When a friend invited me and my wife for a hot spring bath in the outskirts of Beijing in China, we were hardly prepared for the unforgettable (maybe shocking is the more appropriate word) experience. It was during our stay in Beijing many years ago but the memory is still fresh today.
It was winter and the temperature was sub-zero but my friend, being the adventurous type, insisted that we go for the unusual experience.
So, all wrapped up in our winter clothing, we packed into her little car and off we went to what the locals called Pao Wen Quan resort, their popular winter outing.
The resort featured a hotel at a foothill. For non-staying guests, we had to buy a ticket to enjoy their outdoor facilities inside the resort. The car park and walkway were icy. Behind the resort, the mountain slopes were snow-carpeted. It was awesome.
The temperature was freezing and as we walked gingerly on the icy pathway to the resort hotel, the idea of taking off our warm clothing to have a hot spring bath was, to say the least, mind-boggling.
The short walk led us to several steaming open-air pools with people in their shorts and swim-wear bobbing in the water which must have been really hot as some looked like cooked lobsters.
Well, since we had come all the way, we didn’t want to miss the much-touted experience and be branded as cowards. We peeled off our layers of warm comfort to don our skimpy swimwear. As swiftly as possible we made our way to the pool, shivering.
However, it was not the case of just jumping into the hot water to escape the freezing cold. Our natural instinct told us to test the water, gingerly with our toes, and then slowly warm up, so to speak, before taking the plunge. Oh, it was no plunge but a slow slide in, coaxing our legs, lower bodies and subsequently our whole selves.
But once accustomed to the water temperature, the feeling was heavenly. The pools were outdoors, surrounded by snow – on the walkway, roof-tops and trees. Yet, you feel so good, submerged in the hot water.
In fact, the water was so hot you would need to get out once a while to cool your body. That was why people were seen bobbing up to avoid being “over cooked”. Of course, they looked pinkish even after being in the pool for a while!
We thoroughly enjoyed “boiling” ourselves for about two hours. We were ready to emerge to face the cold of the corridor leading to the shower and changing rooms. However, ready was not the word to use, for another surprise awaited us.
The changing rooms, though separate for men and women, were of open concept! Naked bodies walking around, chatting and changing. I was a bit bashful but soon got used to it. For women, especially conservative foreigners, it was a different story.
Here is my wife’s feedback. She had earlier left her towels and clothes in the “dry” area to change into swimwear. Now, armed with her towel, she went straight to the shower area with individually partitioned units.
But alas, there was not a single hook in the shower unit to hang her towel.
So she had to get out, walk around in her birthday suits to hang her towel elsewhere. Other women – the old, the not so old, the young – were trotting out of their shower units and walking around naked!
“In Roman, do what the Romans do, was the advice from my fellow Malaysians. It was hard for a newcomer. And so we went, more like hugging the walls, to hide our embarrassment, ” she said.
That was a most unforgettable experience that until today we never fail to mention it whenever we talked about our Beijing experience. Perhaps we are now somewhat prepared to visit Japan’s onsen.
What followed was a very relaxing massage. The masseur rubbed my body with oil of different fragrances which relaxed my muscles, and I was snoring away within minutes!
Hoo Ban Khee was the former The Star correspondent in Beijing, China. He can be contacted via email@example.com.