jingning: (Chihiro and Kohaku)
[personal profile] jingning in [community profile] taiwanderland
Taiwan has a very distinct spring-soaking culture; people from all over Taiwan will dedicate entire vacations to enjoy soaking in the blue-green pools of scalding-hot mineral water. Soaking in these hot springs claim to bring many health benefits, so Lara and I had to check out these pools for ourselves.

The entire island is dotted with access to hot springs, ranging from the very posh weekend spas to very free public pools. However, the most notable of hot spring soaking areas closest to Taipei are located in small towns on opposite ends of New Taipei City (新北市), formerly Taipei County (台北縣).

On a crisp November afternoon, Sam, Lara, and I headed about one hour South from our home in Taipei to Wulai (烏來), a small town nestled within the mountainous folds of the Taipei Basin (台北盆地). We got off the subway at the Southern terminal station of the green line and headed out to a row of parked buses waiting to be filled with local passengers. After walking down the row, we realized none of the buses were headed for Wulai and neither were the rest of the buses scheduled to arrive. A waiting bus driver instructed us to "go to the other side" and as we turned around to look where that might be, a bus happened to be pulling up from the busy streets outside the station. When we turned back to look at the bus driver, he began enthusiastically waving for us to go, pointing at that very bus. Suddenly, we found ourselves sprinting across the station to save ourselves a half hour wait for the next ride; Sam's cellphone fell from his pocket and shattered on the ground, some pieces sliding underneath a gated off area. As Sam flipped himself over the waist-high gate to grab his scattered phone pieces on the other side, Lara helped him reach the accessible ones and I frantically waved at the bus driver to wait just a few more seconds for us to get on that bus. That was just a taste of the hectic adventure that was to come.

One thing I have come to realize about modes of transportation in Taiwan is that their drivers act like they are driving vehicles much more compact: buses become taxis, taxis become scooters, scooters become bicycles, bicycles become pedestrians. Pedestrians, well, they just try not to get hit in the confusion. In Taipei city, buses careen into the right lane with very short notice, cutting off whoever they must in order to pick up passengers waving them down from the sidewalk; taxi drivers can often be seen driving in the bike lanes, making two-lane roads into three-lanes during rush hour, swerving across several lanes of thick traffic to nab customers before the next guy; motorbikes of all colors, shapes, and quality are often thrown to the wolves in these cases, dodging and weaving through the larger vehicles like small mice on the run from uncertain doom.

Our friendly bus driver for the Wulai route proved just as daring as his downtown comrades and as the bus wound itself precariously around the towering hills on narrow roads with steep drop-offs into the canyon below, I was quite grateful that we had been able to procure seats. On a later visit to Wulai, we were not so lucky and I remember a sudden stop the bus driver made that sent us and a couple dozen middle school children on their way home flying to the front. On the way back to Taipei during said trip, I couldn't wait to get off the bus; what I'd had to eat that afternoon was threatening to come right back up.

Needless to say, Taiwan's roads are not for the faint of heart, even if you're not the one behind the wheel.

Through some miracle, we arrived at Wulai in one piece and were greeted by the most peculiar river wrapped on either side by green rolling hills dotted with shrines, spas, and cafes, shrouded in mist. According to some local friends I questioned later, the appearance of the river that day was not very commonplace. The main river that flowed through the valley carried a cappuccino brown color, while an adjoining river from the left was a vibrant green-blue. The area where the two rivers collided was a stunning mixture of the brown and green; the colors getting caught up in each other mirrored the swirls of mist that blanketed the quiet hills. In that moment of clarity, I realized how much I missed breathable air and the peace of the countryside. The tallest things in sight were no longer concrete buildings, but looming mountains.

First sighting of Wulai.
"Where two rivers merged into one, creating an interesting effect in the water. I think it almost describes the nature of the town, as well as Taiwan in general, as sort of mixture of the traditional and the new..." -Lara (靜嵐) -larger view-

It was also impossible to ignore the prevalence of hot spring culture in this area; locals soaking in the free public springs chatted unreservedly; pipes snaked across the river, carrying the precious water from the source to various spas and pools; food stalls lining the streets offered indigenous Wulai specialties, ranging from Hot Spring Eggs (溫泉蛋) to Bamboo Rice (竹筒飯).

Bamboo Rice on the bridge across the river in Wulai.
Bamboo Rice (竹筒飯): Contemplating my freshly cracked-open bamboo shoot containing a vegetarian mixture of rice, mushrooms, and spices. The mixture is placed, uncooked, in a hollow bamboo tube and boiled in a pot of water. When ready, the tube is cracked by a hammer and the inner contents are eaten right off the bamboo with chopsticks. Click here for a video showing how Bamboo Rice is cooked filmed by anneta0118.

After crossing a narrow bridge beyond the food stalls, we headed deeper into the valley toward Wulai Waterfall (烏來大瀑布) on a road not much wider than your average car but, like most roads in Taiwan, still somehow able to facilitate the scooter, four-wheel, and pedestrian traffic. The road hugged the curving river to the left and rusty train tracks to the right, an occasional small train filled with sightseers too lazy to walk from the bridge to the falls, or too thrilled by the novelty of a riding such a small train.

Train tracks in Wulai
"It's really peaceful and beautiful there; just what I needed to escape the stress of living in a bustling city. The scenery is gorgeous - with the towering hills covered in trees along a rushing river I couldn't help but feel like I stepped into the land of Princess Mononoke - as I walked along, I thought a little kodama would appear at any moment (and hoped a giant wolf wouldn't)." -Lara (靜嵐) -larger view-

Reaching the end of the tracks, we turned one more corner past some touristy shops and found ourselves face to face with the massive falls, cascading down the cliff face and turning into mist by the time it reached the river below. After briefly admiring the stark white of the falls, especially vivid in the gray twilight, we found an impossibly long stairway leading to several viewing spots alongside the hills above and spent the rest of the waning light looking across the valley toward the falls before heading back for a soak in the hot springs.

Wulai falls

Finding a place to soak was no difficult task. The small town is lined with hot spring hotels, offering private rooms with baths to soak in for 1-2 hours, gender-separated pools for the whole day, and even rooms with beds and television sets to relax in. Our first visit to Wulai was on a weekend so, naturally, the free public hot springs next to the river were crowded and the fact that they are unlit made us a little uneasy.

Trekking further on, we followed a branch of the river up to a small resort and, for about US$15 each (expensive by Wulai standards), found ourselves relaxing in a private open-air room above the rapids. Each room was separated by bamboo walls and the floor and tub was made entirely of stone tiles. The sounds of the river rushed past outside and the surrounding outdoor scenery was bathed in the warm light of our room; the resort was far enough from the main town area to give an atmosphere of peaceful remoteness. Another special thing about Wulai is that the hot spring water is odorless; there was no trace of sulfur in the cool night air.

Soaking at Wulai.
When bathing in Taiwan (and other areas throughout East Asia), there is a certain etiquette to be followed. One must first shower and wash themselves completely with soap before getting into the tub -- in order to prevent bathing in one's own filth and/or dirtying up the water for others. No soap is used in the bath and, typically, no clothing or bathing suits are worn (unless its mixed-gender/public).

We fell asleep on the bus ride home, our bodies feeling relaxed and rejuvenated and our spirits feeling replenished and calm. Going back to Taipei was like stepping back into the very different world of concrete and plastic, streets lined with shops and shops lined with lights. Nevertheless, the feeling of peace remained with us for quite some time afterward, a feeling the memory of which I knew would urge me to seek out these havens many times to come.

Our first experience in Beitou, however, proved to be the real eye-opener.

After a brief ride on the subway to the north of Taipei, Lara and I stepped off the train and made our way across a busy intersection and into a city park. The park had a small fountain that was timed to perform some water tricks every fifteen or so minutes. Moving on, we spotted some metal contraptions that, from a distance, appeared to be playing structures for kids. Upon closer examination, however, we discovered that they were tools intended to help adults stretch their muscles.

Metal muscle-stetching machines.
Many parks in Taiwan have these metal structures, where you can stretch your muscles while on a long walk.

After passing through the park, we found ourselves on the higher bank of a small stream that flowed effortlessly through the cluster of hot spring spa houses. Standing on a terrace overlooking the stream and the opposite bank, we peeked our heads over the railing to take a glimpse of the mixed-gender public hot springs next door. It was a weekend, so the pools were filled with all ages, shapes, and sizes. The tiered pools were a colorful array of bathing suits in the afternoon sun.

Continuing on the narrow road, deeper into the heart of the hot spring area, we noticed some locals lining the banks of the stream below. Through the cracks between bamboo shoots and tree bark, we could see people sitting on rocks with their feet and calves soaking in the water.

At the end of the trail, where two roads split by the stream converged, we found a stairway leading down to the riverbed, and eagerly slipped off our shoes and socks for our first encounter with Beitou hot spring water. Unlike Wulai, the water in Beitou smells distinctly of sulfur, which told us that there was no mistaking the nature of this water.

Soaking our feet in the Beitou hot spring stream.

After the brief, yet relaxing soak, we ventured onward toward a place named Geothermal Valley (地熱谷), a small valley occupied in majority by a blue-green hot spring pool. There were throngs of people lining a fence that kept them from certain death; the temperature of the hot spring pool can reach up to 100°C. Steam rose up from the bubbling pool and mingled with the cool winter air, creating a scene from another world entirely, a world beyond that quietly held some kind of secret.

Despite the number of people, it was easy to lose oneself in the way the steam floated gently up past the shadows of the surrounding trees, arching in a brief flash of gold as it met with the slanting rays of the evening sun. Just as soon as those flashes had appeared, however, they vanished into the blue sky, making way for the new licks of steam rising from below. Every once in a while, a swift wind would roll through the valley, taking all of the steam along with it on a joyful ride to the opposite bank, leaving a clear view of the deep cyan pool. We allowed ourselves to become lost in the ghostly dance to the heavens.

Steam dance at Geothermal Valley.

We were awakened from our entrancement by the sulfur beginning to supersaturate our senses and made our way back to the main road just as the sun was beginning to set. Seeing as we still had a bit of daylight left, we decided to venture further past the end of the cluster of hot spring spa houses, on a road that wound itself around the surrounding hills. We didn't go far, however, before stumbling upon a long flight of uneven, moss-covered steps made of stone. Unable to resist, we climbed not even halfway up before coming to stop by a wooden gate to the right, an even more uneven path beyond.

Path to Puji Temple.

After fumbling with the latch for a moment, we stepped past the threshold and made our way up the slanted stone stairway, until it wound around a corner and emptied into the silent courtyard of a hilltop Buddhist temple called Puji (普濟寺).

We saw that the doors to the temple opened up into the main hall and, reservedly, stepped up to the entrance. I was reluctant to go inside, afraid of becoming an unwelcome visitor but just at that moment of hesitation, an old woman appeared from inside the temple and gestured for me to come in. After the usual communication ritual of Testing the Language Waters (throwing out simple phrases to see if I will respond in Chinese, then gradually becoming conversation), she helped us pay our respects to the temple, then guided us to some chairs in the right corner of the hall. We conversed briefly about our place of origin and our reasons for being in Taiwan before she offered us some tea and snacks. We declined at first, to which she insisted, running off through some sliding doors to the far left.

It was then that I caught a glimpse of two men sitting beyond the doors, around a round table in a separate room. One was dressed like my idea of any scholarly gentleman: glasses, white shirt, gray sweater vest, and black pants. The other was wearing the unmistakable garb of a Buddhist monk. In the few seconds we waited for the woman to return, the four of us regarded each other curiously. Breaking the silent observation, the woman once again scurried past the men, pausing to answer a question of theirs while waving an arm in our direction. The monk then stuck his arm out in our direction and waved his outstretched hand toward himself (the gesture to "come" in most East Asian cultures, which is the same gesture for "shoo" in the West). Eager to find out more about these people and this temple, we entered the small dining room and took seats opposite from the men.

The monk introduced himself as 釋宏嚴, the master of that temple, and the man beside him as a visiting scholar friend. As the sun began to lower itself beneath the hills outside, we drank tea, ate simple biscuits, and conversed about all manner of things related to vegetarianism, Buddhism, and Mandarin Chinese. In particular, we discussed a few of his calligraphic works; he used them to point out important Chinese characters in Buddhist philosophy. At one point in our discussion, he brought up a character that I have come to love very much: 緣 (first introduced to me by one of my best friends and former college professor of mine, Denise). 緣 is very difficult to translate, although some have appropriated it to "serendipity". Others might describe it as something close to "fate".

The monk smiled wide and told me "我們有緣" ("We were fated to meet") and my heart filled with happiness. When I meet people like this and when I remember that I have such inspiring friends and family back home and beyond, I can believe that it is more than just a coincidence that some people cross paths. Some people are just meant to find each other, even if they were born on opposite ends of the globe.

Hilltop Buddhist temple.

As we finished our tea, he wrote out his contact information and offered his advice whenever we should need it. He also invited us back for another visit, an invite I have yet to take him up on. Soon after, we bid farewell and took our leave, striding out into a courtyard soaked in a stillness that only twilight can bring. Our spirits floating, we left the compound, I with an unshakable feeling that I had just spent years in that temple. We spent the rest of the waning light on a short trip further up the hill, before deciding to turn around and make our way back to the valley below for a dip in Beitou's hot springs.

Deciding against squeezing in with the weekend crowds at the mixed-gender hot springs, we found a small hot spring spa house across the stream that advertised the purest mineral water in all of Beitou. Whether or not this was actually true, we didn't care -- we were more than ready to relax in some steaming hot water after a full day of walking.

The man at the front desk looked nervous as we approached, making sure to inform us that this was a gender-separated bathing house in which you must strip completely naked first. This is usually the case with bathing houses, so we assured him we were alright with that. Nevertheless, when I stepped into a room full of shoe cubbies, catching a glimpse of the cramped spa area beyond, I was overwhelmed by the nudity. A woman washing herself by the faucets immediately took to looking after us, instructing us on where to put our clothes, how to wash oneself properly, and how to get one's body warmed up to the water before getting in. At first, I felt like Lara and I painfully stood out against the small room full of about ten local women and girls, looking only at my own body or down at the floor. However, as I became more and more comfortable with the prolonged nakedness, I let my eyes roam about and discovered that everyone in the room seemed just as comfortable around me as I would feel if I were in the room by myself. At one point, one woman laid a cloth down on the floor and proceeded to stretch herself out there, seemingly without any thought as to how much of EVERYTHING everyone else could see. However, everyone else seemed to care just as much as her and, fueled by how comfortable they were in their own skins, I let go of my Western inhibitions and just relaxed.

Finally, the repeated washing and rinsing was done so we stepped over to the side of the deep pool and gingerly placed our feet into the water, intending to step down inside. All would have been well and good, if it wasn't for the SCALDING heat of the mineral water. I leaped back and stared at the water in utter fear. The woman from before saw our failed attempt to get into the water and told us that we should get in quickly and then not move at all. She reassured us that it was hot at first but we would feel fine if we didn't move. If we still felt too hot, we could stick our hands out of the water to help cool ourselves down.

Reluctantly, we followed her lead and discovered that the burning pain upon first making contact, indeed, melted away as we settled in and stopped moving. Despite the tricks we learned, I could only take a minute or two of soaking at a time and left the pool to relax on some stone seats to the side. The woman soon joined me and we chatted together about school, about ourselves, about our ambitions. I told her that I wanted to be an interpreter but I didn't think that I could ever be good enough at Chinese in order to do that. She smiled and replied, "妳聽得懂我說的呢?" ("You can understand what I'm saying, right?") While I do think that interpreting requires more skill than chatting, nonetheless, she gave me some much needed encouragement.

After some time, we decided to soak again and as we lowered ourselves into the pool, she told us that the only reason why no one talks to foreigners is because they're not sure if they can speak Chinese or not. If we talked to Taiwanese people, they would definitely talk back to us. She then rallied three local women together and told us to say "something nice" to them. Pressure on, I stumbled out something pretty generic: "我有一些朋友有來過台灣,他們都告訴我 ‘台灣人都很親切,台灣菜都很好吃,妳去吧!’ 然後,我來了就發現我的朋友們都說對了。" ("I have a few friends that have come to Taiwan before and they all told me 'Taiwanese people are all very hospitable and the food there is delicious. You should go!' Then, when I came here, I discovered that everything they said was right.") Regardless, the women seemed pleased and conversed with us over the rejuvenating soak.

The most eye opening experience of the trip had to have been the time spent in the hot springs. There truly were women of all ages, shapes, and sizes, completely unreserved about displaying every part of their bodies. It was a huge culture shock moment, not just because of the intense nudity, but also because of the refreshing atmosphere in which I was introduced to it. For once, I was surrounded by a bunch of women who weren't comparing and contrasting body shapes; they weren't staring out of the corners of their eyes and picking out each others' "flaws". They were just relaxing and chatting -- there was absolutely nothing awkward about it. I soon forgot I was completely naked in front of a bunch of strangers on the other side of the planet and just soaked in the deep stone tub.

We left Beitou that day with calmed spirits, relaxed bodies, a renewed sense of identity, and bellies full of vegetarian sushi.



Happy Year of the Rabbit~!

There's nothing like friends from afar to make stories with and friends back home to read them. Thank you all for being in our lives -- looking forward to another great year and wishing you all the best~!

-- Sara

Bookmark and Share

on 2014-07-16 11:45 am (UTC)
Posted by (Anonymous)

I chanced upon your blog while surfing for private hot springs in Wulai. May I know the name of the resort you went?




taiwanderland: Sara and Lara outside National Palace Museum (Default)
何靜寧 & 何靜嵐 --- Sara & Lara

Subscribe & Share

Bookmark us on Delicious!Submit us to Digg!Share us on Facebook!Find us on Flickr!Subscribe to our RSS feed!Share us on StumbleUponFollow us on Tumblr!Follow us on Twitter!

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Please Help Us Fund Our Adventures!

Page Summary

November 2011

20 212223242526

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Oct. 16th, 2017 10:07 pm
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios