In Hot Water An evening at the hot springs

Article by Tim King

I’ll never be as comfortable with being naked in public as the locals are. As an American, the reason for that is a combination of things, both Puritanical and self-defeating. Catholicism taught me to hide my shame, if not with clothing then at least with giant illustrated leaves like in Genesis. High school soccer team locker rooms taught me that being naked was being vulnerable, a state in which I was primed for ridicule. Adult entertainment taught me that being average wasn’t good enough. As I stood in front of locker 8332, a repressed pilgrim in a land of pure freedom, I was forced to make the most diffi cult choice a prudish American man can make: drop trow, or go home.

I spent a grand total of ten minutes in the men’s locker room, ten minutes being the fastest I could debate the merits of public nudity with myself, hide my shame from a five-year-old whose father didn’t seem too concerned that he was staring wide-eyed at me throughout my selfdebate (and its birthday suit resolution),
and have the world’s most stilted conversation with the men’s room attendants (“American. I’ve been here for five years. China is good. Give me a towel”). When I emerged, my companion was waiting for me fresh from the women’s locker room and accompanied by a woman named Chen Lu, a staffer who had been bestowed with the honor of seeing that we had a good time.

If you asked the men’s room attendants, they would tell you that my Putonghua is passable, but, as Chen Lu gave us the rundown, I was hovering around 65% comprehension. Here’s what I did figure out from her description: Tian Mu Hot Springs was an all-in-one complex, a series of heated pools for my bathing pleasure. There were some pools on the second fl oor, which is where we were at that moment; there were some pools on the first fl oor, just a few slick stone steps away; there was some stuff on the sixth fl oor, full stop; and if we took the stairs from the sixth fl oor we would arrive at the seventh fl oor, where there was food. It was clear that my birthday suit conundrum was just the beginning of a series of diffi cult decisions I would have to make during my visit.

Pleasantries exchanged, and implored to have fun, my companion and I were left alone. The second floor stretched out before us, a menagerie of tile and metal and glass, and, with trepidation, we began to inspect the facility.

The sauna seemed like the safest start; if there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s to sweat like a hog. One of the more popular stations on the second floor, its foot traffi c was to its detriment, and the forty-two degree atmosphere only managed to add a light sheen of perspiration to my skin. Impatient, we moved on to other stations.

The minutes that followed were filled with half-hearted attempts to enjoy ourselves, timidly pawing at things like kittens who had just found a patch of water on the floor. The communal pool seemed blasé. The mud pit was shallow and intimidating. The cold steam room, with its nipplesharpening twenty degree temperatures and bevies of frost was confusing, but not as confusing as the room that was just a glassed-in pit of salt. It was inside the hot steam room that I could fially sit still for a minute and enjoy. The vapor stuck to my skin and filled my chest, loosening the Xi’an grime that had settled in both, relaxing and invigorating me. After several minutes of shvitzing, my companion and I were ready to tackle the first floor.

The first floor was a schizoid terrarium. Faux trees and stone lined the walls. Starry dioramas dotted the ceilings above a halfdozen aromatic pools in one quadrant, a lap pool occupied another, a children’s area the third, and several jet-enhanced pools sat in the last.

In-Hot-WaterWe decided to try the coffee pool first, and, as we did for each fragranced pool thereafter, put our noses close (but not too close) to the surface to see if it really smelled like coffee (it did, albeit faintly). We waded for several minutes before going to try the red wine pool, which was ripe with the ghost of a merlot.

Eventually, I decided that we should mix with the other patrons, to put our basic grasp of Chinese to use in service of this story. Normally, I can’t ride a bus or buy a drink at the corner store without someone wanting to know what my deal is, but I found the opposite to be true at these hot springs. Even with my female companion around to take the edge off of my plump, poorly tattooed, admittedly awkward presence, we were perceived as lepers. Every pool we entered that had other bathers in it would be our own private bath within ninety seconds, without fail.

Finally, we realized that we had no more face to lose, and instantly we became more comfortable in our atery playground. Things that had seemed scary forty minutes prior became exciting new experiences to immerse ourselves in. We abandoned our towels and clambered back upstairs to make a snowman-esque creature of salt before rubbing ourselves down with his remains. We rinsed and sat in the mud pit like children, covering ourselves in its silt and admiring the dark and handsome color it transferred to our skin (while paying lip service to the fact that, when covered head-to-toe, I looked like a hate crime). After a rinse in what the Baidu-translated sign dubbed an “acupuncture shower”, the benefi ts of these activities were made clear: our skin was intensely soft. Satisfi ed that I had a marshmallowy texture to match my doughy physique, I suggested that we check out the upper floors.

Though the seventh floor was a pretty average canteen, the sixth floor was a nice denouement to our attention-deficit exfoliating downstairs. There was a small gym and a pool table, but more importantly there was a large room filled with military columns of adjustable reclining beds where we could take a load off, snack on popcorn and dandelion tea, and watch Chinese soap operas on a giant screen. We were promptly offered seventy-minute full-body massages, which we accepted. At this point, my relaxation was so complete I just started running my mouth to my companion, not caring enough to make sure she wouldn’t repeat the lurid but amusing tales of my past.

Months of working myself to the bone had melted away in the span of four hours. I immediately regretted not shelling out for the most time-consuming massage my money could buy. But the real world beckoned, announcing itself through the eyes of a five-year-old child in the men’s locker room, once again way too concerned with my changing regimen, and his father once again not concerned enough that his son was staring.

Entry Fee: 98RMB; everything else was extra but moderately priced.

Tim King is the editor-in-chief of Xianease and hasn’t felt comfortable being topless in public since the early 2000’s. He can be reached at

2 thoughts on “In Hot Water An evening at the hot springs

  1. Why didn’t you just wrap a towel around yourself? That’s what I usually see in spas in other cities in China. Only the foreigners do it of course

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