Now that I have your attention, don’t worry. I have not developed an over-enthusiastic interest in alcohol in China (for the record, I could never be addicted to bai jiu). Rather I’m talking about safety issues related to the drinking water in China.
The issue is that the tap water in China is generally not fit for drinking directly. It contains bacteria that can lead to sickness if ingested, and even when it is boiled, a white powdery residue remains thanks to the city’s aging pipes. These issues with the water have an impact on many aspects of life, from the obvious (i.e. getting a drink) to the less obvious (i.e. preparing food, doing dishes, ordering a drink with ice, and brushing your teeth).
No traveler to China, regardless of his or her trip’s duration, can escape dealing with the questions and issues that water presents. And each traveler has to determine the proper balance of taking precautions and taking risks; you do not want to be too cautious or you will miss great experiences, but you also do not want to end your trip knowing more about your hotel bathroom than about China’s real attractions. The challenge is that it isn’t always clear which situations call for which approach.
In the first month and a half of my stay here, I have personally taken the approach of watching what the Chinese are doing with water and then copying that. This strategy has been especially easy because, well, Tian is Chinese and basically she just tells me what she would do.
Here are some rules I have followed to this point:
- Before drinking tap water directly, boil it in an electric water boiler. We usually re-use drinking bottles for about one week and then throw them away.
- It is ok to brush your teeth with the tap water. This one took me by surprise, but Tian does it, and it hasn’t been a problem for her. I have followed her lead so far, but may change moving forward just to be safe.
- It is ok to wash vegetables in tap water if you are going to cook them well afterwards.
- Doing dishes with tap water is ok because you use soap. The issue is that you have to make sure the dishes are dry before using them again.
- If you buy bottled water, make sure that the seal is closed on the top. There have been cases of Chinese companies refilling bottles with regular water. Read about one story here.
- It is usually advised not to drink cold water in restaurants. Most restaurants only serve hot water to drink. This has taken me some getting used to, as I usually like to drink water when I eat out. Now I just bring my own.
- If you suspect a restaurant or street vendor does not use clean water (hard to tell), just avoid the restaurant altogether.
Just yesterday, after 1.5 months of boiling our drinking water, Tian and I broke down and pre-ordered 30 barrels of drinking water and a water cooler. It’s a great deal because the company delivers the water directly to your door whenever you need it. Plus it is as tasty as it is convenient.
The other thing I found out when doing a bit of research is that about 43% of the water drunk in Beijing in 2008 was from barreled water, which means that I’m still doing as many of the Chinese do.