The only reason we’re spending a night in Yilan City is so that we can visit the nearby Su’ao Cold Springs. I read that there are only two cold springs like Su’ao Cold Spring in the world. The water contains carbon ion concentrations of 68ppm, the highest of all the natural springs in Taiwan, and the only other cold spring of this type is in Italy, a fact that instantly gives Su’ao an air of glamour by association.
Does something automatically become valuable because it’s rare? If there were hundreds of these springs all over the place would people even bother to visit them? Probably not and even though I have come to this conclusion I still convince my two travel companions to take a train from Yilan to Su’ao and see what this cold spring thing is all about.
Su’ao looks nothing at all like the pictures generated by a google image search of it. These pictures are all glorious landscapes taken from way up high on a mountain peak or from a helicopter and you’re never going to get that view from ground level, I get that. But there’s something else not quite right here.
There’s something a bit sad and lonely about Su’ao. Sad because the buildings are all the same, squat, concrete, ugly and lonely because the people look disheartened, perhaps because Su’ao hasn’t even got a McDonalds or a Starbucks and things like that seem to count for a lot in Taiwan.
We walk in a huge circle all the way around this lonely little town looking for a sign that says Su’ao Cold Springs in English because we’re terminally optimistic and can’t imagine a world where we don’t find what we’re looking for. After walking for twenty minutes we find ourselves back at the train station and know a different approach is called for. It’s getting cold and the sky is turning grey. It must be almost four o’clock and if we don’t find it soon it might be too late.
There’s a huge white monster of a building in the centre of Su’ao and I’m going to struggle to adequately explain how out of place it is. It’s just sat there, at least twenty stories higher than other building in the town, painted in a white that seems obscenely bright against the green hills and grey sky, and sporting European style plaster work like a fancy 19th century Parisian hotel. It’s like a huge diamond affixed to the centre of a half-dead daisy chain.
This is the RSL Cold & Hot Spring Resort. Natural spring water in Su’ao is diverted from its course and piped straight into the bathrooms of this five-star hotel where you can choose a Western or Japanese-style room, both of which come equipped with a 42” TV and Nintendo and Wii consoles. We couldn’t afford to stay in this hotel, even for one night, but its bling draws us towards it. Maybe someone will give us directions, if they’ll even let us on the property.
As we leave the main street the landscape changes dramatically. Everything looks a bit mangled. Instead of being green and upright the trees on the hillside are all bent out of shape and covered in churned up mud and plastic bags. Some of the smaller buildings look askew, like they’ve been knocked off balance and haven’t quite managed to right themselves.
Eventually, after performing a ludicrous mime of getting in and out of a cold spring for the security guard at the RSL resort in an attempt to get directions (which worked, by the way), we find the Su’ao Cold Spring. It costs less than £1 to bathe in the public spring water pool but I’m suddenly very aware that this is a cold spring and its getting dark now and it isn’t all that warm in this part of Taiwan in October. We pay for a private bath that costs around £6 but includes a cold spring plunge pool and a wooden bathtub that you can fill with heated spring water.
Being naked and submerging yourself in hot water is one of the nicest sensations the human body can experience. Being naked and submerging yourself in cold water is one of the worst. One we had screamed and swore enough to fully submerge ourselves in the freezing cold, bubbling spring water I think I began to acclimatise to the cold. Or I was just completely numb. I slipped into the hot water where I dozed and then flung myself into the cold water where I was shocked awake again and couldn’t quite remember why I was doing this in the first place.
I have no photographs of this experience apart from the horror dungeon shot below. It really wasn’t as unpleasant as it looks but if there are health benefits to sitting in freezing cold spring water I can’t say that I immediately felt them. In Japanese Onsen culture, bathing in hot and cold spring water is supposed to raise energy levels and treat a number of health complaints like arthritis, skin problems, depression, whatever. This culture fed into Taiwan in the late 19th century when the Japanese occupied the island and, as Taiwan has one of the highest concentrations of thermal springs in the world, has remained long after the Japanese left.
When our hour is up we showered the slightly oily spring water off our skin, got dressed and tried to explore the rest of the complex. It was a good job we had taken the private room as the public bathing area could reasonably be described as derelict. None of the lights are working, the fences are all lying exhausted on their sides, many of the buildings are roofless and there are sheets of mangled metal lying all over the walkway that winds around the public spring water pool. The place feels so abandoned it’s as though we’ve stepped into the future and are now seeing the ruins of what was once a public cold spring. It’s dusk now and the place is so creepy we all seem to pick up our pace to get out of there.
There’s an open gate at the perimeter of the cold spring gardens that leads us magically back to the entrance of the train station. How did we miss this entrance on the way in? As soon as we get onto the train, which incredibly has wifi, I have to google Su’ao cold spring to make sure that it’s a real place and that this clean, floaty, stoned feeling I have is the result of a hot and cold spring bath and not some kind of disturbing group hallucination.
The first hit is a news report about Typhoon Soudelor. Now it makes sense. A category 5 super-typhoon, Typhoon Soudelor made landfall over north-eastern Taiwan on the 8th August 2015. By August 10th, eight people had been confirmed dead and four others missing. 420 people were injured, all domestic flights and a further 37 international flights were cancelled. Most of the island lost electricity, the water supply to five millions households was contaminated and many buildings were seriously damaged. Su’ao Cold Springs was no exception.
- In Yilan we stayed at the Stay Inn International Hostel on Xinmin Road. Nice place with a common area where we took the opportunity to watch a film on the sofa with a few cans of lager, just like back home! I think we booked it on hostelworld but you can book direct through their website
Website: Stay Inn International Hostel
- If you go to Yilan, eat at Da Cheng Mutton Chop Noodles, on Xinmin Road, two minutes from the Stay Inn hostel. The sign is in Chinese so it’s really hard to find but ask around, it’s definitely worth it.
Website: Trip Advisor
- Su’ao Cold Spring
Website: None, but there is a brief wiki page about it.
It’s very close to the train station but I couldn’t tell you exactly how to find the entrance