The rain is relentless!
I mean totally and utterly relentless. (Or at least it was until last night.) For the past two and a half weeks or so we have had more or less constant precipitation. It started with a three day deluge which submerged parts of Taipei, Keelung and Nantou, carrying away taxis and scooters. After that it briefly settled into a pattern of morning dry weather followed by building-rattling thunderstorms as well as fat, heavy, clothes-drenching rain. I’m sure the individual droplets are about triple the size of droplets back home and although the local name for this seasonal phenomenon, ‘plum rain’ refers to the fact that it coincides with peak plum season, I am sure I’m not the only one who has conflated the name with the size of the rain drops to imagine being pelted with huge, plum-sized water bombs.
The arrival of this weather marks the temporary end of easy, regular hiking. The rainy season will be followed by the typhoon season and even on days with good weather it’ll be less comfortable to be out in the heat. But I’m not one to sit still, I just can’t. So on a rainy Sunday Teresa and I ventured out to go swimming.
We’d been to this temple before in December last year when we walked around Datong Shan and noticed that the temple had a small pool which had seemed mostly populated by older people – it had been stored in my mind as a potential rainy day activity since then and so we decided to give it a go.
As with many such temples, Fude Gong comes with its own backstory. Originally this site housed a very simple Tudigong shrine, so small and simple that it was easily overlooked by the people passing by – I can’t tell whether the name given for it (三粒石土地公/three stone Tudigong) is an actual name or just a description of the style of the shrine, you see a lot of this type of shrine in more rural areas where three stone slabs are placed to form a small alcove. One day, a particularly pious man was passing and saw the temple, his name was Yang Tiancai (楊添財) and his wife, Yang Laili (楊賴裡), was seriously ill. As so many people have done and continue to do, the religious Mr Yang took his prayers to the land God and – bartering for his wife’s health – he promised the God that if his wife’s condition would just improve, he would show his gratitude by building a temple that no one would ever be able to miss whilst walking by. The land God was evidently impressed with the sincerity of Mr Yang’s prayers (or at the very least he saw it as a good opportunity to expand the value of his real estate), and gradually Mrs Yang’s condition improved. Upon seeing this, Mr Yang, true to his word, erected a grand temple on the site of the original small shrine and renamed it Fude Gong (福德宮).
The temple was built in the mid 1970’s but the pool was a later addition with it’s own story. It’s said that some time a couple of decades ago, during a particularly hot, dry summer, the residents of Shulin District were getting desperate and needed to find a new water source. They asked Mr Yang to talk to the God to help them choose where to dig and as a result five possible locations for sinking wells were chosen and they began to dig. Work progressed smoothly for the first week but then heavy rains hit and wiped out the results of all their hard labour. Frustrated but undeterred, (and presumably still thirsty), they renewed their efforts – however half a month later and still without water they were starting to feel despondent. Mr Yang saw their troubles and decided to once again turn to his land God pal for advice and support – he asked the God (more desperately this time) to instruct them where to dig. The God must have reasoned that he’d come off well from doing a favour for Mr Yang in the past so he gave a location and the instruction that they were to dig for seven days and then they would find water. The men dug and dug for a whole week until, on the afternoon of the seventh day, sometime around 3pm they hit water. The residents sampled the water and found that, to their surprise, it tasted different, sweeter than the local tap water, (I’m not sure that I would have found this too surprising really – despite the government claiming that their water is clean and safe for many years it seems that Taipei residents are still hesitant to drink it straight from the tap and I must say that I prefer the filter and boil system too). Mr Yang (who, the more I know about him, the more he seems to be much more of a do-er than anyone else around him), felt that the water was special and – after asking for official confirmation of this – it transpired that the water was indeed special, the same kind of water that made Su’ao cold spring in Yilan a popular tourist spot. Essentially this means that it is slightly more alkaline than regular tap water with a PH value of between 7.8 and 8, it has a different mineral composition and comes out of the ground at a steady 24°C. It also just so happens that the locals think that this combination of traits makes it particularly healthful and restorative.
Mr Yang, again indebted to the God decided to build a cold spring pool within the temple complex as a thank-you and as a way to bring this vitality-boosting water to the locals of Shulin. The pool is now named after him and Mr Yang is also commemorated with a plaque (or similar – translations there failed) at the back of the temple.
The entrance fee is a little more than most pools ($180 instead of something between $100 and $150), but after swimming in Hong Kong pools where you spend more time fighting to get some space in the water than actually swimming, I’m happy to pay a tiny premium to go somewhere so quiet (and beautiful).
There’s signs in Chinese above the changing rooms indicating that you’re meant to remove your outside shoes to go in them. I found the colour scheme and lighting here (and in the pool area) rather charming and it reminded me of faded glamour of the public baths in Budapest – in part that was due to the fact that not all the lightbulbs were functioning but I’m not going to complain about a little mood-lighting.
You can see the main pool from the door, and once inside you can see the famous cold spring pool – essentially a raised tank at the far end. When we arrived the whole place was empty except for a group of uncles (and one woman) who were alternating between the steam room and the cold spring pool and a couple with a young boy who were relaxing in the spa pool. The only other person who was doing any exercise was a grandpa who wasn’t even swimming, instead he was doing power-walking laps of the raised walkway – down the stairs near the entrance then up again and round. No one was swimming which meant that we had the pool to ourselves. We put our bags in the $10 lockers but actually we didn’t need to – everyone else had just left their stuff on the shelves next to the pool.
The other key feature to note was the dinosaurs! Huge, floor-to-ceiling things looming out of the walls in really quite a menacing fashion. I’ve been to decorated swimming pools before, the sort that has underwater-themed murals and fixtures, or perhaps they’re going for a tropical beach vibe with palm trees and pelicans – I get that, it kind of ties in to the whole water thing. But dinosaurs? It’s not that I didn’t like it (I loved it and I think it’s brilliant), it’s just that it was an utterly perplexing choice of pool decoration. I was the kind of child who was semi-obsessively into dinosaurs so I would have loved it when I was small too, but I can imagine that it’s a bit on the scary side for some of the little ones.
The space was kind of weirdly divided up, the main pool was on the side closest to the door, but the first three or four metres of that pool was separated to form a gradually sloping shallow area with a walk-way into the deeper 1.2m serious swimming space. To the other side of the dividing middle line there was a long, narrow 1m deep pool, (in which I learnt that my arms are apparently just a little too long to do backstroke in 1m of water), and on the far wall there are two smaller, 70cm deep pools, the rear of which is a water spa/massage pool. The temperature of the water seemed to increase as the pools got shallower, it was cool but about right for swimming in.
After a few laps (Teresa repeatedly accused me of 玩水/playing water instead of actually swimming), we decided to try out the massage equipment in the spa pool. There was a variety to choose from, some which I think you were meant to sit/crouch over, some that were more like beds where you could recline to have a full-body air tickle and then the standing water jets which pummelled us alarmingly (and nearly stole my swimming bottoms away from me) until we emerged pink-skinned from all that vigorous ‘massaging’. Even the reclining ones which were about the most relaxing weren’t all that relaxing as a consequence of having a whole wall of open-mouthed dinosaurs leering at you – they all seemed to be orientated so that they looked down on anyone in the pool as if they were considering making a quick meal of you.
We did a little more serious swimming and then decided to give the sauna a go. By this point the uncles had all retreated upstairs to sit on chairs and have a bit of a chat so it was just us and one other woman (who had been alternately cooking herself and having cold showers for at least the hour that we’d been there). We took off our (mandatory) swimming caps to go in the steam room and stepped in. Immediately I was hit with the overpowering, suffocating heat as well as the unexpectedly pleasant smell of lemongrass – I leant that in steam rooms is one of the ways that lemongrass is used in traditional Chinese medicine. The woman sat on the bench next to us making odd grunting sounds – apparently that’s ok here – but I couldn’t take it for too long and had to escape to somewhere with more easily accessible oxygen. I think we were meant to go in the cold spring pool next but I was feeling wimpy and not up to soaking in 24°C water so instead we showered (you’re requested to shower after using the steam room), and did a few more laps before getting out to shower and change.
Outside the changing rooms (opposite where we put our shoes), there was a mirror wall with several free hairdryers (as well as an alarming selection of public hairbrushes and combs). As we were leaving via the reception desk I was introduced to another strange quirk of Taiwanese culture: earbuds provided as part of the after-swim service (just make sure you take them from the new box, not the disposal bin).
On our way out Teresa noticed that the karaoke room (another part of the temple – a $10-a-song machine in the middle of the room lets people fill the valley with their voices), was free of people and decided to practise for an upcoming work social event by belting out her karaoke-favourite Taiwanese song – I could feel the relaxing effect of all that water therapy being chased away note-by-note but at least she seemed to enjoy it.
how to get there: if you’ve got your own transport it should be easy enough to drive up and park somewhere near the temple, there are lots of karaoke bars in the area and many people just park along the side of the roads. If you’re relying on public transport, there isn’t any direct route but it would be possible to get bus 701 which runs from nearish Fuzhong Station to nearish the temple – (it would require a walk at both ends). Similarly, you could get a local train from Banciao station to Shulin Station and then walk the rest – (obviously you could also catch the same local train from Taipei Main Station, just make sure you get the one going in the right direction).
open hours: 6am-9pm – we phoned to ask and they said that people are asked to get out of the water at 8:30 so that they can close on time.
price: $180 per person (it doesn’t seem like there are any child-price tickets but don’t take my word for it), there are also half-year, whole-year and 30-ticket options for anyone who lives near enough to go regularly.
other: you must wear a swimming cap regardless of how follicly gifted/challenged you may be
My new words learnt during this experience:
- 柠檬草 / níngméng cǎo / lemongrass – this is exactly the same as the English, for some reason I always find it funny when a translation is the same,
- 沒有差 or 沒差 / méiyǒu chā or méi chā / no difference – as in “你要去哪一家游泳池？這個在樹林的游泳池還是那個林口的？” / “Which pool do you want to go to: this one in Shulin or the one in Linkou?” – “沒差 –兩個都可以” / “Makes no difference – both are ok.”
- 胡子 / húzi / beard – I really can’t remember why this came up.
- 疗养院 / liáoyǎngyuàn / nursing home
- 救命 / jiùmìng / help! – as in “Help! I’m drowning!” Actually this was learnt a couple of days earlier but I had (not serious) cause to practise using it.