Hot springs, warm people
A trip to Taiwan can be a peaceful change to bustling China.
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 oldstyle 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