Our hot tub is in a private room at the top of a mountain overlooking the city. It’s completely glass fronted, so you can soak in the freshly run waters whilst admiring the views. The two tubs are hewn from dark granite, one steaming hot, one icy cold and invigorating.
We’ve taken the MRT from our hotel to Beitou, Taipei’s hot spring district. In the searing heat we climbed the hill from the station, admiring the greenery and peeking into compact little gardens and overgrown balconies as we ascended. By the time we reached the Zen Marshal Garden hot springs we were very much ready for a soak.
Relaxation is inevitable as soon as you enter. The gardens are so peaceful, with spectacular views. It’s twee but kind of nice how speakers are twinkling out the sound of pan pipes and bird song. The gardens are immaculately kept, butterflies swim the air and chunky, pearly carp loll in the ponds.
The tubs are just about big enough for two, but not necessarily that relaxing if you have the wrong companion. Ie one who thinks it’s funny to wait until you’re reclined in the hot pool, eyes closed, completely at ease, and then pour a huge bowl of the cold all over you.
From one elevated tub to another
We walk back down the hill when our hour is up, past some of the larger more modern resorts. We pop into the Beitou Thermal Valley, or ‘Hell Valley’. Here a crater is filled with boiling hot, sulphurous waters of an incandescent green colour, spewing out trails of steam. There’s an attendant standing perilously close to the edge scooping leaves out with a net, in one of those inexplicable tasks you see people employed in frequently in Asia. A needless accident waiting to happen.
Back in town we leave the backstreets of Songshan for the buzzing streets of Da’an, and the Hotel Proverbs. I’m privileged enough to be reviewing the place, and it’s quite a treat, with behemoth bed and roll top bath and people falling over themselves to give you good service. The rooftop pool is a particular highlight. There’s nobody else there and I sit in the water spying on the people of Taipei prowling the streets or hanging out their washing on the balcony. I raise my eyes to the sky, mesmerised by a gigantic eagle swooping the summit of Elephant Mountain, which is visible behind the Taipei 101.
We leave the luxury of the hotel to walk to James’ Kitchen. We pass down a very long, wide boulevard with a strip of mature trees and fountains in the centre, reminding me of certain, grander parts of London. But seconds after coming off it we’re in the quiet, narrow backstreets. Ordinary looking houses with plant pots on the doorsteps, elderly people stopping to prop their bikes while they unlock their back gates.
And then we’re emerging back onto a busy main street with Din Tai Fung, the world famous dumpling restaurant, right before us. A queue of humans stretches out the door and winds along the pavement. We pass it, a small restaurant called James’ Kitchen is our ultimate goal. It’s got a nice, homey feel of somewhere well worn and loved. Seated on rickety chairs we’re approached by an elderly waiter who briskly cuts us off halfway through our order to tell us that’s enough. Classic service. But when the food comes out I’m eternally grateful to him. The pumpkin angel hair noodles we’ve ordered are piled high, almost spilling off the plate, and we’ve got quite a lot more to come. Matt manages to work his way through a large serving of salted pork and it’s onto shrimp rolls and steamed greens, washed down with a neat little flagon of sake. It’s very good, authentic food and comes highly recommended.
I think tea might be a thing here
We’re on a tea mission the following day, bussing it out to Pinglin in the mountains. Here the Pinglin Tea Museum awaits.
Pinglin is a tiny little town set along a river and surrounded by mountains and tea terraces. The Tea museum takes us through the history of the area. The tea is hand picked, and farmers used to fry the leaves in their own kitchens, spending hours standing over the stove turning the leaves over and over. Now that’s attention to detail. The result is a reputation for growing the best tea in the world, in particular ‘Oriental Beauty’. My dad is a tea fanatic and so I’ve tried it before, and it is amazing. But at the time I’m not sure I quite realised it got its flavour because the farmers allow it to be nibbled by insects called katydids. The leaves release an enzyme to defend themselves from the nibbling and that’s what gives them the flavour. I learn all this when exploring their interactive exhibition, where you’re invited to sniff silken pouches of tea and read about who grows them. My conclusion is that tea smells are underrated.
We explore the town which has a rather enchanting slow pace. Its narrow streets are dominated by tea shops and elderly people smoking in doorways. A butter coloured dachshund trots out from one of the shops into the main road in pursuit of something edible, and stops to eat it there, clearly experienced enough to know that no vehicles are likely to appear. A man is washing his car in his front porch. Behind the car a giant eagle has been carved into a chunk of tree trunk. He sees me admiring it and beams proudly, gesturing toward it and saying something in mandarin.
We’re aimlessly looking for lunch and as we peer through a restaurant window an Asian couple eating there waves enthusiastically to us and thumbs up the food, so we go in through the ornately carved doors. The smiling waitress brings us chicken in plum sauce, omelette and rice, with ‘beauty’ tea to wash it down. This is clearly the bog standard tea of the town and it’s still liquid loveliness. Smelling the chicken, a rounded, lustrous looking tabby cat appears from out the back. It’s a beauty with a snubby nose and flattened ears and gigantic, contemptuous eyes. One of those cats you know you couldn’t get any love out of.
We finish our Pinglin trip with a walk along the river, admiring the faded charm of the walls, the lazy flow of the water. Tourists stand on the bridge dropping chunks of bread into hungry carp mouths below. Herons hang nearby, nonchalant on one leg, trying to look inconspicuous then diving in for a peck of bread. We’re lost in a moment. It seems a million miles from the city.
To get to Beitou for hot springs you can go to Beitou on the red Tamsui – Xinyi line of the metro. Change at Beitou for Xinbeitou (one stop). Once you’re there it’s a cab, bus or walk to one of the many hot spring resorts. The Hell Valley is halfway between where the station and most of the resorts are.
We pre booked a table at James’ Kitchen and it’s a good job we did because it was busy, even on a Monday. Reach them on +886 2 2343 2275.
Pinglin was also very easy to get to. Take the dark green Xindian line of the metro to Xindian. Get on the number #923 bus and Pinglin centre is the last stop. The museum was quiet and had a low entry fee.