Snake Blood and Turtle Bile
I make a vain attempt to explore Snake Alley as soon as the typhoon starts to leave Taiwan. Parts of the country are flooded. Outside my hotel the storm raged but my room had no windows. I had spent the last day watching ping-pong on TV and drinking alone and I wasn’t regretting my vacation choice.
So, I go for a walk.
The market, actually called Huaxi Street Tourist Market, is dead. The stalls along the outer edge are all closed and boarded up against the storm. The occasional gust of wind turns my umbrella inside out. In the covered market a few businesses, mostly snake restaurants and massage parlors, are open. At most a couple of hardy locals eat in silence. Generally, the cooks and wait-staff sit idly outside, looking wantonly at passers-by.
There seems to be a demarcation line at the back of the market. Once I pass this hidden border, I find that part of the market is alive. The further I get into this tangle of backstreets, the more the place comes to life.
I can smell incense. I see candles and the lights of lanterns flicker behind glass. They cast a red light onto the street and into the puddles as people splash this way and that.
There are small shrines. They appear sporadically along the alley and in each one there is somebody praying and others waiting. For a moment I think that I have stumbled into some travelers dream and have found some place that is clean and happy and serene in the middle of a typhoon in the abandoned streets of Taipei. I take out my camera for the first time in days.
I realize pretty quickly that I am in the red light district. I see the first brothel less than a minute after the first shrine. Girls lean against the doorway and smile at me. Men and old women stand in the street, harking and calling for me and everyone else who walks by to step inside dark rooms with flowing curtains.
Some of the places I took to be shrines are actually waiting rooms for the brothels themselves. In the middle of a typhoon, the only place really hopping is the red light district.
I go back to my hotel to another round of ping pong, deciding to go to Jiufen the next day.
Chances are you have seen Jiufen, with its crowded market street and lantern covered buildings before. You might not have seen it in the classic Taiwanese film, A City of Sadness, which dug the former mining town out of its post gold rush gloom; but you probably saw Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. The haunted spa town of Spirited Away is fictional but Miyazaki’s inspiration is not far off. Jiufen is often an island cut off from the rest of Taiwan by a sea of low clouds. Its market streets seem to wind its way into the heart of the mountain around cliffs spotted with paper lanterns.
It is hot and humid when I step from the taxi. The typhoon is gone and Taiwan is waking up.
Jiufen specializes in the artesian with quality ranging from authentic Taiwanese crafts to tacky tourist fare. On the central artery of Old Street are shops with hunched old women with white hair and arthritic fingers painting traditional characters onto hand-sculpted ceramics, as well as booths run by teens selling Jiufen postcards and key chains.
The smell of food mixes with the mountain air, creating a sticky-sweet fog that drifts with wafts of ghostly smoke. Brown eggs, preserved in a brackish black water sit next to steamed buns and buckets of sweet-smelling breads. Everywhere, there are old wooden counters behind glowing windows selling colorful candies. Tea houses, some tiny, are cut into the rock or look out over the pathways of Jiufen and onto the Pacific Ocean, far below.
The markets along Old Street are nothing you can’t find in almost any market in Taiwan, or even Asia in general. Jiufen lent itself so well to Japanese animation because some of the architecture in the town is a direct result of the Japanese colonial years. The place is beautiful but also has a bit of sadness somewhere close to the surface.
The appeal of the place is that it is otherworldly. From the man playing a haunting tune on his ocarinas to the pristine sea shells sizzling into plumes of white steam, everything suspends the idea of time and space- very much the main idea of Spirited Away. Walking narrow alleys that seem to be a part of the mountain, popping into tiny tea shops as a gust of wind races down the stone path, rustling lanterns and blowing out candles are why people come here.
If the market of Jiufen, with its tea houses, pastries and knick-knacks is the daydream of the whimsical, then Snake Alley is a fever dream designed for a different class of tourist.
I return to Snake Alley a few nights later with my friend Lara and the confidence of a companion. Life has returned to the market. We take in the smells and eat all that we can. Carts sell fruits, juices, grilled meats and boiled eggs. The storm is forgotten and the dank clouds are replaced with plumes of smoke coming from sizzling meat.
I stray from my usual Taiwanese snack of a savory steamed bun and buy a small tub of stinky tofu. It smells of earth and, frankly, body odor but it is delicious. The brown liquid it comes with spills all over my hands and I feel a part of the market.
I drag Lara into a packed, bare-bones restaurant with a cluster of dirty cages out front. Virtually every small animal available at the pet section of E-Mart is there: mice, frogs, turtles, all the way up to large, coiling snakes.
Beneath flickering neon lights we point to words on a picture-less menu. We are here to eat a snake.
Snake Alley was once a place for tourists with a bit of traveler’s blood lust. For a long time after its establishment, over 50 years ago, it was the place to come for sex and snake shows. The red light district has since been pushed back and the elaborate slaughtering of reptiles in front of awe-struck tourists has been toned down, but the edge still remains.
Our grilled snake ends up being bowl of emaciated turtle soup. We pick flecks of gray-green meat from its stumps of legs and from underneath the shell. Across the table is an old man glaring at us as he takes a bite of turtle foot. He opens his mouth again and out fall the bones and toenails. His side of the table is full of carnage while I am still adding Instagram filters.
The turtle wasn’t as scary tasting as I expected. We polish off our meal with a shockingly pleasant shot of turtle blood mixed with whiskey and a truly nightmare shot of bile that tastes like, well, bile.
Lara and I part ways and I head back to my room. I plop myself down onto the round bed of my love motel and eat a chicken and ketchup sandwich while letting out belches of turtle and blood. I think about posting that to Facebook but think better of it.
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