The most popular tourist destination in Taipei is called Snake Alley. Competing Chinese carry-types working from open store fronts along the garishly lit, narrow street blare an amplified spiel in Chinese about the curative and restorative properties of a snake blood cocktail. Each one hold in his hands a squirming six-foot cobra. After much sales talk, during which he explains benefits such as improved eyesight, hearing, and male virility, he slits the cobra from head to tail. Still talking, like a live Oriental version of an American infomercial, he squeezes his hands along the length of the snake, milking the snake’s venom, before removing the bile and placing it in a glass. Then he decapitates the snake and drains its blood on the same glass.
The concoction is mixed with the local Kaoliang liquor poured into small cups and sold to a largely male clientele, to be downed in a single gulp. Inside, there is a restaurant serving barbecued snake or snake soup, while snake leather bags, belts and other products are for sale. Other nearby shops and stalls contain numerous Chinese fortune tellers and tattoo artists.
It is not surprising that business propels the city. It seems as if everything is “Made in Taiwan”—high tech gear, computers and its parts, toys, clothing, shoes, among many other things.
Unemployment is virtually non-existent. Everyone’s on the go. But then if you peer just beneath this veneer of prosperity, there is always the unspoken thought that this is just a small, second-rate shadow of real China. It’s a thought that seems to make people here try harder. It’s a constant struggle for Taiwanese to gain real acceptance in alignment with the Western world, and on the other hand, to maintain the old ways.
Snake Alley has an elemental feel, relating back to old time China. It was just a smaller dose than one receives on the mainland, but certainly a distinct cultural experience. The compression made it much easier to see in a short time.
image via wikimedia
Whether you’re here for business or passing through on a layover from a long trans-Pacific flight, Taipei, for all its booming economic glory and unlike other Asian business capitals such as Hong Kong, Bangkok, and even Beijing, make social concessions to business. It is worth a look even for that reason alone.
image via wikitravel
Among other sites of interest, in the vicinity of Snake Alley, is the Lung Shan Temple. The name means Dragon Mountain. This most democratic of temples offers a slew if Buddhist and Taoist deities to pray for a variety of purposes. It’s decorated all over with dragon figures in gold leaf on gilded sloping rooftops, and carved into 12 stone pillars supporting the roof. Originally built in 1740, the temple was destroyed and rebuilt many times over the centuries, including the most recent gutting by the American bombers in 1945, flushing out remaining Japanese troops thought to be hiding in the sanctuary. Although the structure was a total loss, the temple images survived the flames. Among these are Kuan Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy; Kuan Kung, the God of War known for its strength and bravery; Matsu, the Taoist God of the Sea; the Gods of Hearing and Eyesight; Prosperity; a goddess of fertility; and three gods of literature.
With all these gods to choose from, it’s a popular place, with a constant parade of people congregating in its courtyards, lighting incense and candles, jostling for space to bow before the deities, making offerings and so forth, day and night. Monks silently come and go through clouds of incense smoke, children slide down stone barriers as their parents offer prayers while colorful paper lanterns sway in the breeze. A few blocks away, a booming night market contains hundreds of food stalls offering noodles, fried rice, corn on the cob, French fries made from sweet potatoes, steamed whole shrimp, fried clams, squid or fresh fruits. More stores and shops sell antiques, carvings, pottery, jade, bronze items as well as wristwatches, clothing and a colorful array of contemporary items made in Taiwan. The temple and night market display the local culture in full regalia, perhaps even more so than the snake shows on nearby Huashi Street.
Other worthwhile sites include the National Revolutionary Martyrs Shrine, built to resemble a Ming Dynasty palace in Beijing: the tranquil Temple of Confucius; and the National Palace Museum. The enormous museum features 11,000 art works representing nearly 5,000 years of Chinese creativity in bronze, porcelain, paintings, calligraphy, jade, rare books, documents, and ancient palace records. All were removed from the mainland in 1948 by Nationalist Chinese just before the Communist takeover in 1949.
On the streets of Taipei, practically everyone speaks only Chinese, including cab drivers. You need to give them directions and address written in Chinese. Therefore most foreigners will require the services of a good hotel staff for assistance. If you plan to visit this place more often, it would be a great help if you learn Chinese language.