This year I’ve gone hot-spring mad, visiting no less than sixteen wild hot spring sources all over the island. This interest in Taiwan’s extraordinary geothermal activity isn’t a new thing – I’ve been fascinated by the island’s natural hot springs since soon after I arrived in 1993, but after stumbling across a photo of the fabulous Hayouxi Hot Spring on a friend’s Facebook stream late last year, and about the same time discovering Asher Leiss’s wonderful Follow Xiaofei blog, I decided to make this winter a time to explore some of the springs I’ve so far not made it to.
It’s been a wonderful winter.
Sadly though not all is well with Taiwan’s natural hot springs. Earlier this week, taking advantage of an easy working day (with just one hour of piano classes, after a second student cancelled on me…), I and a group of three friends headed up to Yangmingshan, the volcanic area and national park right above Taipei city, to explore a couple of very rarely visited hot spring sources. Both are just a stone’s throw from one of Yangmingshan’s most (unjustifiably) famous sights, the Flower Clock, yet feel a world away from the wide, paved paths and weekend crowds. The first, Xiaoyingtan Hot Spring (小隱潭溫泉), sits at the head of a wild little gorge, just below an attractive waterfall. The second, the confusingly named Yangmingshan Hot Spring (陽明山溫泉) on the same watercourse a kilometer or two upstream, is a babbling brook of bath-hot water, splashing through a sea of giant silver grass, the razor-sharp leaves of which are a bane to hikers and explorers who venture off the main routes all over Yangmingshan.
These are two remarkable little spots, and rarely visited, mostly because neither is easy to reach, despite being so close to one of the national park’s main tourist magnets. Sadly though, despite their location within Yangmingshan National Park, both are despoiled by a mass of pipes channeling hot spring water down to resorts and bath houses lower down the mountainside. It gets worse. At least one of the three sources at Yangmingshan Hot Springs (that stream of piping hot water in a sea of silver grass) is completely dry these days, as the water is piped straight out the underground source down the mountainside. Both places are an environmental disaster. Not even their position, well inside Yangmingshan National Park, can protect them. They’re also far from the only casualties in the national park.
For better or worse, hot spring bathing has become huge business in Taiwan since the late 1990s, when the first of the new generation of ‘luxury’ hot spring bath houses started opening. To supply all that hot water, most hot spring sources within the national park have now been defiled, and boreholes dug to create ‘artificial’ hot springs to supply the insatiable demand. A few springs, such as Bayan, Xiaqigu, Dayoukeng, Houshan and Huangxi remain commercially untapped, but Dayoukeng is far too hot, Huangxi and Houshan are too small, Bayan is overrun with people much of the time, and the natural beauty of little Xiagu Hot Springs has been destroyed by two tarpaulins – one to collect the water into a bigger pool, and another to shade bathers from the tanning effects of the sun.
The situation is slightly less dire elsewhere in Taiwan, simply because the hot spring sources that haven’t already been tapped by commercial businesses are generally too far or too inaccessible to make developing them commercially viable. Unfortunately even some of the remoter hot springs are under threat nowadays. Since Typhoon Morakot plowed through and left a wide ‘freeway’ of relatively level shingle on the bed of the river, the magnificent Hayouxi Hot Spring in Pingtung County has become far more easily accessible: a fact not lost on the local villagers, who are now driving large numbers of tourists up in 4WD vehicles during the dry season. The unique Shikeng Hot Spring off the South Cross-island Highway in neighbouring Kaohsiung City suffered the same fate during Morakot, and 4WDs can now (and indeed they do every weekend, during the dry season) drive right up to the hot spring cliff. On our visit earlier this year, we found one chump had parked his dune buggy right against the hot spring cliff, presumably in an effort to keep it out of the hot sun! Further down the same river the once natural hot spring sources at Qikeng and Shidong have already fallen victim to the tarpaulin hot spring brigade.
This lack of basic consideration for our beautiful world is a global problem. Whether it’s the Taiwanese habit of collecting hot spring water with spaghetti junctions of ugly plastic piping, Trump’s approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, or the destruction of Britain’s ancient hedgerows to make way for more efficient farming methods, money and convenience seem to have addled our collective brains, and the natural environment is taking a heavy hit. The response I often get when I bring up this issue is that it’s ‘progress’ and that it can’t (or even shouldn’t) be stopped. But what kind of progress is this? The Keystone pipeline will certainly bring in bucket-loads of money for a few businessmen and so-called politicians. The hot mineral water flowing through those other countless kilometers of piping, right here in Taiwan, will keep many locals, expats and visitors alike happy for an hour or two in those comfortable, sterile, characterless hot spring resorts that are all the rage, but the prevailing laissez-faire attitude implies a loss of respect, or at least a ‘don’t-care’ approach towards Nature.
In a perfect world we’d have no right to put our own selfish and temporary desires first, at the expense of the natural world. Unfortunately we’re all (me included) very far from perfect, and we’ve already developed quite a comfortable life for ourselves at the expense of our environment. However we reach a nadir of selfishness and ignorance when we lose even a basic respect for Nature. Yet this utter disrespect is acutely visible these days in those hideous pipelines, those crude tarpaulin hot spring tubs, and those 4WD convoys that invade Taiwan’s remote mountain areas every weekend. And how can we begin to understand the mindset of those visitors that collectively continue to release hundreds of sky lanterns each weekend over Pingxi and Shifen villages in New Taipei City, when the ongoing environmental disaster there is surely apparent to everyone that visits the area, in the countless brightly colored bits of trash clearly visible from the villages, dotting the tree-covered mountainsides above the area’s roads.
We need to start interacting with nature more on her own terms. A perfectly good hot spring pool can be made with a bit of effort by heaping rocks and gravel to keep the cold stream water out, with minimal damage to the environment. Dirt trails (with the occasional fixed rope where necessary to make tricky bits safer) are a perfectly adequate way of climbing mountains and visiting waterfalls. Remote natural hot springs such as Hayouxi, Shikeng and Erzishan can be easily reached on foot during a camping weekend without all the diesel fumes and noise of 4WDs. We all have a right to interact with Nature, but it’s got to be basically on Her terms. if we continue to insist on blatantly asserting our own will over it, then what’s going to be left of it for our descendants in fifty, even thirty years?