Yesterday I finally made it to Beitou hot springs, hailed by both locals and tourists alike for its relaxing, remedial qualities. Having had a busy week I was much in need of some TLC. Located in North-East Taipei the hot springs owe their heat to the Datun mountain are accessed by locals through the numerous hot spring spas.
There is a whole variety of in both price and luxury of spas available, but having attended the public hot springs, “spa” is not a term I would associate with my experience. The public hot spring pools, four in total, were each built from rock and had a constant stream of hot spring water spilling in. Undressing and wearing only a bikini had the effect of accentuating the already obvious physical differences between the locals and myself. Combined with the forty-year age gap (a generous estimation in many cases) between myself and the other frequenters, this earned some way-ward glances.
I perched myself along the edge of the pool and glimpsed around to see what strangers were sharing this semi-intimate experience with me. From my cursory glances I could see that the average profile of those who co-habited the slightly murky hot spring waters was that of a 65 year old Taiwanese local. The best way I can describe how I felt is by likening it to an incredibly awkward after-party: the sun has been up for more than just a few hours, sobriety begins to set in and you glance around a room full of staring strangers wondering, ‘how on earth did I get here?’
The four hot spring pools available graduated in temperature, beginning at a pleasant 35°C and reaching a scorching 45°C at its hottest. Being of Irish origin with pale, pale skin, unsurprisingly I’m not someone that copes particularly well with heat. The first and second pool I could manage fine for a limited period of time but thereafter I encountered some difficulty. The fourth and final pool felt akin to boiling water (perhaps some slight exaggeration on my part here) and only on my second attempt, spurred on by the determination of my friend, could I muster the determination to fully submerge myself. Gasping upon entry, much to the amusement of my fellow occupants, I could only endure the heat for thirty seconds before I felt compelled to exit. Nonetheless, those mere thirty seconds were fruitful and my persistence was rewarded. I could certainly feel the effects of the spring water and it was intense: it was a natural high, as if my senses were magnetic and someone was applying a magnet to my skin, coaxing my tingling nerves to the surface. It was cathartic in the sense that it evoked an awareness of body as a separate entity, rather than just a vehicle for carrying out orders from my brain.
Frequenting the public hot springs was a thoroughly enjoyable, albeit strange experience in many ways, because you are engaging in quite a personal, revealing activity with utter strangers. I banished any questions of cleanliness to the back of my mind otherwise its unlikely I would have been able to go through with it.
While my presence most definitely provided some entertainment for the Taiwanese attendees, some of them also returned the favour. Exiting one hot spring pool out of the corner of my eye I glanced an exhibitionist, an elderly Taiwanese lady impressively doing the splits on a bench. When I returned a few moments later she was lying seductively on her side and the famous phrase “paint me like one of your French ladies” sprung to mind.
On the other hand not everyone was as self-assured and some women wore full body black bathing suits revealing only their eyes, leaving everything to the imagination. The potentially intimidating effect of this ninja-esque outfit was spoilt by the flowery dresses they then wore over the full body bathing suit, resulting in quite a comical image.
Just over an hour later, significantly prunier than when we first arrived (I was also beginning to resemble a lobster), my friend and I went to the locker area to the side of the pools and began to towel off. Unknowingly we caused quite a stir because, prematurely fearing that we were going to get undressed, a number of locals frantically began yelling at us (in Chinese of course) and pointing to the changing rooms. I can’t pretend that the thought of seeing me naked being so horrific wasn’t slightly insulting, and being yelled at in a language you cannot understand is always somewhat an unnerving experience. This feeling was later compounded when I learnt that bathing naked is the traditional way to bathe in the hot springs.
Maybe next time I’ll wear a ninja swimsuit. That will show them.