Sunday, May 22, 2016

Taipei Day Trip: BaYan 八煙, its wild hot springs, and low key tourist trap

For as long as I can remember people who come to Taiwan have asked about "those wild hot springs in Yangmingshan".  Somehow the idea of soaking in volcanic water in the untamed wilderness appeals to nearly everyone, and there are a ton of blogs written about the experience at Bayan. Perhaps it's the clever name that gets people involved - wild hot springs do sound fun! - but the name tells little of the truth. A better name is "Bayan technically illegal agrichemical waste water often over crowded and full of bathing soaps wading pools", but who would want to waste a whole day going there?

Agrichemicals sounds like they make for an uninviting swim, but where do the pollutants come from you ask? Just uphill of the springs - and an area you'll need to pass through if you descend to the springs - is a giant farm which also features a man made reflective pool with a rock garden. As you descend from the road you'll snake your way through the fairly extensive farm which undoubtedly drains off downhill and into the very waters you seek to enjoy. The farm isn't even the only one around, but it's certainly the most obvious. The owners' website suggests they are environmentally friendly, but being ethically minded doesn't mean totally natural farming.

The area is relatively quite built up, and doesn't have the pleasant isolation most people associate with the word "wild". The weekend sees huge groups of people swarming the area, either to soak in the springs or else tiptoeing around the outside of the concrete-made "lake" at the farm while taking photos of the surrounding mountains and the picturesque pool. It's such a popular draw the owners have a professionally done website dedicated to the area, and charge everyone 30NT per person to get access to the lake. The charge seems conveniently left off their website last time I looked, however.

A final note on the lake. There are a ton of spots in Yangmingshan that look similar to this, and they're free, so I strongly suggest you save your money. Frankly, it's a tourist trap. You show up to the lake, an hour plus ride away from Taipei - more if you take the bus - and then are unexpectedly prompted to pay money to see what is essentially a fallow rice paddy.

Back to the hot spring discussion. You'll need to either walk across a set of rocks and sandbags which traverse a scaling hot river from the uphill entrance, or you'll need to wade across the cooler waters of the downhill entrance with Teevas or your shoes off. From uphill, you use the sandbags to skirt a fence - designed to keep people out - and from downhill you'll pass a sign, and a fence, threatening you with a 15,000NT fine for being inside. There are a lot more reports of people being fined for being at the spring than there used to be.

On my last trip to the spring there were about 60 scooters and 15 cars parked at the Bayan bus stop. The spring was swamped, to say the least, and it wasn't peaceful at all. Weekdays are definitely the right time to go for crowd control, but unless you have a scooter, I'd suggest you use the time you would spend taking bus 1717 from Taipei to Bayan to instead head out to better wild hot springs than this one which you can also find online. Also, you won't get fined for being at the other springs.

Fun trees are all over this area!

The basic feeling about the true experience at these "wild" springs is something like this. Only without the syringes.

A final rant. Considering how pretty some of the hot springs are in Taiwan - I dare say more beautiful than this "wild' one - and with public pools for less than 100NT, I can't see why you'd want to go to the one forbidden spring in Taipei except to coddle an obsessive need for going "off the beaten path". Except this spring is now so ON the beaten path they're enforcing the no entry rules. If you're in search of the untouched, it exists in Taiwan, just not at Bayan.

The logistics. If you're really dedicated to hitting these springs despite my trying to warn you off, you'll find your way there as follows. Take Bus 1717 from Taipei and get off at the Bayan Hot Spring Hotel 八煙會館 stop. You'll then follow a road slightly downhill to where a big red sign saying "do not enter" starts the trail. If you drive, you'll turn off at 2甲 marker 5.1, with the same road and signage. You'll walk along a river, slowly winding uphill towards a big plume of mist. Be prepared to slog through the river at times since the bridge which used to span it was destroyed to keep people out. Finally, bring some food and some water, nose plugs if you hate sulfur smells, and a towel. Good luck!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Renting a scooter in Taiwan

This is an adjusted response I wrote to a question that showed up on the Taiwan subreddit. The usual question for visitors is if they can rent scooters with an international drivers license.

While bringing the license from home does give you the legal right to drive as a visitor in Taiwan for up to 3 months, you'll have a hard time renting a scooter anywhere in Taiwan with it. With limited exceptions, local renters only take local licenses. 

Only in Kenting or Hualian will you find someone willing to rent you a scooter without a local permit, and it's usually a matter of walking to every store in town until one says yes. If you go with a local friend, all things will go super smoothly because they have a local ID. If you go alone, or with another group of foreign tourists you'll end up paying modestly boosted prices and likely get a trashier machine. The fact that you have an IDL in your hands will mean nothing to anyone. Expect to pay between 400 and 500 NTD a day. A few stores will say you can only do 200km a day or something similar without paying more. Unless you plan to drive around the whole country you won't go over the limit.

The only time your IDL is going to help you is when talking to the police in the event you get pulled over or into an accident. The way the law and procedure tend to work you'll likely get treated as an unlicensed driver in the follow up to the accident anyway, so an IDL only serves to save you from the driving without a license ticket.

A notable exception to the "no one takes IDLs" thing is car rental agencies. There are a few of the major car rental chains are around in Taiwan, but they only trade in cars. A car can be a great way to travel around Taiwan however, it's just a terrible choice for city driving. If you're looking to do a trip where you travel between cities, east and west coast and into the high mountains a car is an amazingly smart choice.

In Taipei you won't need a scooter thanks to the MRT system, buses, and bike share programs. Most of the winter months are quite rainy anyway, and it can be quite chilly riding on a scooter, so you're not really missing much there. The roads are quite slick in places - anything with paint on it, for example - and if you're not used to the driving style you're more likely to get into an accident, held liable for damages, etc., even if you have the proper paper work.

You can do nearly everything famous in Tainan on foot if you plan things correctly and make sparse use of taxis, but there is a new bus system there and you can find pedal bikes available for rent for far cheaper than scooters. Taichung is more comfortable by car than anything else, but public transit can be combined with taxis if you budget your time right and stay int he city. Kaohsiung has an MRT system that works reasonably well, but driving is generally far faster and preferred by the locals.

The only place you'll genuinely want to rent a scooter is on the east coast or down in Kenting. Traffic in these areas is also much much lighter, and if you're not used to driving in Taiwan it's a good idea not to get in over your head. I wrote an article for on-road safety for bikers but its equally applicable for scooters in almost every sense.

Here's my best practical advice for renting a scooter during your time in Taiwan.
Get a local license when you get here and skip the IDL all together. There is a written test, in English, at the DMV for a 50cc scooter, and a simple driving test - if you know how to drive a scooter - to get up to 150cc. Now you can rent scooters without an issue anywhere and you're covered by the minimal insurance policy it has!
If you skip having any license, including an IDL, and drive you're breaking the law and you're going to have to deal with the consequences should they arise. Just to repeat that driving without a license is super illegal even if a store does rent a bike to you. What you need to consider is for the time you'll be on a scooter - a day, or two? - the hazy legality of IDLs in post-accident insurance/legal proceedings, it's main benefit being no ticket for no license, is it worth the hassle of getting a motorcycle stamp back home. The next thing to consider is it worth renting the scooter at all? 

Best wishes for a fun ride, and remember to wear your helmet and bring a rain coat in the trunk of your bike. If you're going to rent in Kenting, as stupid as it sounds, bring a super light long sleeve shirt and gloves to keep yourself covered. Mega sunburn really, really sucks.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Paozilun and Daqiling trails in Shenkeng

This blog has a few reviews of hikes to go on for a day trip if you head down to Shenkeng old street of Shiding. Both towns are great to see if you're ready to spend a day touring around the mountains south of Taipei. The two trails featured here are within easy walking distance from the river and old street in Shenkeng, and are actually part of the same set of (partially) linked hiking paths. If you're really in the mood you can walk up and over the mountains here and get to Maokong Station on the gondola which runs behind the Taipei zoo.

To save 99% of readers time, the final conclusion of this entire article is you should avoid these hikes unless you've a) done all the hikes in Taipei already, or b) are doing it in winter and are a genuinely avid hiker with a good understanding of how to use your phone's GPS. These hikes are not suitable for casual walks on a date, or for people just looking to stretch their legs.

I set out to do this hike on the first of those hot humid spring days where the sun is out drying up a week full of rain. The trails were slippery and wet, at times bordering on a giant mud puddle, and the air was humid and close. It wasn't ideal hiking weather to say the least, but I went prepared with water and light, breathable hiking clothes that would keep the season's mosquitoes away. It's always a good idea to cover up when you hike in Taipei, but especially so on this hike.

The trails were all incredibly narrow, at times hardly visible through the underbrush, but hiking groups had hung their trail marking flags periodically so you knew where to go. Insects and spiders were everywhere, and I found more than a few bugs clinging to my pants when I got back to the road. If you don't like swatting your way through cobweb lined trails, beating away snakes and insects, you probably won't like the rustic hikes south and west of Shenkeng.

The Daqiling trail starts just off the road from the Formosa gas station, tucked behind a shed on your right. Eventually the road gets called Arouyang Industry Road, and if you follow the daqiling trail you'll end up at the top of the peak which leads to Maokong. The hike is rather steep, and while there are old worn out steps they are quite slippery and not super useful, so expect to do this hike on the bare dirt and mud. The trail is marked regularly, but the maps you find on the trail are not super useful. Just stay left at the forks in the road, and you'll make it up to the top.

Once you reach the top you'll turn right and uphill on the road, go around a hairpin turn and then turn right down a very old concrete looking road. It runs slightly downhill and eventually turns into a trail which lets out near Maokong station. This is a good way to go if you want to see Shenkeng for lunch and then do a sunset view over the city from Maokong somewhere.

Paozilun has a trail which leads up to the top of an adjacent mountain to the Daqiling trail, and also features a waterfall of the same name. Again the trail is very overgrown at the lower levels, and is at times poorly marked.

Despite what appears to be a continuing series of trails on the maps found at Daqiling, the Paozilun trail is accessed from a nearby road which passes behind a driving range and golf shop. Follow the main road uphill and you'll soon come along a very picturesque river. As you follow the river uphill you will eventually come to a fork in the main road. Heading to the right takes you to the Paozilun trail, and left goes up a steep road which eventually ends at a trail which leads to the waterfall.

Confusing, right?

I didn't even make it to the waterfall on this trip. I was too hot, too tired, and too unhappy at the horribly marked, narrow, bug filled trails. Photos on the internet seem to say it's pretty though. The Paozilun trail was largely unremarkable, and while there was apparently a view from the top, it was clouded over on the day I went so I didn't see a single thing. You can follow the road from the top of the hill back down to the main road which eventually leads up to the Taipei Zoo after a lengthy walk.

Get to the base of these hikes by walking from Shenkeng, which is gotten to by bus from Muzha station, by taking a short bike ride from the U bike station across from the same MRT stop, or drive a car or scooter. You can make it to Maokong or the Taipei Zoo, but unless you've got plenty of time to get lost - plus plenty of water - it's suggested you just skip these hikes all together.