That’s hydrogen sulfide gas, but don’t worry, after prolonged exposure to it you’ll lose your sense of smell entirely. This piece of cardboard is your front door. You see the holes we’ve cut into it? That’s a special design feature to let the gas out. Every now and then someone dies of asphyxiation, and one can’t be too careful.
One in two people in Ulan Bator aren’t even connected to the sewer system. So consider what a privilege it will be to live inside it!
Master bedroom. The highlight of this room is the heating system. Those pipes along the southern wall are part of a network that brings hot water to a lucky 30 percent of the city’s population. It is features like this that have brought your 4,000 neighbors into the sewers. The damp, warm atmosphere also attracts rats, flies and cockroaches, but not to worry, pets are allowed. Children are also welcome; there are a couple of thousand living here already, so they’ll feel at home.
A kitchen, of course, is the natural center of any home, and the metal pipes carrying hot water that pass through your space easily provide enough heat to cook noodles. If you need water to cook, drill a small hole in the pipe and let it spill straight into your bowl. Leaking sewers do sometimes contaminate Ulan Bator’s fresh water with particles of fecal matter and toxic heavy metals, but this could add spice to your meals.
The damp, warm atmosphere also attracts rats, flies and cockroaches, but not to worry, pets are allowed.
One last thing: you’ll need to make your mind up soon. Demand is fierce, particularly with winter approaching, when temperatures can drop to -30. Some jealous abovegrounders may try to dislodge you by lobbing a petrol bomb in your direction, but settle in well enough and you can join the sewer-dweller protection gangs.
I almost forgot: the bathroom! That’s the least of your concerns. Simply squat above the channel of sewage running right through your home. No flush required.