Hot springs, warm peo­ple

A trip to Tai­wan can be a peace­ful change to bustling China.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - TRAVEL - By StU­Art LEAV­EN­WOrtH

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

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