The Road Less Travelled: Hot Springs and Cold Nights in Taiwan

I found a room full of naked men huddled around a pool

I awake in Sichongxi Hot Springs Park on a cold slab of concrete. The wind howls through the overgrowth and, at times, the only part of my tent touching the ground is where my body anchors it down.

This wasn’t how I imagined my stay at a “hot springs park” — but it would do for the first night of my bicycle trip around the island of Taiwan.

I came here on the advice of a friend I’d met while living in Kaohsiung. He’d made the journey — it was, he said, almost a rite of passage for native Taiwanese — and he painted a picture of paradise, filled with relaxing hot springs to ease aches and pains.

However, when I approached the park the night before, it seemed abandoned and unloved. The public bathrooms were run-down and locked, and palm tree branches were scattered across the paths and picnic tables.

Before arriving, I’d explored the nearby town. An alleyway, off the main street led to a public hot springs building. It looked decrepit, although the scene out front was lively. Old ladies wearing swim caps were happily chatting while young grandchildren played tag around their legs.

I went inside and found a windowless room of naked Taiwanese men huddled around a small pool. My presence was immediately noticed. The groans (of contentment, or something else?) made me feel uncomfortable, so I turned around and went to a steaming foot bath I’d noticed earlier.

I joined a family with their feet in the pool. When they left, I let my full body sink into the shallow water. I was still dreaming of this wonderful feeling as I awoke in my chilly, uncomfortable tent the next morning.

Any crossing of the country is both difficult and majestic

Our day of riding began on route 199, the least travelled and southernmost of only a few roads that connect Taiwan’s east and west coasts.

More than a hundred mountains, all over 3,000 metres, create a central spine down the country, making any crossing of the island difficult, but majestic.

We rode west into the wind towards the aboriginal township of Mudan. Rice crops and farmers tending them were visible from the road wherever the tropical forests didn’t obscure them.

When we passed through the small clusters of houses and storefronts that made up the villages of the township people would wave and smile. Old men and women would motion for us to come into their stores. Teenagers would yell at us from the side of the road and gasp when we said “hello” back to them in Chinese. Small children seemed to use whole towns as their playground, running in and out of houses and shops, across the road, and into the fields. Everyone clearly knew everyone else, and the adults watched each child with the concerned eye of a parent.

Some way from the last village, I rested on a patch of open grass and let the gentle rain that had begun to fall cool me down. An old man with a deeply weathered face approached on a motorcycle, his wife teetering on the back.

They didn’t seem to notice me, or didn’t care.

I imagined I was as unusual to them as any person would be this far from civilization. The old man slowly got off the bike and his wife muttered to him in a unfamiliar language. His facial muscles strained into a smile and he coughed out a laugh. The exchange felt very human and universal to me, and reminded me of seeing people in rural America content with each other when there was little else.

The only sound was birds and monkeys

I enjoyed the serenity of the road as we approached the mountains. We took a turn and the road began its ascent. It continued its incline for the next 10 km, each bend offering a new perspective of the lush, green landscape we were traveling through. The silence was broken only by the calls of birds and Formosan monkeys.

The higher we climbed, the harder it began to rain and by the time we reached the top, the sky was dreary, and I was drenched.

The descent into Daren Township was nerve-wracking. The sound of rain and birds was exchanged for the noise of passing trucks. The torrential rain made it difficult to see, and the traffic flying by left little room for comfort.

We rode into the parking lot at the first convenience store we came to, and saw hundreds of tourists sheltering from the rain. Although I was wet and cold, I felt I was experiencing Taiwan with all of my senses, while everyone else was seeing it from their car, not feeling its elements.

I’d fallen prey to the trickery of highway signs

We began heading north, and rode with the rough, grey water of the Pacific ocean on our right and the towering, green mountains on our left.

The scenery didn’t change much as we continued north; the mountains ended where the edge of the road began, and what few beaches did appear were rocky and uninviting.

In rare instances, we would pass a sheltered cove and the true blue of the ocean would reveal itself. We passed by several rivers flowing out from the mountains, distributing mud and forest debris.

A few hours before the sun began to set, we saw a sign for the town of Taimali less than 20km away, and decided we would stop there for the night.

I told Mycal I would ride ahead and scope the town out. I rode fast, joined a caravan of cars lining up to go through a one-lane tunnel under construction, and emerged into Taimali only to find more of the same few houses sprinkled throughout the mountainside — no stores, restaurants or hotels, and no parks in which to camp.

I rode on until I saw a road sign hanging above me that told me I’d fallen prey to the trickery of highway signs in Taiwan — Central Taimali was another 19km away. We had only reached the edge of the township.

It was almost dark by the time we began to see signs of civilization, in the shape of two, small old men sharing a cigarette in front of a store.

They watched us as we crossed the road towards them, but they didn’t show much interest and continued their conversation. I wondered what made these guys so calm and cool, while my interactions with strangers in the city were filled with shock and skittishness upon them seeing a foreigner.

Out here, there weren’t billboards and malls glorifying the westerners that few people in Taiwan had actually seen in real life. You were either human or you weren’t. Little else mattered. The old men smiled at our wet, dirty clothing, and pointed us in the direction of a hotel.

Too tired to haggle, we settled for the first price offered and made our way up to our room.

Mycal and I joked about how the beds weren’t much softer than the pavement the night before, and I cleaned myself with what little water dripped out of the shower head. We each wore a pair of complimentary paper slippers, our feet ripping the paper with each step, and walked into the adjacent restaurant.

I fell into my seat, ordered a bowl of beef noodle soup, and watched Taiwanese families eat and watch TV. I fell asleep by 9pm, as the gentle humming of basketball on the TV connected me back to my homeland which, at this point, truly felt a world away.