The Increasingly Sad Fate of Taiwan’s Hot Springs

In Hot springs, Kaohsiung City, Miscellaneous, Nantou County, New Taipei City, Pingtung County, Taipei City, Wild Hot Springs by Richard6 Comments

The way to Xiaoyingtan Hot Spring: a beautiful place ruined by pipes supplying a nearby bath house

One of the countless abandoned sky lanterns visible from the road in Pingxi village, New Taipei City, the unfortunate ‘home’ of the sky lantern

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.

Not even its situation within Yangmingshan National Park can protect Xiaoyingtan Hot Spring from being riddled with ugly plastic piping

A turtle (possibly an abandoned pet dropped into the stream beside the road through Yangmingshan park, upstream) somehow survives at this hot spring, its shell colored by the same minerals in the the water that tint the surrounding rocks, after probably many years of living in this secluded spot

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.

More pipes, at the hot spring stream below the three small sources known as Yangmingshan Hot Spring. All three have been tapped to feed hot spring resorts further down the mountainside

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 beautiful green formations at Shikeng Hot Spring haven’t escaped its increasing popularity unharmed. Surely those bulls-eyes aren’t a natural formation…

 

Some of Taiwan’s formerly remote mountain gorges are receiving plenty of not always welcome attention these days courtesy of 4WD convoys who come in for the weekend…

… because not all of them have even a basic respect for the beauty of their surroundings…

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.

More abandoned sky lanterns beside the road in Pingxi…

…and contrary to what some are saying, not even these are always promptly disposed of.

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.

The tarpaulin brigade have already made it to relatively unknown Xiaqigu Hot Spring in Yangmingshan National Park.

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?

Pipes just below Rainbow Waterfall at Dongpu, Nantou County, serving the hot spring resort below

Comments

  1. Great article. The best way for any action to be taken is by making it known. This is just a small step but perhaps the right people read it and take action.

  2. Thank you for writing this. Taiwan has indeed turned an eye to protecting and respecting much of the natural beauty here (including the air). The Pingxi lantern tradition creates so much unnecessary waste – it should be illegal. And the addiction to plastic bags… one for every drink purchased?! I often wonder why Taiwan doesn’t take a firmer stance on banning single use plastics and above all, protecting the lands, waters and wildlife because once these natural gems are trashed by humans, they will be gone forever.

  3. Thank you for your illuminating article on a very ugly problem indeed. We should all make it a point to take care of these precious natural landmarks in TW.

    I try to make it a point to bring extra garbage bags on my excursions to distribute to strangers I meet along the way, encouraging them to pick up any garbage along the way and practise a ‘leave no trace’ habit whilst outdoors. Every little effort helps, I think.

    Good luck and stay safe, all!

  4. One issue here is that places like Pingxi and Wutai don’t have a huge number of economic opportunities- somewhat similar to blue collar workers opposing environmentalists in the US. Society has to find way to offer alternative sources of income in order to overcome local opposition to protecting the environment.

    1. Author

      Yep, Joseph, it’s perfectly understandable that the local Pingxi and Shifen villagers won’t want to give up sky lanterns anytime soon, as they provide a very considerable income for those villagers that are involved in selling them. It’s worth pointing out, however, that many hundreds of similar villages and settlements around Taiwan have none of the wealth of tourist attractions that Pingxi and Shifen are blessed with – waterfalls, fantastic short hikes, a relatively rich historic and cultural heritage, quaint old streets, even its own hugely popular branch railway line! In any event it’s a sure thing that the villagers of Pingxi and Shifen won’t starve if the sky lanterns were some day to be banned – the tourist crowds will still come, and will still spend money in the villages. We should also spare a thought for the people that live in the valley (in Sandiaoling, Lingjiao and Wanggu settlements, for a start) who have to put up with the crowds, the trash, the noise, but don’t get any benefit from all that tourism. It’s a delicate issue, and people need to make a living as best they can, but making it through sky lanterns in this environment (where the vast majority can’t possibly be collected and disposed of) is a short-term game which is already turning the area around the villages (especially Pingxi) into a vast garbage dump. There aren’t any easy answers, but if tourists started looking at the bigger picture and started spending their money in other ways (eating more in the villagers) and not releasing sky lanterns, the villagers would start seeing new ways of making money.

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