There’s a simple trick to meeting people in Taiwan – just look lost. Take out a map on a street corner, or stare befuddled at your smartphone, and sure enough, someone will stop and ask if you need help.
It happened so many times during a recent week in Taiwan that it became a running joke. These offers of assistance almost inevitably led to extended conversations with our good Samaritans in a fumbling mix of English and Chinese. They were intrigued to know where we were from and what we thought of their home, a place the Portuguese named “Isla Formosa”, or beautiful island.
For more than a century, Taiwan has been known as a generous welcomer of outsiders, and the tradition continues. Possibly because their future is so precarious – living on land claimed by China, with a democratic government unrecognised by most of the world’s nations – the Taiwanese take great pride in greeting people and showing off their culture.
Beitou, an old village absorbed into Taipei, the country’s capital, is a fine place to experience Taiwan’s warmth. It bubbles straight out of the ground. Just a 30-minute subway ride from the centre of downtown Taipei, Beitou is the epicentre of hot springs on an island steaming with geothermal activity. You can pay top dollar to visit a luxury resort, or just take your shoes off and soak your feet in one of the brooks that tumble down the hillsides.
Back when Japan controlled Taiwan, the area around Beitou Park was one of the largest spas in Asia, filled with taverns, music halls and houses of ill repute. During the Vietnam War, American soldiers helped turn Beitou into a notorious red-light district. After Taiwan banned prostitution in the late 1970s, Beitou languished for a while, but now it is coming back strong, serving a different kind of clientele.
Tour-bus visitors from mainland China fill the resorts that ring Beitou Park. Yet in the maze of back alleys that radiate from the park, village life continues, with a bohemian twist.
Starting four years ago, a group of Taipei artists and travellers helped restore one of Beitou’s old inns, tucked away in an alley so narrow a car cannot pass. They decorated the rooms in different styles, using found objects from the building. Solo Singer Inn opened in 2012, an attempt to preserve the quaint lodgings that helped Beitou to flourish in an earlier era.
“Over the years, a lot of the old-style shops and hotels shut down,” said Luis, one of the staff members at Solo Singer who greeted us on our arrival. “We are one of the only ones left.”
Along with its nearby cafe, Solo Singer Life, the bed-and-breakfast serves as a networking hub for young artists and entrepreneurs. During our visit, a Japanese artist named Keiko Murate was displaying her graphic designs in the cafe, while the staff prepared to host a meet-up for those who had attended the last Burning Man festival in Nevada.
Many visitors to Beitou come just to soak in the hot springs, visit the Japanese colonial-era buildings in Beitou Park and sample local foods. At the raucous morning market, nearly every kind of tropical fruit, along with fresh fish and meats, can be found. Homey ramen shops serve up Japanese noodles in surroundings that haven’t changed much in 70 years.
To burn off the calories, Beitou offers a range of options. The village sits at the base of Yangmingshan National Park, a 114 sq km expanse of peaks, forests, fumaroles, hot springs and historic chateaus. While we could have taken a bus up to the park’s higher elevations, my wife, Micaela, and I decided to hoof it straight up 640m high Mount Zhongzhen.
While the path to Zhongzhen is called a “trail”, we quickly discovered it was mostly a set of steep staircases, built by Taiwanese stone masons decades ago.
At the top, the viewing tower delivered sweeping views of Taipei and the Danshui River as it empties into the straits of Taiwan. On our descent, we contemplated possible rewards for our exertions – cold beers and a hot bath.
Spas in Beitou range from plebeian to posh. On our first night in Beitou Park, we encountered a trio of Japanese tourists, wearing their yakata robes, ambling back from the outdoor public baths. A good soak in these baths, also known as Millennium Hot Springs, costs the equivalent of US$1.30 (RM5.30). More upscale places charge US$40 (RM162) an hour or more for a private room.
Beitou Springs, a neighbourhood bathhouse that we chose, charged a mere US$10 (RM41) per hour for a private room.
After a soak, I exposed my calloused feet to swarms of tiny, biting fish in the bathhouse’s aquatic pedicure tank. It was one of those “only-in-Asia” moments.
A few days in Beitou can easily be combined with journeys across the island. Taroko Gorge National Park, on the east side of Taiwan, offers stunning scenery and hiking, with clear streams tumbling down through marble canyons. From Taipei, a high-speed rail line whisks travellers down to the historic city of Tainan, in south-west Taiwan, in a mere two hours.
Many travellers to Asia bypass the island to concentrate on the splendours of mainland China – a big mistake. Taiwan, in many ways, is more Chinese than China, since it never underwent the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. Across Taiwan, historic temples, shrines and churches are lovingly preserved, unlike many of their counterparts on the mainland, which were torched and dismantled.
Taiwan’s National Museum is also the repository for China’s greatest works of art, smuggled out of the mainland by Chiang Kai-shek’s forces when the Nationalist army retreated across the straits from the advance of the Chinese communists.
With its clean air and gentle hospitality, Taiwan is an excellent way to decompress after an adventure in Beijing or other bustling, sharp-elbowed Chinese cities. It expands one’s understanding of what “China” is, and could be. – Tribune News Service/Stuart Leavenworth