On our last full day in Taipei we found ourselves back on the MRT on our way to Tamsui, a district of New Taipei City in the north. Situated near the river, bustling Tamsui Old Street is lined with shops, street vendors and fun fair games. It wasn’t quite as enchanting as the Lonely Planet had suggested. It felt a little too touristy and lacked authenticity as an ‘old street’, but we had a nice stroll along the beachfront nonetheless, snacking on deep fried squid. And the sun was even shining!
We walked through the main road in Tamsui, Zhongzheng Rd, to visit some of the main attractions including Longshan Temple, Red Castle and various other points of interested noted by the Lonely Planet’s 4km walking guide. Nothing was standing out as overwhelmingly impressive at this stage but as we ventured further from the high street the atmosphere improved. The streets narrowed and developed more character as we spotted some beautiful old buildings along the way. Aletheia University was a surprise, nestled in the corner of one of the alley ways looking like something right out of Oxford.
The main attraction in Tamsui is Fort San Domingo, built in 1628 during the Spanish occupation of Taiwan. The 13 meter high structure was dismantled and rebuilt by the Dutch, the locals subsequently referring to it as the ‘Red Haired Fortress’ (in reference to the colour of Dutch hair). We weren’t overwhelmed by the inside, but the architecture of the building was very impressive and gave us some scenic sea views.
We’d done a lot of walking since arriving in Taipei; 20,000 steps a day was a common occurrence as we tried to jam pack our days with as much sight seeing as possible. Today was no different and we could feel our feet tiring on the walk back to the MRT station. During the stroll back to the station, we saw a couple of tremendous sights that weren’t mentioned in our Lonely Planet book…
We still had the afternoon to play with and the town of Beitou was on our list. Beitou is known for its natural hot springs, high quality spas, good hotels and luscious surroundings. Unlike Tamsui, we didn’t have many expectations about Beitou and were impressed as we arrived into this town, neatly snuggled beneath towering green mountains.
There are a variety of things to do and see in Beitou, including visiting the Hot Springs Museum (a beautiful Euro-Japanese style building that has been lovingly restored), the Cultural Centre (dedicated to the Aboriginal culture that once flourished in Beitou), and the Geothermal Valley.
But the most popular thing to do here, and the one we were both immensely looking forward to, was delving into the infamous Millennium Hot Spring outdoor public baths. We’d read about these skin softening, therapeutic healing waters that would cleanse us of any ailments and couldn’t wait to plunge in. We were ready for a relaxing afternoon, dreaming about slipping into the hot baths and winding down the day in utter serenity. We jauntily plucked out tickets from the machine with grins on our faces and scampered over to the ticket attendant like eager puppy dogs. Before we were allowed in, the stern looking woman asked to check our bathing suits. Crafty old Naomi had packed her swimming costume just in case bikinis were prohibited and presented this to grumpy pool lady, proudly and perhaps a little smugly. The attendant nodded in acceptance; we were almost there; we could see the steamy blue waters just a few meters away. Lawrence was next, unfolding his baggy blue swimming trunks and flopping them before the appalled face of the hot spring attendant. She gasped in horror and shook her head gravely. ‘Thou shall not enter the Millennium Hot Springs on my watch young man. Those swimming trunks are far too saggy child!’ She pointed in the direction of the shop behind her where she sold men’s speedos and other skimpy swimwear for a very inflated price. Lawrence’s jaw dropped as he turned towards Naomi’s tear filled eyes. We both knew no speedos would be purchased in that moment as we woefully came to terms with the reality of our situation. We retreated from the queue downtrodden, tails between our legs. After some huffing and puffing about the outrageous ‘rules’ we had to comply with, we accepted defeat. Lawrence had ruined the day for the both of us but whatever, we’re over it…
(Naomi was very gracious in supporting Lawrence through this difficult 20 minute disaster, reassuring him that he in no way ruined the day. Furthermore, Lawrence was not preventing Naomi from entering the pools as she wouldn’t have had a fun experience alone and vowed she would not desert him in favour of the dreamy hot springs. Neither Lawrence nor Naomi, nor the internet apparently, knew of these ridiculous rules so we were both as responsible as each other. We must learn and move on from such shortcomings).
It was time to move on and enjoy the remaining activities on offer at Beitou. The Thermal Valley was a good distraction; a volcanic valley filled with steaming blue-green jewelled waters. It’s a magical location and one of the most famous sights in Beitou. It is a natural sulphur hot spring and feeds the bathing facilities that surround it. The water temperatures here can reach up to 90 degrees celsius so there was no chance of even dipping our toes in. Locals used to boil their eggs in the scalding waters but for safety and water contamination worries, this is no longer allowed. We could feel the intense heat of the water as clouds of steam wafted with the winds in our direction. Any thoughts of plunging into hot springs were long gone!
By this point we were totally exhausted and headed to our hostel (a new one for tonight as Naomi had accidentally miscalculated how many nights we were in Taipei for when making the original booking…Lawrence realised this whilst waiting at HCMC airport thankfully). This new hostel was nicer than our previous one, with a cosy little cubbyhole and a very central location. We’ve actually really enjoyed staying in hostels during our time in Taipei and haven’t had any issues so far. Hostels here are very clean, modern and guests tend to be quiet and respectful within the dorm. Most people staying here are visiting to see the city, get up relatively early and make the most of the day, rather than coming for a party. While we have had a positive experience here, it might not be the same if we decided to do it in Thailand. The biggest issue we’ve faced is waking up in the mornings as dorm rooms are pitch black with no natural light. It feels like the dead of night every time our alarm goes off. Lack of space is also a little irritating as we have to keep our bags packed at all times and make sure they’re locked away neatly in our allocated lockers. But overall, it’s been much easier than we anticipated.
For dinner we headed to a local spot suggested by TripAdvisor, but it turned out to be closed because of the Dragon Boat Festival (Google it, we don’t have time to keep up with significant dates in Lunar calendars when we can’t even manage our own hotel bookings correctly). Luckily we stumbled across an amazing noodle restaurant. We pointed at a tasty looking picture displayed on the wall (no English was spoken here much like many local food places) and out came a huge plate of juicy worm like noodles. They were so fat and doughy, accompanied by beef, prawns and veg. We’d never tasted noodles like this before. If anything, Asia has taught us how much we love noodles. Before coming out here, our noodle knowledge was very limited and pot/instant noodles immediately sprung to mind when they were mentioned. But there’s a whole noodle world out there guys. Buying them fresh is the key!
Before bed, Lawrence popped out to take some sick photos of Taipei 101 at night. Enjoy: