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Asia travel

Beitou in Taiwan is a peaceful antidote to hectic city life

The northernmost district of the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, offers hot springs and a glimpse into quaint village life

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 January, 2016, 5:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 January, 2016, 5:02am

There’s a simple trick to meeting people in Taiwan – just look lost. Pull out a map on a street corner, or stare 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. Our Good Samaritans were intrigued to know what we thought of their home, a place the Portuguese named “Isla Formosa” (beautiful island).

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. A 30-minute subway ride from the centre of 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 off your shoes and soak your feet in one of the brooks that tumble down the hillsides.

In the first half of the 20th century, 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, serving a different kind of clientele.

Visitors from 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.

Four years ago, a group of Taipei artists and travellers started to 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.

“Over the years, a lot of the old-style shops and hotels shut down,” says Luis, one of the staff members at Solo Singer. “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 meeting for people who had attended the last Burning Man festival in the US state of Nevada.

Many visitors to Beitou come to soak in the hot springs, visit the Japanese colonial-era buildings in Beitou Park and sample local food. At the raucous morning market, nearly every kind of tropical fruit – along with fresh fish and meat – can be found. Cosy 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 is close to Yangmingshan National Park, a 113-square-kilometre expanse of peaks, forests, volcanic smoke holes, hot springs and historic chateaus. While we could have taken a bus up to the park’s higher elevations,we decided to hoof it straight up 640-metre-high Mount Zhongzheng.

While the path to Zhongzheng is called a “trail”, we quickly discovered it was mostly a set of steep staircases, built by Taiwanese stonemasons decades ago.

At the top, the viewing tower delivered sweeping views of Taipei and the Danshui River as it empties into the Taiwan Strait. 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 yukata 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. More upscale places charge US$40 an hour or more for a private room.

Beitou Springs charged US$10 per hour for a private room. After a soak, I treated my calloused feet to the ministrations of tiny biting fish in the bathhouse’s aquatic pedicure tank.

A few days in Beitou can easily be combined with journeys across the island. Taroko National Park, in the east 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 southwest Taiwan, in a mere two hours.

Where to stay:Solo Singer, a quirky bed-and-breakfast in Beitou, can be booked through its website, thesolosinger.com

Tribune News Service